Remarks of John F. Kennedy at the Convention of the Massachusetts State Federation of Labor, Springfield, Massachusetts, July 31, 1947

Thank you very much, John. I want to tell you what a great pleasure it is for me to be able to come up here and address you, because there has been no group which has done more to establish sound labor relations in Massachusetts than you have done. This was demonstrated during the critical war years when labor and management in Massachusetts worked for a common good, it was also demonstrated by your high productivity during those years and the minimum amount of man-hours lost in strikes. This is known throughout the country. I think labor in Massachusetts has set an example that labor all over the country should follow.

As you and I know, Massachusetts has contributed over a period of years to progressive legislation and has done much and led the way on behalf of the working man. During the difficult days of transition from war to peace, you have shown. In my opinion, admirable restraint in the face of high prices. Inadequate housing, and a concerted anti-labor drive by those who would deny the dignity of the working man and the justice of the labor movement. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, labor faces the future with hostile legislation written on the statute books of the United States. As you here in convention gather to plan for the future, it might be helpful for us to examine together the forces which were active in the struggle out of which the Taft-Hartley Bill emerged. As a member of the Committee on Labor, I was active in watching those forces work.

The Committee on Labor and Education was formerly headed by Congresswoman Mary Norton of New Jersey. Through the years she conducted that Committee in such a way that the laboring man was amply protected and when forces in Congress wished to pass a bill such as the Smith-Connelly Bill against labor, they had to take it to another committee. Miss Mary Norton was getting out and Chairman Hartley, who had been In Congress about twenty years, took over. The Committee was amalgamated under the Reorganization Act. It consisted of fifteen Republicans and ten Democrats. It was quickly obvious from the shape of the Committee and from the way the hearings were conducted that Mr. Hartley and his group were determined to bring in a bill which would strike very strongly at the labor movement in this country. They brought in seventy-five businessmen, two-thirds of whom had been called up before the National Labor Relations Board for offenses against labor. They brought in about six or seven members of labor who testified over a period of three or four days. Mr. Green was one of the few members of labor who, I thought, wisely made several suggestions to amend the Wagner Act.

Perhaps the most interesting case called before that Committee was the AllIs-Chalmers case. That company, which had difficult labor relations for ten years, came down and testified before us; the sum of their testimony was that they had been unable to carry on good labor relations because the union in their plant was dominated by communists. Later Harold Christoffel was called in to testify. He was tough, arrogant, and a former Socialist who had led his union over a period of years, over a period of very disrupted labor relations, and he answered twenty questions which were given by the Justice Department to the Committee. He was asked each one of them — "Were you a Communist?" "Did you attend such and such a meeting?" "Did you go to such and such an apartment?" Finally he denied each one of these and left the stand. Mr. Budenz came in to testify, he had been an editor of the Daily Worker and is now a Professor at Fordham. Mr. Budenz told a very interesting story — and to me a very illuminating one. He said that in 1940 he and Mr. Eugene Dennis traveled through Wisconsin and there met Mr. Christoffel and agreed with him in their attempt to tie up production that he would strike the Allis-Chalmers plant. This Mr. Christoffel agreed to do, and in March of 1941 he struck the plant, with the aid of forty-eight fraudulent ballots, for a period of seventy-one days. The Allis-Chalmers plant was making steam turbines for the destroyers in the Navy and it slowed the program up for six months. We went out to Milwaukee and took further testimony. Mr. Christoffel has recently been indicted for perjury for denying that he was a Communist. The importance of that case was when Mr. Christoffel was faced with the decision of whether he would follow the party line or whether he would play fair with his union and the country in the time of a national emergency, without hesitation he followed the party line and pulled his fellow employees out on a seventy-one day strike which cost them a great deal of money and which cost this country a destroyer program.

That was one incident before our Labor Committee. I think you will agree that it is an important one, and I think it lays out a clear case. We in Massachusetts should continue to fight because not only is Communism un-American, but as this incident shows, it worked directly against labor.

The period of hearings were finally over and the Republicans went into seclusion for about three weeks, and then on a Friday after we Democrats were called in, they had a seventy-five-page bill — the original Hartley Bill — and they said, "Are you in favor of this or not?" We said, "We would like to read it." They read it very quickly, and said, "We will give you till Sunday to write a minority report." So we had to work for two days and nights, but finally turned out a minority report giving our objections. On Monday they went before the Rules Committee and got time on the floor. They took the bill to the floor and by Thursday it had passed by a vote of three to one. The bill is very complicated and certainly a member of Congress who had had nothing to do with the bill could not know what was in it. A fight was made to amend this bill. The bill was tough, but you should have seen the original Hartley Bill — majority vote was required for the union shop, but you couldn't even bargain for the union shop. If you threatened to strike, it was an unfair labor practice. They threw out all pension plans. If an employer committed an unfair labor practice, he would be subject to a cease and desist order. These were some of the clauses which were in the original Hartley Bill — the most disastrous piece of legislation I have ever seen. It went through the House by a score of three to one. It quickly became evident that the majority was going to write the toughest bill they could.

This bill was amended and finally the Taft-Hartley Bill came into being. Some of the more obvious shortcomings of the Hartley Bill were eliminated from the final version of the new labor law which is known as the Taft-Hartley Bill, but the final bill still invades the fundamental rights of labor. For this reason, I voted against the bill, and for this reason the President vetoed the bill, and for this reason about eighty-five of us voted to sustain the veto.

This bill, as it stands, is a calculated and systematic attempt to destroy the power of labor to bargain equally at the bargaining table. The Wagner Act established that right and the Taft-Hartley Bill takes away that right. It takes away the closed shop, it leaves the union shop dependent upon a majority vote of all those who are eligible to vote — the ones who don't vote are counted as voting against a union shop. It provides that an employer may call an election any time it suits him. It permits a union man to go directly to management and by-pass his elected union representatives. It makes no distinction between jurisdictional strikes and boycotts which help and protect the union. These and other related provisions impair seriously the power of labor to bargain collectively, taken together they indicate the fundamental bias against labor of the sponsors of this bill.

Its weaknesses are not limited to the destruction of labor's power to bargain. This bill, in my opinion, is also administratively impossible. It takes the present Board and breaks up its power; and a Board composed of five men which goes directly against every other administrative agency in the Government, and certainly a Board which was unable to keep up with the cases that came before it before, with a reduced budget will certainly be unable to keep up with the cases that come to them now. Not only is it administratively unworkable, but there is certainly some doubt as to its constitutionality.

Senator Taft has said that the section which prohibited expenditures for the benefit of candidates will also prohibit any union paper which is paid for out of the dues of its members, which most of them are, from endorsing a candidate, which to me is a strong limitation on the freedom of speech and which, I believe, is unconstitutional.

While this bill is unfortunate, it would be a mistake to assume that it was a political accident. The overwhelming vote of the House in favor of the bill on three separate occasions, the restrictive legislation recently enacted by almost one-third of the states, and the fact that the National Labor Relations Board reported that in the month of June nearly one out of every three planned elections resulted in a vote for no union representation — all of these indicate that somewhere along the way the American labor movement has lost the public support enjoyed in the 30s. Without public support, the American labor movement cannot survive.

In speaking on my position on the Taft-Hartley Bill throughout the country, I have found that public opposition to labor has centered on two causes. The first factor is that they believe that Communists have gained control in some unions. The Christoffel incident shows that this is not wholly unfounded. It is of primary importance, I believe not only for the purpose of gaining back public opinion, but also for our own national security, that you continue your unrelenting fight to remove Communists from positions of control in unions. The second factor is that some of the public believe that certain labor leaders have sometimes failed to recognize the impact that their activities have had on public good, and in the course of their activities labor must at all times remember the paramount nature of the public interest. Private interest must yield to the common good. If labor is to regain that public support which is essential, it is necessary that they re-affirm this principle. I understand that there is a resolution up to expand the public relations activities of the State Federation of Labor. I certainly feel that labor has a good cause and should be extended to show its cause. I think it is essential, if you are going to spread and grow and keep your strength, that you have public support- behind you by 1948.

If labor accepts this responsibility, and I am sure it will, and if it continues its fight for such legislation as a long-range housing program, for the extension of social security, for federal aid to education, for minimum wage legislation — which was licked by the Republican majority of the Labor Committee — a minimum wage legislation for sixty cents an hour — which was defeated six to five by the Republican majority in the Labor Committee — and if it continues to fight for other liberal programs, I have no doubt as to the future success of the labor movement both in Massachusetts and in the nation.

I can't close without saying a word about the importance of continuing to fight for the long-range housing program known as the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Bill. The labor groups in this country should support this bill. Unless this bill is passed, any hope of a guaranteed post-war boom, or any hope of homes for veterans will be gone.

This is a critical time in the development of America as a strong and free industrial democracy. We are in the second year of a post-war period full of trial and difficulty. If internal cleavages are to split the nation, it will mean unrest at home and weakness and indecision in dealing with problems abroad. If, on the other hand, there is full cooperation between labor and management and a recognition of mutual responsibilities, America can look forward to a prosperous future at home and a real capacity to fulfill its obligations abroad.

Thank you very much.

Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. House of Representatives Files. Series 02. Speeches, 1946-1952. Box 95, Folder: "Labor: AFL Convention, Springfield, Massachusetts, 31 July 1947".