By Mike Bellaman, ABC President and CEO
True to his campaign pledge to be “the strongest labor president you have ever had,” on Monday, March 8, President Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress unfurled the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. It has passed the House and found its way to the Senate. There are no redeeming qualities to this labor-friendly legislative wish list, but perhaps one of the most concerning provisions is the repeal of the National Labor Relations Act’s ban on secondary boycotts. Famously derided by President Eisenhower as “blackmail picketing,” secondary boycotts are where a union interferes with neutral businesses and uninvolved consumers as a means to advance bargaining goals with a targeted employer.
The express goal of secondary boycotts is to harm the economic interests of as many businesses as can possibly be linked in a chain to the primary target. With the bludgeoned American economy struggling to recover from the tailspin of the past 15 months, it is a questionable time to eliminate more than 70 years of labor law, particularly when the primary goal of the NLRA is to protect the free flow of commerce.
The 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the NLRA outlawed secondary boycotts, which were not banned in the original law, and empowered the National Labor Relations Board to restrain them. The ban was necessary because it was abundantly clear from the first 12 years with federal labor laws on the books that organized labor had little taste for moderation when it came to employing its now-legal economic arsenal. The NLRA protected unions and their members, but the post-war strikes of 1945-1946 drew the ire of legislators on both sides of the aisle, as did rampant interference with the distribution of goods. Examples include $750,000 of asparagus (roughly $19 million today) lost during the 1948 asparagus strikes and $125,000 of produce (roughly $3 million today) lost in Philadelphia because unions prevented nonunion dealers from moving or selling them. Taft-Hartley initially passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, only to fall victim to President Truman’s veto (Give ’em Hell, Harry), but Congress overrode the veto by margins of 331-83 in the House and 68-25 in the Senate; an unthinkable showing of bipartisan support in today’s Washington.
True to form, organized labor would stand for nothing less than complete repeal and, in light of the embarrassing racketeering scandals of the early 1950s, did not earn a seat at the table when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) began drafting what would eventually lead to the Landrum-Griffin Act, which was passed by a completely Democrat-controlled Congress. Landrum-Griffin expanded the prohibition on secondary boycotts due to the threat they represented to the American economy.
The express goal of secondary boycotts is to harm the economic interests of as many businesses as can possibly be linked in a chain to the primary target.
Perhaps the expanded definition would not have been necessary but for union workers in southern California refusing to install steam turbines for expanded electrical utility output because of where they were manufactured. Or perhaps extending the secondary boycott ban would have been less critical to Congress had construction workers building affordable suburban homes for returning GIs not walked off the job due to the type of window the developer selected. Whatever the example, American legislators realized the frightfully high economic cost of secondary boycotts and realized they were contrary to the NLRA’s aim, which is to protect the free flow of commerce.
Despite the enhanced scope of the secondary boycott ban, unions have not backed down. Not long after the Landrum-Griffin Act tightened restrictions on secondary boycotts, a construction union in Pennsylvania caused more than $300,000 of damage (nearly $2 million today) to a construction site when it sent busloads of members to demolish the eight-foot-high protective fencing that surrounded the project, burn construction trailers and sabotage parked construction vehicles. More recently, a union in Chicago in a dispute with a hotel threatened corporate clients that they must cancel blocks of rooms, or else the union would crash their corporate events. From arson to sabotage to threats and coercion and even feces-filled plastic bags (this actually happened within the past ten years), unions have continued to engage in secondary boycotting to the detriment of neutral employers and American consumers. But though the examples of illegal boycotts abound, there is recourse through the NLRA.
Opening the floodgates to secondary boycotts and the unquestionable threats to and intimidation of neutral businesses and private citizens that will ensue makes little sense ever, but makes even less sense now. The American people and the American economy need to feel safe as they begin patronizing restaurants and retail stores again. All businesses and consumers rely on complex supply chains to receive the vaccines we need to stop the virus, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and all other material goods. Those supply chains are at risk if the PRO Act becomes law, as will be our much-needed recovery and getting ALL Americans who wish to do so to go back to work. The PRO Act is, plainly stated, the wrong policy for any time, but especially this time.