The Next Page: The Nixon-Kennedy debate ... in McKeesport, 1947
As ambitious young congressmen, the two future presidents traveled to the core of American labor to debate the Taft-Hartley Act. The Republicans saw it as a Cold War tactic to thwart communists in the union movement; the Democrats considered it an assault
November 27, 2011 5:00 AM
Thirteen years after their debate at the Penn-McKee Hotel in McKeesport, John F. Kennedy was president-elect, having defeated Richard M. Nixon in a close race for the nation's highest office in 1960. (This AP image is from November of that year.)
The Penn-McKee today.
By Charles McCollester
World War II ended in 1945. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death left the little known Vice President Harry Truman facing an electorate craving peace and the rewards of victory. Hundreds of thousands of veterans returned home looking for work. Wage and price controls were relaxed, but the shortage of consumer goods led to inflation and pressure on wages. A series of nationwide industrial strikes in steel, auto, coal, rail and electrical industries helped transform the war economy as companies gained breathing room to transition their production to satisfying pent-up domestic demand.
More important, the significant wage gains achieved by the 1946 strikes stimulated consumption and helped the economy avoid the abrupt economic slowdown that followed World War I and caused severe industrial conflict and racial strife.
The 1946 congressional elections gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress. The Republican victory was aided by public concern over growing union power and influence as well as fear of Russia and communism.
In Pittsburgh, anti-union sentiment was stoked by the Duquesne Light strike that twice plunged the city into darkness. In addition, with fascism defeated, Russian communism's tightening control over the homelands of key Pittsburgh ethnic groups provoked strong and often divisive reactions in the Slovak, Polish, Croatian, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, Rusyn, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Italian communities.
Against this backdrop, Republicans introduced the Taft-Hartley legislation -- with the clear intent to constrict and weaken unions.
The bill provoked immediate and dramatic consequences with the requirement that union leaders sign non-communist affidavits. But the long-range consequences of the federal government's withdrawal of active support for unionization and collective bargaining continue to this day.
In the House of Representatives the bill was assigned to the Labor and Education Committee. On that committee as first term representatives were two ambitious Navy veterans who would be elected president and play major roles in the nation's history:
John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon was making a name for himself by focusing on the national security threat posed by domestic communist influence in government and unions. Kennedy, needing labor support, was given the important assignment by fellow Bostonian, Speaker Mike McCormick, of being the lead Democratic spokesperson in opposition to the law that many denounced as a "slave labor bill."
Days after the Taft-Hartley bill passed the House overwhelmingly with 85 Southern Democrats joining 246 Republicans, Kennedy and Nixon were invited by Rep. Frank Buchanan to debate the legislation before the Chamber of Commerce in McKeesport, the heart of industrial union territory.
Neither Nixon nor Kennedy's speeches were recorded in detail, but the McKeesport Daily News reported on the affair under banner headlines.
In the debate Nixon presented a legislative history from the Norris-LaGuardia Act through the Wagner Act that he claimed "clamped down on big business" and permitted labor to "grow by leaps and bounds." Highlighting the danger posed by domestic communism, he claimed "the fundamental rights of labor would not be usurped" by the proposed legislation. Kennedy maintained that the bill would "precipitate labor war" and "strangle by restraints the American labor movement."
Kennedy in his speech on Taft-Hartley before the House demonstrated a nuanced approach by recognizing that unions "in their irresponsibility have been guilty of excesses that have caused this country great discomfort and concern." As a senator in the 1950s, he helped draft the Landrum-Griffin Act that protected democratic union elections and members' rights. However, he maintained that "this bill would in its present form strike down in one devastating blow the union shop, industry-wide bargaining and so strangle collective bargaining with restraints and limitations as to make it ineffectual."
Nixon's House speech on the other hand compared the legislation to the Magna Carta in that it reduced the power of "the barons of organized labor."
The McKeesport debate took place at McKeesport's premier hotel, the Penn-McKee, in the heart of an area where more than 100,000 unionized industrial workers were employed. In the two months following the debate, the bill passed the Senate, was vetoed by President Truman, with his veto overridden by a single vote in the Senate as Southern Democrats joined the Republican majority. By allowing states to pass "right-to-work" laws, Taft-Hartley undermined union organizing in the South.
All these provisions were corrosive of union power and ability to organize. Most only manifested their negative impact over decades of sustained anti-union legal action.
However, one provision of the bill had immediate and explosive impact on the labor movement, especially the United Electrical Workers. The UE represented workers at dozens of large facilities in Pennsylvania, locally the three original plants of George Westinghouse: Westinghouse Airbrake, Union Switch & Signal and Westinghouse Electric.
The Taft-Hartley Act required union leaders to sign "non-communist affidavits." In a dozen unions representing perhaps 25 percent of organized labor, members of the Communist Party had leadership positions. The largest and most important left-wing union was the UE. Most union leaders initially resisted these requirements as being an un-American attack on political liberties.
However, the increasingly combative stance of the Russian-led international communist movement and the American left wing's Progressive Party campaign for the presidency in 1948 created a situation where the industrial union movement led by Pittsburgh's Phil Murray felt obliged to purge itself of communist-controlled organizations in order to preserve industrial unionism and the Democratic Party. Harry Truman, to the general astonishment of the media, survived the Progressive split on the left and the Dixiecrat split over Civil Rights on the right to win the presidency.
The "loyalty oath" provisions were extremely divisive in the Electric Valley. The new CIO-sponsored union, the IUE, defeated the UE in a series of incredibly bitter election battles fought inside local 601 at Westinghouse Electric in East Pittsburgh from 1948 through 1952. The UE retained control of the Switch and the Airbrake. The chilling effect of being labeled a "red," and the legalistic requirements of the law reinforced conservative and bureaucratic tendencies in the labor movement.
In his recent book, "Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero," MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews places great importance on the McKeesport debate. There, Nixon and Kennedy forged a sort of bond based on mutual respect and political rivalry. They ate hamburgers at the Star Diner before taking the Capitol Limited back to D.C. and spent the overnight ride discussing global politics.
While Kennedy never had the opportunity to write a full memoir of his political life, Nixon often reflected on the Penn-McKee debate. Held in front of a mostly business audience of the Chamber of Commerce, Nixon thought he won. This memory provided some solace as the 1960 debates, especially the first one, were generally held to have been won by JFK.
One victory was certain; the two young congressmen flipped a coin for the lower berth on the sleeper back to Washington. Nixon won the toss.
Provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act
• Banned the "closed shop" where only union members could be hired (applicable in industries such as shipping where workers moved from company to company during a work career.)
• Allowed the "union shop" where the employer hired anyone, but the worker was required to join the union and thereby received union protections after 30 or 90 days. However, it allowed states to ban the union shop through "right-to-work" laws subsequently adopted throughout the south.
• Outlawed secondary boycotts, a tactic allowed in most industrial democracies.
• Allowed the president to obtain an injunction to stop a strike or lockout in the name of a "national emergency."
• Forbade foremen and supervisors to organize. This allowed employers to define large numbers of employees as supervisors over their fellow workers, a practice that especially affects nurses in hospitals. In Europe, supervisory workers are allowed to organize which permits them to resist being made anti-union warriors in a labor dispute.
• Made unions divulge detailed financial and organizational information to the government.
• Allowed companies and unions to sue for breach of contract.
• Made formal elections mandatory over simple petition or "card check" by a majority of workers, something that was common before Taft-Hartley. Allowed employers as well as workers the right to request elections to decertify a union.
• Allowed unions as well as companies to be charged with "unfair labor practices."
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission approved an historical marker for the Kennedy-Nixon 1947 Taft-Hartley Debate at its October board meeting. The co-sponsors of the marker proposal are the Battle of Homestead Foundation and the McKeesport Preservation Society
The dedication of a state historical marker is projected for the Penn-McKee site in April 2012. The proposed wording is:
The Kennedy-Nixon Taft-Hartley Debate (1947)
On April 22, 1947, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated the Taft-Hartley Labor-Management Act at the Penn-McKee Hotel. Passed over President Truman's veto, the law severely restricted unions. Its loyalty oath provision split organized labor, especially the United Electrical Workers (UE).
is a retired professor of industrial and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (
). He is president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation and president emeritus of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society.