In World War II’s aftermath, business leaders felt threatened by the shifting landscape of the labor movement. Industries struggled, and workers spoke up—even the film industry is currently impacted by these demands for systemic change. When these workers spoke up, though, lawmakers felt the pressure to respond. As with any major historical movement, it’s not such a simple exchange; that’s where the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 shifts the landscape even more. But exactly what is the Taft-Hartley Act? Keep reading to see how you and your production work under its influence.
What is the Taft-Hartley Act?
Taft-Hartley Act Definition
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was not born of thin air. So let’s start with the basic function of this legislation.
What is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947?
A U.S. federal law which restricts activities and power of labor unions. It is also known as the Labor Management Relations Act and was an amendment to the 1935 Wagner Act. Lawmakers had previously made attempts to serve both workers and employers, but due to the political climate, a number of legislators found it necessary to make further amendments (which perhaps did not have the laborers’ best interests in mind).
What led to Taft-Hartley?
During the Great Depression, the U.S. government implemented various laws to protect workers’ rights. The Wagner Act, otherwise known as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, was among the first of these labor laws. What likely led to our typical idea of unions today, the Wagner Act gave workers the right to organize, collectively bargain, and strike (among other things). It became colloquially known as “Labor’s Bill of Rights” and paved the way for today’s labor unions (movie unions or not).
After the implementation of the Wagner Act, union numbers were strong; “closed” shops (an agreement in which an employer agrees to hire only union members) and “union” shops (an agreement in which employees must join a union upon being hired) were permitted, and high membership meant more powerful unions, and therefore, more large-scale strikes.
Key Provisions of Wagner Act
To better understand how Taft-Hartley altered the landscape of union workers and employers, it’s crucial to unpack the functionality of the Wagner Act which:
allowed workers to strike
allowed workers to collectively bargain with employers through a chosen representative
prohibited employers from unfair labor practices (including instating company unions)
allowed workers to engage in activities to address or improve working conditions
prohibited employers from firing or otherwise discriminating against workers who organized or join unions
Almost a decade later, Capital Hill and constituents alike feared not only communist takeover (hello, “Red Scare”), but communist intervention in labor unions, especially after such momentous strikes were actually turning folks against unions (in fact, many film workers were blacklisted for participating in such activities).
It was at this point that Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act (also known as the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947), which significantly chipped away at the Wagner Act's key provisions.
What Did the Taft-Hartley Act Do?
Provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act
The Taft-Hartley Act may have been a reaction to general Communist paranoia of the time. In fact, under the Taft-Hartley Act, union officers were required to deny Communist affiliation under oath. And while unions were still basically permitted to engage in similar activities under Taft-Hartley, there were some significant changes.
unions were required to give 60 days advance notice of strikes
workers were given the right to decline joining a union
union shops were only permitted should a majority of employees vote for it
it gave the President authority to appoint a board of inquiry to investigate labor disputes or ask the Attorney General for a federal injunction if it appears that a strike would imperil national health or safety
limitations on political contributions of unions
banned certain types of strikes (secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes/boycotts, jurisdictional strikes/boycotts)
After Taft-Hartley came into effect, many states also implemented “right to work” laws, meaning people could work at a given establishment without needing to join a union — a worker would not be “forced” to join a union or pay dues (which is already illegal at the federal level). An important thing to note, though, is that “right to work” laws does not actually mean that everyone has a right to work, and it also does not mean that workers cannot form a union.
Essentially, Taft-Hartley tipped the scales of bargaining power in favor of employers, and led to significantly lower numbers in union membership.
Taft-Hartley Act & actors
Congress enacted Taft-Hartley decades ago, but the effects of Taft-Hartley endure. Not only does it affect unions in general, but it affects actors specifically in that SAG-AFTRA will file the report after a signatory to the union hires a currently non-union actor.
Once this report is filed, the actor becomes eligible to join SAG-AFTRA. Check out the video below to learn more about how actors and Taft-Hartley intersect.
In order for an actor to become “Tafted” or “Taft-Hartleyed” the casting director or producer (who has, by becoming a signatory to the union, agreed to hire only union actors) must submit SAG’s Taft-Hartley form detailing — among other things — why they have chosen the actor in question as opposed to a SAG member.
Typically, this happens within 15 days, and once the report is complete, the actor can join SAG and pay the necessary fees to officially join the union.
Note: there are important details and conditions to keep in mind when completing a SAG’s Taft-Hartley form. For example, SAG eligibility varies based on an actor’s contract, the scope of the production (student film or ultra-low budget versus a large budget, for instance), the ever-evolving New Media contract umbrella, and so on.
For this reason, it’s highly advisable to contact your production’s SAG representative to make sure you know where your production stands and what qualifications you must meet in order to properly operate within Taft-Hartley rules.
From the passage of the Wagner Act to the passage of right-to-work laws, the legacy of Taft-Hartley has endured and affected multiple industries, and familiarizing yourself with federal laws and how they affect you is key to optimal working conditions, fair wages, and knowing your rights as an employee in any line of work.
And whether you’re currently in a union or not, understanding the basics of Taft-Hartley can help you better understand the workforce and your place within it.
Working with Unions
We’ve touched on unions quite a bit in this post. But what is your role within a union? What can being in a union do for you, and how can you join? Answer these questions and more at the link below.