How Labor Unions Work

The LMRA allowed the federal government to exert more control over strikes in order to prevent disruptions to businesses vital to national health or safety. It also outlawed the practice of secondary boycotts.

Photo courtesy John Vachon/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Taft-Hartley Labor Act

A significant number of strikes and increasing union power led Congress to pass the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) in 1947. Also known as the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, the LMRA amended parts of the NLRA. In order to stem the number of strikes, the LMRA enlarged the National Labor Relations Board, firmly establishing its control over labor disputes. It also authorized the government to get an 80-day injunction against any strike thought to be a danger to public health or security and outlawed union contributions to political campaigns.

Significantly, the LMRA outlawed secondary boycotts. Secondary boycotts were a measure used in lieu of or in addition to a traditional strike. A union would set up a picket line at a company -- one with which the union did not have a labor dispute -- to pressure it to not do business with another company that was involved in a labor dispute with the union. For example, if brewery workers had a problem with their employer, they might set up a secondary boycott of the glass company that supplied bottles to their brewery, thereby putting pressure on the brewery by protesting against its supplier.

Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959

As you can see, the mid-twentieth century was an important -- and busy -- time for labor legislation. The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) established a "Bill of Rights" for union members. The act was also passed because of a concern about union involvement in organized crime, a lack of transparency in union activities and a lack of democracy within unions. The LMRDA’s provisions include freedom of speech and assembly, protection from undeserved punishment, a vote in determing dues and fees, and the right to file suit and to participate in union activities.

Other clauses of the law include:

  • Requirements for reporting and disclosure by employers, labor relations consultants, union officers and employees and surety companies when engaging in certain activities
  • Rules for establishing and maintaining trusteeships
  • Safeguards for protecting union funds
  • Standards for conducting fair elections of union officers:

As we said before, one of the main goals of the LMRDA was to increase the level of democracy within unions. The law's changes to how unions run officer elections were intended to increase participation, communication and transparency. According to the LMRDA, all union members have to be notified by mail at least 15 days before every election. Candidates are allowed to examine a union's membership list -- but only once -- within 30 days of the election. Union and employer funds cannnot be used to promote any candidates. Actual elections must be held at least every three years. Voting is done by secret ballot and election observors must be permitted to monitor the proceedings.