Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The decline of the legal protection of the right to organize

Perkel describes the post-World War II decline of the legal protection of the right to organize. The Wagner Act, which protected the right to organize, lost much of its power with the passage of subsequent legislation and with employers' calculation that any penalties for stifling unionization were dwarfed by the benefits of doing so.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

It's a sick industry. It's suffered from overcapacity, from wide fluctuations in prices, and so this has been another strong spur for employers to keep the unions out. Ok. So, I've talked about the workers and the employers. Next I want to talk about the government's role. As I mentioned, the federal government has, since 1935, been responsible, supposedly, for guaranteeing the right of workers to exercise their organization proclivities, to bargain collectively. And that was a promise that was given in the Wagner Act and during the early days, in the '30s, and even into the '40s, that promise was fairly well fulfilled in that the government engaged in what I consider a highly unusual, effective administration of the law to compel employers to, to prevent employers from coercing workers and to prevent them from discouraging organization and so, in most mass-production industries, workers did take advantage of these opportunities afforded by the Wagner Act and succeed in getting organized.
That wasn't really true, though, of the textile industry, was it?
No, it wasn't true in textiles and, as I say, I hope that what I've said about the characteristics of the workers and the employers might give you some introduction to why it wasn't true in textiles. If we go past the first ten years of the Wagner Act, and we come to the postwar period, we have a new development affecting federal legislation, namely, the Taft-Hartley Act. Which was then followed a few years later by another act, whose name escapes me, that also amended the provisions of the Labor Management Act. Both of these acts tended to weaken the enforcement of the right to organize. Then the findings of the investigation of corruption in certain unions and the complaints about worker activity in organizing campaigns resulted in a reversal in the federal legislation really. It's not quite realized, but the enforcement of the right to organize pretty well became a dead letter in the postwar period. For one thing, the Taft-Hartley Act amendments started it. And, secondly, employers realized that there were no effective teeth in the Act. All that the Act does is make an investigation and if it finds that the Act has been violated, all it can do is tell the employers that they have to stop violating it, and if they've deprived anybody of their employment, they have to pay them back pay. This is hardly an incentive for employers to accept the law. Because back pay represents a miniscule proportion of the amount that they generally can save by keeping the union out. So, economically, it pays for them to violate the law, pay the back pay. There isn't even any fine, and there's no criminal penalties. So there simply is no effective mechanism for enforcing law where the employer is willing to violate it for his purposes. There was a sustained effort in the 70s to amend the law, to provide sanctions that would be effective, but that failed. So, in effect, the federal labor law is a promise without any effective means of enforcing it. And, as a result, people who didn't get organized during the great days of the '30s, when everybody was taking advantage of what they thought was the law and who responded to the obvious appeal of unionism, if they didn't get organized in the 30s, by and large, they haven't gotten organized, because the law was discovered to be a paper tiger after the war and employers can pretty well flout it at will.