Congress: Squaring Off Over 14(b)

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The 89th Congress has been so willing to give Lyndon Johnson what he wants that just about everyone figured that it would zip right through its agenda and be ready to go home in September. Not everyone is willing to go along quite so easily, however, particularly when it comes to a matter of principle. Just such a matter now threatens to hold congressional adjournment up indefinitely. It is the repeal of section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Law, the famous right-to-work clause. This week the bill, already passed by the House, is scheduled to come up in the Senate. The debate will be heated—and it may be long.

"Free Ride." Debate about 14(b) has raged ever since it became law in 1947. Prior to that year, a wave of major strikes, called by labor to catch up with the rest of the economy after four years of wartime wage controls, had crippled such vital U.S. industries as steel, coal and autos. Over President Harry Truman's veto, a Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which not only permits 80-day injunctions against strikes that threaten the national welfare, but expressly declares that states can pass their own laws prohibiting "membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment." Twenty-five states passed right-to-work laws prohibiting union shops; six later repealed the laws. At present, 19 states have such statutes.

Labor has never flagged in its determination to wipe 14(b) off the books and thus demolish the remaining state right-to-work laws. Its main argument is that 14(b) undermines union security by allowing nonunion workers to get a "free ride," but that argument is weakening in a day when labor itself enjoys greater acceptance, wealth and influence than ever before. Opponents of repeal argue that labor is so powerful, in any case, that union security hardly hinges on getting rid of 14(b). Most important, they insist that compulsory unionism goes against the ingrained American idea of freedom of choice—and here they are joined by many Americans who have no anti-labor bias.

No Snap. In the upcoming Senate fight, Lyndon Johnson may well be a reluctant combatant. He voted in 1947 to override Truman's veto of Taft-Hartley. But he promised U.S. labor to fight for repeal of 14(b) in return for its support in 1964 and, to the surprise of many, even put the pledge in his State of the Union speech. To show that he meant it, he pushed so hard when the repeal bill reached the House floor in July that it flashed through, 221 to 203, after a scant five hours of debate. After that, no one expected it to run into any serious trouble in the Senate.

But some people just cannot swallow the idea of coercing a worker to join a union—and one of them is Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen. A formidable foe when his dander is up, Dirksen recently went to the White House and, in a now famous confrontation, told Johnson that out of intense personal conviction he was immovably opposed to repeal of 14(b). Indeed, said Ev, he hoped to keep the Senate from voting on the bill through "extended debate"—a Dirksenism for filibuster. "My God," said the President, "you wouldn't do that to me." Replied Ev: "We're not only going to do it, but I am spearheading it."

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