Will Labor Stand for More Limits to Boycott Rights? | Stanley Heller
After the Wagner Act was passed in 1935 trade unions had tremendous freedom in organizing, striking and encouraging act of solidarity. A key tactic was the boycott, where union members asked the public not to buy products made by replacement “scab” labor during strikes, or when a union picket line would confront workers from suppliers and insist they not deliver supplies across a picket line. Sometimes a union would picket the supplier itself or call on the public to boycott the products of the supplier.
In 1947 Congress took up the Taft-Hartley Act. One part of it banned unions from calling for “secondary boycotts” from picketing companies supplying a company that was using scab workers or otherwise causing a worker. Trade unions called the bill the “slave labor” law. They spent a million dollars (roughly $11,000,000 in today’s money) in ads to try to defeat it. It didn’t work. President Truman did veto the bill, but Congress overrode the veto and it became the law.
For years getting rid of Taft-Hartley was a major goal of labor, but after a while trade union leadership just tried to get along with it. Over the decades there were many boycotts called like the grape boycott, Hormel, Farah pants, the boycott of Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, etc. Some helped to win strikes. Other solidarity actions were limited and weak because of Taft-Hartley.
Now a new bill going through Congress is a further threat to boycott rights. On the face of it, the bill doesn’t have anything to do with unions. It would ban people for calling for support of the U.N. or the European Union or any international governmental organization boycott of Israel. The penalties are incredible. The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the bill, says there is a possible penalty of a $250,000 civil fine, a criminal fine up to a million dollars and jail time of up to 20 years in prison!
Why should Congress have any power to limit our free speech right to call for a boycott, whether it’s a cruel government of a foreign country or a rotten company in the U.S. mistreating workers? This limit on boycott rights is outrageous and the penalties are grotesque. You could rob a bank and get less punishment.
Now while you won’t find the words “union” or “labor” in the bill there is a possible direct connection. The International Labour Organization is a U.N. and hence governmental organization. If it called for a boycott of Israel (and many unions around the world have done so), calling for support of the ILO boycott could get you in jail.
Even if there’s no immediate connection with labor, there’s the matter of “precedent,” an event or action that can be used as an example for further action. The right wing assault on unions is picking up. At the start of the year a major anti-worker rights law passed in Kentucky. It is all too believable that if this anti-boycott law concerning Israel passes, one day it will be used as a precedent for a law to ban calling for a boycott of some dear little billionaire whose workers have the gall to walk out for decent pay and working conditions.
So far the big trade unions are ignoring the issue. It’s up to us to educated them. You can contact the “Change to Win” federation at email@example.com. The AFLCIO contact page is here: https://aflcio.org/contact-us. The Teamsters contact page is https://teamster.org/about/contact-teamsters. You can always tweet @aflcio @teamsters @change2win.
There is one trade union that should be sympathetic because it’s already boycotting Israel. The union is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. One of its activists spoke at a rally for Palestine in Hartford on July 25. Here’s their contact page: https://www.ueunion.org/ueform.html. Best email might be firstname.lastname@example.org. They’re having a convention in Pittsburgh in August. Maybe they can put forward a resolution against the bill in Congress at their convention.
Of course, if you’re a union member you can make your local union aware of the issue and call on it to bring it up with the folks who do legislation in DC.
(Full disclosure. I’ve been a member of three trade unions, Retail Clerks, Machinists and the American Federation of Teachers, the last one continuously since 1969)