Monday, September 04, 2000

Local lawyer had role in labor law

53 years after Taft-Hartley, Mack Swigert still practicing

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mack Swigert, 92
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        When U.S. Sen. Robert Taft invited him to dinner at a Capitol Hill restaurant in late 1946, Mack Swigert had no idea he was about to be part of history.

        Newly installed as Senate Majority Leader, Mr. Taft was itching to blunt laws passed at the height of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal that fueled the rise of national labor unions.

        Over dinner, Ohio's senior senator asked Mr. Swigert for advice.

        “Taft said, "I'm under a lot of pressure to repeal the Wagner Act (the 1935 law protecting bargaining rights of unions). People are steamed up. What do you think about that?'” Mr. Swigert recalls.

        Several weeks later, the associate at the Cincinnati law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister had produced three pages of suggested amendments to the Wagner Act. Included were the right of workers to stay out of unions and the government's ability to end strikes in the name of national security.

  Enacted in 1947 over the veto of President Truman, the Taft-Hartley Act reversed the New Deal dominance of labor unions and remains the anchor of U.S. labor law. It was named for U.S. Sen. Robert Taft, R-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Fred Hartley, R-N.J. It is officially called the National Labor-Management Relations Act.
  The law's measures have stood the test of time over more than five decades, including:
  • A closed shop is forbidden. Unions cannot require employees to join before taking a job.
  • A majority of employees must approve union shop requirements.
  • Labor unions can be sued for breach of contract.
  • A 60-day moratorium is required before a strike in an industry that involves interstate commerce.
  • An 80-day injunction is allowed for strikes that could affect national health and security.
        More than five decades later, as Americans celebrate the first Labor Day of the new millennium, Mr. Swigert's handiwork still is at the center of America's labor law. Passed over the veto of President Truman, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 continues to give companies the upper hand in labor disputes, affecting the salaries, benefits and working conditions of millions of Americans.

        It was no accident the act had its roots in Cincinnati.

        Employers here have long been known as unfriendly to unions, and Mr. Swigert was among the leading lawyers who represented employers. Mr. Taft, known as “Mr. Republican” for his conservative views, and who died in 1953, represented the area's business stance perfectly.

        It's also a measure of Taft-Hartley's influence that, 53 years later, it still produces

        bitter feelings in a city where unions have long fought big corporations.

        “The labor law's grossly unfair to workers,” says Bill Dudley, director of strategic operations at Local 1099 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Among those it represents are about 8,500 employees at local Kroger stores.

        But Bill Adams, chief executive officer of a Northern Kentucky law firm that helps companies avoid union representation, says the laws are written to benefit unions, not workers.

        “Taft-Hartley is the only positive amendment to the act, but it's not enough,” he said. “At the time it happened, it cut some of the momentum of the unions. Who knows where we'd be without Taft-Hartley?”

Fewer union workers
               There is little dispute about the effect of the labor law since Taft-Hartley: Unions, here and across the country, have fewer members and fewer chances to strike.

        The year before Taft-Hartley was enacted, more than 4.6 million workers took part in more than 5,000 strikes, often crippling entire industries, Mr. Swigert's research showed at the time. In the first full year under the new law, both the number of strikes and the number of workers involved dropped by more than one-third, he said.

        In Cincinnati, membership in more than 100 bargaining units under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO Labor Council has dropped to about 85,000 from more than 100,000 during the past 15 years, says Dan Radford, executive secretary-treasurer.

        Mr. Radford says Greater Cincinnati unions have found alternatives to strikes. They're using stock ownership to affect policy and funding publicity campaigns against companies that discourage unions.

        For example, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Bigg's supermarket chain have been at odds because the grocer is non-union.

        Unable to get directly to workers, the union has criticized the company publicly for its policies. Bigg's officials were not available for comment, but they have said that employees have chosen not to be represented by a union.

Facing Harry Truman

               Mack Swigert is now 92, but he still comes to work every day at Taft's offices on Fifth Street.

        “Mack Swigert has been around a long time,” the AFL-CIO's Mr. Radford says. “He was good then, and he's good now.”

        Mr. Swigert is proud of the law he helped conceive, which he believes set the stage for the steady economic expansion that Americans now enjoy.

        “Without the reforms of Taft-Hartley, today's prosperity would be inconceivable,” he says. “You couldn't have this wave of production that we have today if you'd have millions of man-hours lost to strikes.”

        But he insists that he did not write the Taft-Hartley bill, noting that only Mr. Taft had the political muscle to push the bill through.

        “Hillary (Clinton) says it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to create a law,” he says. “I guess I was helpful in giving suggestions to the senator, but it was his bill. He was the only one who could stand up to Truman and pass something over his veto.”

        Calls to repeal or amend the Wagner Act were common after World War II, he recalls. President Truman called for amending the labor law in his 1947 State of the Union address, and 17 bills were introduced on the first day of that legislative session.

        Mr. Taft once said strikes “are not as serious as represented in newspaper headlines, and it is far better in my opinion to suffer the inconvenience of strikes than have a completely government-regulated economy,” according to papers published in a biography by James Patterson.

        Historians have called the final bill a testament to Mr. Taft's legislative skills.

        Mr. Swigert recalls that in the 1940s, unions could strike and literally have a business owner at their mercy, whether or not that busi ness had done anything wrong.

        “The business owner was compelled by law to deal with the union, and if he didn't give in to their demands, they could put him out of business,” Mr. Swigert says.

Still a fixture
               Born in Illinois and raised in Iowa, Mr. Swigert started at Taft in 1936. He became a one-man labor-law department for the firm, which then had its headquarters in the Dixie Terminal on Fourth Street.

        Today, he still is a fixture in Taft's offices, at the Queen City Club and on local golf courses. Because of the legend of the Taft- Hartley connection, he clearly is the dean of local labor lawyers.

        Bob Manley, a local lawyer whose grandfather ran a “union-busting firm” in Cincinnati and whose uncle worked with Mr. Swigert, says the 1947 bill brought balance back to the law.

        “What Taft-Hartley did,” he says, "was bring an orderly method for unions and management to interact.”

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