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  • Limiting Labor:Business Political Mobilization and Union Setback in the States
  • Marc Dixon (bio)

The 1940s were heady times for the American labor movement. The tight wartime labor market and the backing of the federal government in defense industries facilitated impressive membership gains for both AFL and CIO unions. By 1945, labor unions represented almost 35 percent of the workforceóa more than fivefold increase from the early 1930s. What is more, union membership gains penetrated previously unorganized and resistant regions like the South.1 Unions indeed appeared on the verge of recruiting millions of new members and establishing a truly national social movement. Critics and supporters alike viewed unions as the most powerful institutions of the day. Following the war, Fortune Magazine foresaw little resistance to unionism and to the postwar southern labor organizing drives, while sympathetic scholars like C. Wright Mills viewed labor leaders as the "new men of power."2

The labor upsurge, however, was relatively short-lived By the end of the decade the union movement found many of their organizing and political efforts thwarted. Business-led efforts to curtail unionism at the national level culminated in the highly restrictive Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Among other things, the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed secondary boycotts, allowed for "employer free speech" during union election drives, and ceded jurisdiction to the states in the regulation of union security and Right-to-Work laws.3 Nelson Lichtenstein thus points to the mobilization of business and conservative forces in the immediate postwar years as a crucial turning point for labor, when the ambitions of an ascendant [End Page 313] union movement were decidedly curbed. In explaining labor's failures during the decade, Sean Farhang and Ira Katznelson's recent work probes the institutional context in which the labor movement operated, and specifically the readjustment of southern congressional representatives on labor issues. The anti-labor orientation of the southern congressional delegation in the 1940s, the authors argue, was driven in large part by the swelling union membership in the region and the threat it posed to the prevailing racial order.4

Notably, the deference to the states embedded in the Taft-Hartley Act raised the stakes of anti-labor political activity occurring across different locales. Anti-labor mobilization included a diverse set of organizations, employers, and political representatives in the states. Beginning with the conservative resurgence at the end of the 1930s and accelerating after World War II, business forces mobilized at the state level and were successful in agitating for an array of legislative restrictions on union activity, including limitations on picketing, increased state oversight of union finances, and, most important, Right-to-Work laws that outlawed union security agreements and increased the costs of collective action for labor unions. Yet, relatively little is known about the processes underlying union setbacks in the statesójust how employers campaigned to curtail union organization, how they made labor into a political issue, and the responses of unions to these efforts.5 This article provides an important and necessary compliment to analyses of national labor policy by considering the varied business responses to unionism and the spread of restrictive labor legislation across states during the 1940s.

I use a case study of Texas labor politics to provide a window into the anti-labor mobilization of the decade. Texas is an important case for a number of reasons. First, it was an innovator in 1940s restrictive state labor legislation. The state was the first to pass a so-called "antiviolence" statute designed to limit labor picketing, which would then spread across several states during the decade. The modern Right-to-Work movement and political mobilization championing this slogan, moreover, was spearheaded by the Christian American Association out of Houston in the early 1940s. Second, the policy setbacks for labor unions were not predetermined. While Texas shared certain characteristics with other southern states that were unfavorable to unionismómost notably, an undemocratic political system and a racially divided workforceórapid industrialization during the 1940s alongside notable political openings made it one of the best candidates for union advancement in the southern region. In the changing industrial landscape, unions were on the rise. Membership increased in...


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pp. 313-344
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