Why Labor Moved Left

Why Labor Moved Left

Milwaukee fast food workers on strike, September 5, 2014. Photo by Light Brigading via Flickr.

Hard times sometimes have a silver lining. As American unions have come under unrelenting assault, the left is “enjoying” a historic victory, but one most labor partisans would rather do without. If one considers the political landscape in the United States over the last half century, then American unions have moved—or been moved—to the left margin of mainstream thinking and action. They have gotten there primarily because of the shifting political and economic landscape on which they stand; for the most part, their leftism represents no conscious insurgency. Organized labor has become, instead, the domain of reluctant radicals.

The decimation, over the past few decades, of the industrial relations system that was a bulwark of Cold War liberalism has forced even some traditionally conservative unions—such as the Teamsters, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and the old Retail Clerks (now the UFCW)—to take stances once adopted by left-wing unions in the 1940s: participating in liberal-led coalitions, advertising their multiracial character, and “blaming and shaming”  corporate adversaries. Labor’s capacity to play the role of an insular, conservative interest group stands in inverse proportion to its organizational strength. Meanwhile, and ironically, a few of the “new social movements” spawned by the New Left—environmentalists, “lean-in” feminists, and some elements of the now triumphant gay rights movement—have shifted to the center. Corporations and even some elements of the GOP court them, even as those same companies and politicians remain steadfastly hostile to trade unionism.

Left and right are malleable, historically specific concepts. In some eras, they refer to economic positions, in others, to those of culture or foreign policy. But by almost any criteria, a snapshot of trade unions in 1965 would locate them firmly in the center of American politics. Unions did back the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965, but the AFL-CIO itself failed to endorse the 1963 March on Washington (which the United Auto Workers, under Walter Reuther, helped finance). AFL-CIO President George Meany had a visceral hostility to anything resembling a mass mobilization of the rank and file, where the left, old or new, might make its presence felt. He and other top labor officials were staunch Keynesians, but they did little to challenge corporate power except in the routinized world of collective bargaining. The corporations were nearly always the aggressors—as in the 1959 steel strike, the longest and largest in American history, which began when all the big steel companies made a determined effort to “speed up” the work and recapture some of the job control they had lost to the unions in the 1930s and 1940s. In this case, the corporations lost.

That the unions stood for the industrial relations status quo also became apparent in their response to the challenge they faced from the civil rights movement. This was not just because of white working-class racism, although there was certainly plenty of that. As Reuel Schiller demonstrates in an important new book, Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism, the dual systems of workplace justice that arose from the mid-1960s onward were destined to clash. Labor’s was based on the industrial pluralism and representational democracy at the heart of the Wagner Act; the other was based on the rights-conscious regime established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In this conflict, most unions became de facto opponents of a deeper level of racial justice on the job—not just affirmative action—but the whole idea that industrial justice was predicated upon a set of individual rights, and not collective, majoritarian power and decision making. Their opposition was reinforced by the cultural and social proclivities of the white, male, blue-collar workers who still composed a plurality of the rank and file and a large majority of officials. Nor were the academic spear carriers for the labor movement critics of the status quo. The then Industrial Relations Research Association (now, the Labor and Employment Relations Association), a potent scholarly group out of whose ranks came university presidents such as Clark Kerr and cabinet members such as George Shultz, was just about the only academic organization in the early 1970s with no radical caucus.

In the 1960s, New Leftists were first prodding and then hostile critics of the house of labor. SDS’s Port Huron Statement sadly chided unions for a failure to fulfill their liberatory promise: “Today labor remains the most liberal ‘mainstream’ institution—but often its liberalism represents vestigial commitments, self-interestedness, unradicalism. In some measure labor has succumbed to institutionalization, its social idealism waning under the tendencies of bureaucracy, materialism, business ethics.” The very concept of “participatory democracy,” for which the Port Huron Statement became well known, rhetorically countered the “industrial democracy” which had seemed a radical vision from the First World War through the Great Depression. But its radicalism quickly drained away in the postwar decades to devolve into the system of collective bargaining facilitated by the Wagner Act and practiced by big unions and giant corporations. SDS therefore endorsed Daniel Bell’s classic essay, “The Subversion of Collective Bargaining,” first published in Commentary in early 1960. Bell saw the great steel strike of 1959 as a sham, largely useful to corporations, which responded to the long shutdown by instituting higher prices.

Radicals of the 1960s rebelled against the entire system of collective bargaining. They viewed grievance procedures as legalistic displacements of the raw shop-floor conflict they hoped to mobilize. Collective bargaining ratified the power of unresponsive elites, both corporate and unionist. Industry-wide bargaining, a bête noire for corporate conservatives, was also seen by the left as an iron cage that limited local autonomy and insurgent activism.

Then, in the early 1970s, some New Leftists made a “turn toward the working class.” Intellectuals like André Gorz and Staughton Lynd linked a systemic critique of capitalism and mass society with a quest for workers’ power and the abolition of alienation at the “point of production.” At the same time, a younger generation of New Leftists added a critique of corporate power, routinized work, union bureaucracy, and the racism and sexism endemic to working-class culture, with a sense of the agency and insurgency they had earlier glimpsed in the civil rights and antiwar movements. There was some cooperation between the New Left and liberal or radical unions like the Hospital Workers Local 1199 (now United Healthcare Workers East), AFSCME, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, and, above all, the United Farm Workers. Many veterans of the student movement became activists within these organizations. However, to be among the relatively few leftists who even thought about trade unionism was to seek its transformation. Unions did not recruit students to be organizers in those days, and the students who “industrialized” did so to overturn not just the union leadership but the entire structure of collective bargaining.

Of course, these grand ambitions became a good deal less plausible in the 1970s as the unions encountered a new set of headwinds, which have never abated. As a result, most unions retreated to the left for one or more of three reasons—structural, political, and ideological.

Structurally, many of the institutions that had undergirded centrist pluralism were virtually destroyed. A combination of capital mobility, management hostility, and political reaction ravaged private sector unionism. The smaller the trade-union movement became, the more corporations viewed it as intolerable. If you are managing a firm with a union contract in a sea of non-union competitors, then your desire to get rid of the union has an overwhelming urgency. Industry-wide collective bargaining has vanished in auto, steel, meatpacking, and other formerly well-organized industries. Today, it exists only in major league sports, among some Hollywood professions, and on the West Coast waterfront.

Organizing in the traditional sense has become nearly impossible. For more than a generation now, the courts have legitimized virtually every anti-union ploy and tactic that corporate managers and a cohort of anti-union law firms and think tanks could dream up. Even with a liberal majority now at the National Labor Relations Board, a paltry 30,000 workers win union recognition each year through use of its procedures. As a result, union leaders have lost the legitimacy that once backed up their power in the pluralist liberal order. In the 1950s Reuther often asserted, “First we must organize them, that’s the easy part, then we must unionize them, that’s the hard part.” By “unionize” Reuther meant what we would call “consciousness-raising.” Today, the tasks are reversed, which means that the persuasive talents of smart leftists are more desperately needed than ever before; union organizing now requires, above all else, an ideological mobilization both of workers and of the communities in which they live.

The evisceration of collective bargaining, in both the private as well as the public sector, shifts labor to adopt a strategy of popular mobilization. Under the Wagner Act, bargaining was designed to depoliticize the relations between labor and capital, insulating them from both the judiciary and from partisan rivalry. In practice, that was never the case, and unions have always been active in elections and in lobbying for policy changes. But as long as a semblance of the yearly bargaining system still functioned, they did not have to stake quite so much money, time, and prestige on the ebb and flow of election results.

Today, collective bargaining has, at best, a minimal payoff. It has no capacity to set standards for other workers in the same industry, as it once did in the early postwar era.  Nor can it generate substantial dividends for even the most self-interested or conservative groups of workers. Public-sector austerity and the deunionization of the private sector mean that unions are almost always on the defensive when it comes to bargaining with city officials or individual corporations.

Thus unions have to be political, not just in terms of electing one “friend of labor” over another politician, but in a fundamental strategic sense, in which contests over state policy become the central arena of economic and social combat. There is still plenty of room for a good deal of old-fashioned politicking—the Chicago union movement was split when it came to support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s liberal opponent in the 2015 city election—but this new political calculus also makes even the most conservative unions seek allies and partners, from Occupy Wall Street to the Dreamer movement. The OUR Walmart campaign, backed by the UFCW, and Fight for $15, well funded by SEIU, are examples of how unions seek to function as a social movement. Victory in the Fight for $15 campaign, for example, will not be measured in new union members or new contracts, but in new laws raising the minimum wage, preventing wage theft, establishing a livable set of working hours, and reforming overtime-pay rules. There will be specific breakthroughs in firms and industries too—such as the decision this spring by Walmart and other retailers to raise their own starting wage to $9 an hour this year and to $10 an hour in 2016. This dynamic moves labor onto a battlefield long occupied by civil rights and gay rights advocates as well as feminists and environmentalists. It means a “Europeanization” of American labor relations, in which the state, albeit on a local level, has come to play a much more prominent role in structuring the world of work.

Conservatives understand this dynamic well, which is why their assault on unionism has been so unremitting. To take one small example: a UAW union certification victory at VW in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014 would have had just a marginal impact on in-plant industrial relations. The UAW made few demands on VW management per se. The union pledged “cooperation” in keeping with the tradition of German-style works councils. That may be part of the reason that VW’s German executives were genuinely neutral during the unionization drive in the factory. But even a small industrial union in right-to-work Tennessee would have had a large impact on regional politics. It would have created an independent voice advocating and campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of Obamacare, and rejection of GOP immigration policies. And a union occupying a strategic spot in the auto assembly supply chain, by its very existence, would exert upward wage pressure on the low-wage sectors of the mid-South auto industry, not to mention Japanese transplants like Nissan and Toyota.

Moreover, conservatives are now attacking all the surviving institutions of industrial pluralism, which the labor left once considered the essence of accommodation and ensnarement. These include grievance procedures, the dues check-off, the union or agency shop, exclusive jurisdiction, industry-wide bargaining, and the National Labor Relations Board itself. In the imagination of the right, the very concept of collective action is a coercive “racket” that subverts both the market and the will or faith of individual workers. Since public-sector bargaining was virtually abolished in Wisconsin, union membership among school teachers and state workers there has dropped by more than one-third. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans feel vindicated, and the governor would not be running for president unless they did.

For American conservatives, there is also a larger principle at stake. They disdain organized labor because the union movement stands explicitly for a set of ideas and social impulses they find abhorrent: social solidarity, employment stability, and limits on the workplace power of corporate ownership, plus a defense of the welfare state, progressive taxation, financial regulation, and a government apparatus energetic enough to supervise the health and safety of American workers and consumers. Even when it comes to issues of immigration, race, and gender, American unions, despite a highly checkered history, today stand on the left side of the political divide. The AFL-CIO staunchly backs the Dreamers and President Obama’s immigration reform, and it sponsors its own LGBTQ organization, Pride at Work.

Even if official labor has shifted to the left, it is nevertheless a shadow of its former self. The steady decline in union density and social power, from about one-third of the non-farm workforce in the early 1950s to a little more than 10 percent today, is a trend of great significance. Private-sector union density is now below 7 percent, a figure not seen since the late nineteenth century when unionism had only a semi-legal status, police and courts routinely broke strikes, and politicians and the daily press demonized labor leaders.

Even the more traditionally conservative unions have moved left in response to their organizational and political weakness. The building trades were once a virtual GOP constituency because that party endorsed the kind of big infrastructure projects—nuclear power, dams, highways, airports, and government office facilities—that generated unionized, blue-collar jobs. But except for the Keystone XL Pipeline project, the Republicans are no longer reliable backers of infrastructure spending. More important, they have become increasingly militant opponents of the prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements that have long kept government construction union. And in many states of the industrial Midwest, Republican officials are advocates of a new wave of right-to-work laws. Thus in Illinois, where Governor Bruce Rauner has been pushing downstate municipalities to create a new set of “right-to-work zones,” the building trades, which often represent the only unionized private-sector workers in these small cities, have scrambled to forge alliances with teachers, environmentalists, and other liberals to stop this town-by-town onslaught.

The Teamsters, once the largest union in the nation, also used to be loosely affiliated with the Republican Party. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all received the union’s endorsement for president. But the GOP’s shift to the militant right combined with the economics of austerity has caused a political sea change in the union once run, with brutal efficiency, by Jimmy Hoffa, Sr. and Frank Fitzsimmons. In 2014 when Pennsylvania Republicans unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill depriving public-employee unions of the dues check-off, the official Teamster Nation blog countered with a blast headlined, “We’re Teamsters, we’re Republican and we vote—but not for anti-worker politicians.”

This new dynamic played out on a larger political canvas during the presidency of George W. Bush. Although the Teamsters had endorsed Al Gore in 2000, the Bush administration seemed a natural partner for Teamsters president James P. Hoffa (son of Jimmy Hoffa). Union reformers who had briefly held the union’s top offices in the mid-1990s were closely associated with Clinton Democrats, not to mention the socialists in the insurgent Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Moreover, Bush was far more likely than any Democrat to abolish the federal government’s Independent Review Board, which had the power to monitor and fire corrupt Teamster officials.

A deal seemed natural: the Teamsters would endorse key Bushian policies, such as an expansion of oil drilling in Alaska and privatization of Social Security, and then support him for reelection. But the union backed John Kerry instead. Bush refused to agree to Teamster demands that he back off from a plan to allow cheap Mexican labor to drive trucks into North America. So despite all the cultural and political affinity between Bush and a union that disdained its own reformers, the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. moved into the Democratic camp—which, for that union, was a decisive shift to the left.

Such changes have left radicals inside the unions with little room for critical distance between themselves and union leaders who are struggling for survival. With strikes practically nonexistent and the GOP eager to make labor as impotent as possible, it is hard to generate an oppositional movement within any individual union—something that was commonplace between the late 1960s and the 1980s. What’s more, as leading unions adopt the program of the left—immigration reform, defense of gay rights, a critique of a militarized foreign policy, and a rejection of the racism still inherent in many police departments—the space for the kind of criticism once put forward by the drafters of the Port Huron Statement has shrunk. Indeed, the most sophisticated defense of collective bargaining and industrial militancy is now found in Labor Notes, the periodical that has been an influential voice of the left within many unions for thirty-five years.

So is radicalism still possible within the unions? Of course. But now, as in Gilded-Age America, the union cause itself is increasingly that of a radical democracy struggling to be born. American trade unionists may have become reluctant radicals, but they are radicals nonetheless.


Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara, is the editor, with Richard Flacks, of The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto.