Efforts by Record Companies, the American Federation of Musicians, and Truman's Cabinet to Resolve the 1948 Recording Ban

By Pinta, Emil R. | ARSC Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Efforts by Record Companies, the American Federation of Musicians, and Truman's Cabinet to Resolve the 1948 Recording Ban


Pinta, Emil R., ARSC Journal


On 14 December 1948, The New York Times announced the end of an 111/2-month strike against recording companies by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), led by its president, James Caesar Petrillo. (1) The deciding factor for the recording ban was a finding that the AFM welfare fund, paid for by royalties from record companies, was in violation of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act. Major record companies affected by the ban included Capitol, Columbia, Decca, M-G-M, Mercury, and RCA Victor, but the ban affected contracts with over 770 recording and transcription companies. (2) It ended when the U.S. secretary of labor and attorney general held that a modified version of the fund did not violate Taft-Hartley. (3)

The 1948 recording ban cannot be understood apart from the Taft-Hartley Act. While there are detailed histories of the 1948 AFM strike, (4) none examine the strike in the context of the social and political pressures that led to the passage of Taft-Hartley; nor do they provide details of the maneuvers by Truman's cabinet, the AFM and record companies to bring the fund into compliance with the act. (5)

The Taft-Hartley Act

The antecedents for Taft-Hartley began with the Great Depression and President Roosevelt's New Deal policies. One intention of the New Deal was to benefit workers and the economy by stimulating the organization of labor. (6) Labor laws drafted in the 1930s were largely designed to protect workers and prevent abusive tactics by employers to prevent unionization. (7) In 1935, Congress passed The National Labor Relations Act, commonly called the Wagner Act--a law with sweeping labor provisions. (8) The Wagner Act took a more pro-labor stance than previous laws and encouraged the organization of unions through its administrative agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Wagner Act enumerated a list of unfair labor practices by employers to discourage or prevent unionization. (9)

Wage freezes to head off inflation were put into practice during World War II. One consequence of wage freezes was the proliferation of non-wage benefit packages to keep and attract workers. These included union welfare funds set up through agreements between labor and management for pensions and health and life insurance. The gradual proliferation of large welfare funds under the control of union leaders, who had little or no accountability, concerned government officials. (10)

Following the end of World War II there was a sharp jump in unemployment as war contracts were cancelled and soldiers returned home. Wage freezes and price controls expired at end of June 1946, and were rapidly followed by inflation of as much as 25% in some basic commodities. (11) The resulting economic upheaval produced a flurry of strikes nationwide. In the 12 months following the war, there were 4,630 strikes involving 5 million workers. Citywide strikes shut down several industrialized cities, including Rochester, NY, Stamford, Conn., and Lancaster, PA. (12)

The result was a shift in public sentiment against labor and union leaders. The public became weary and irritated by the extreme number of strikes. Letters arrived at the White House referring to "union tyrants" and demanding tighter restrictions on unions and labor bosses. (13) Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr., one of the authors of Taft-Hartley, wrote: "The positions of labor and management were reversed ... Labor was in the saddle and riding hard." In his opinion, labor leaders had become equal in power to the elected heads of government and had forgotten the reasons why they had been given authority. "So," Hartley explained, "we wrote the Taft-Hartley Act." (14)

The Taft-Hartley Act, officially the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, (15) was cosponsored by two Republican members of Congress: Representative Hartley of New Jersey and Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio. It was passed by both chambers of Congress and sent to President Truman on 9 June 1947. …

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