Laboring Forward

Laboring Forward

Judith Stein: Laboring Forward

The friendly interchange between Melvyn Dubofsky and Nelson Lichtenstein recently featured on Dissent‘s website is vital because the labor movement has historically been the principal agent of progress in the United States. It still is. Dubofsky stresses the ?responsible? role that labor has played while Lichtenstein highlights labor?s ?troublesome? function. I think Lichtenstein is closer to the actual dynamic, if he would only trade his word ?troublesome? for ?independent.? Every labor leader knows, or should know, that even the best president will not have the same agenda as the labor movement. The most effective union heads mix opposition with support for politicians who can help achieve concrete goals. The best example is John L. Lewis in 1936. Addressing the nation on CBS radio before the elections, Lewis gave his audience a radical view of the cause of the depression, which FDR did not share, and then urged workers to do two things: vote for FDR and join a union. Despite differences, Lewis concluded that FDR?s reelection would help working class organization, but he never said that FDR would save the workers.

It is also true that Lewis was wrong in 1940 when he supported the GOP. (Workers did not follow him.) But even labor leaders less syndicalist or ?troublesome? than Lewis had their problems with FDR during the Second World War. Dubofsky is wrong about the decision-making of the CIO leadership. Philip Murray was closer to Lewis than Hillman on many labor issues. FDR accommodated to some of the movement?s demands, not because he had no choice, as Dubofsky argues, but because the Democratic Party was dependent upon the unions for votes and the factories were dependent upon workers to produce goods to win the war. Dubofsky concedes that point when he admits that politicians accepted the labor movement because it was a mass movement. It had its own agenda and acted independently of political leaders, like in the strikes of 1945 and 1946. He adds that the responsible labor movement was key to passing the social legislation that is the pride of the 1960s. That is true, but the AFL-CIO always pushed presidents and Congress on the basis of its own analysis, and sometimes politicians were compelled to follow.

Both agree that during the 1970s the postwar order was challenged by recession and inflation. But Dubofsky?s defense of Jimmy Carter implies that neoliberalism was inevitable and that the era of postwar affluence ended because labor demanded too much. In my new book Pivotal Decade I show that George Meany and his successor Lane Kirkland advocated social democratic solutions to the inflation and productivity issues of the day, but Jimmy Carter was not interested. Carter?s austerity was not a sign of political astuteness, as Dubofsky implies, but the reason Ronald Reagan won the election. Dubofsky attributes Carter?s difficulties with the labor movement to the cultural dissonance of a Northern Catholic union leader and a Southern Baptist president. But Lane Kirkland was a southerner, and he had no better luck with the president. Carter had limited experience with unions and economics. Even so, the AFL-CIO supported Carter, not Edward Kennedy.

In another, related Dissent article, Julian Zelizer imagines where we would be if Carter and Kennedy had been able to unite. Zelizer calls it ?the lost opportunity.? But that formulation makes history a matter of positioning or personality and assumes that progress occurs when the center and Left can agree. Of course that is true. But the issues of the late 1970s?rising oil prices, growing international capitalist competition, falling productivity, etc.?could not be addressed in this way. Neither President Carter?s neoliberalism nor Edward Kennedy?s old-time religion would have fixed the economy of 1979 and 1980. Then, as today, politics needed to rise above tactics and required rethinking. The AFL-CIO, with all its warts, was closer to understanding the U.S. economy than either of the politicians.

As both Lichtenstein and Dubofsky have acknowledged, a labor movement comprising less than 10 percent of the private workforce cannot do what Lewis, Murray, Reuther, or even Meany did in earlier eras. Dubofsky argues that these numbers mean that labor can do little. Lichtenstein responds that the primary challenge to Senator Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas demonstrated that labor cannot be taken for granted. Perhaps he is right, but the labor movement must do more than it is doing now. Labor has stuck to Obama?s choices on the issues: health care before the economy and jobs, extension not reform of healthcare, a stimulus calculated by the White House and calibrated by the Congress, and so on. It was Paul Krugman, not AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, who suggested that labor secretary Hilda Soltis was less than energetic in her defense of workers. Rumor has it that the labor movement is going along with the president in order to gain his support for labor reform. If that is true, the strategy is mistaken. There is no evidence that Obama believes that a stronger labor movement will help him?his unsentimental criterion. I think Obama is wrong, but that does not change the situation. And Obama?s failings will probably make labor reform impossible after the fall elections.

What the labor movement should be doing is what Obama is not doing: First, explaining the source of our problem. We have lived through forty years of public policy that favored capital over labor and finance over factories. Labor should state in plain words why the stimulus was less than potent; show that the current trade deficit of 3 percent takes away 3 percent from the GDP. It needs to argue for ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest not because we need to reduce the deficit, as Secretary of Treasury Geithner recently claimed, but to fund a modern infrastructure. Much of this may displease the White House. But there is a difference between attacking the president and charting independent positions. If the inadequacy of the Obama program is not addressed by the Left, the Tea Party critique will stand.

Second, the labor movement should suggest what needs to be done. Neoliberalism was not simply an agenda which benefited capital over labor but a project which shifted resources in the United States from production to finance and non-tradables, like housing. Americans consume things, but they don?t make enough of them, yielding a large trade deficit and higher unemployment. To begin to rebalance our economy, we could reduce the aid the housing industry obtains thought the tax code deductions for second home mortgages and other measures. Such a change could be coupled with an infrastructure program to employ construction workers who no longer will be needed in the housing sector. Modern infrastructure could be the center of a program of manufacturing renewal?both green and non-green. Manufacturing is important for several reasons. First, if the nation is to export more, it will have to manufacture more. Manufactured goods compose more than half the value of all U.S. exports, and more than 80 percent of goods exports are manufacturing exports. Even in areas where export markets are still closed, American manufacturers can compete with imports. Both will require the government to enforce U.S. trade law. Second, manufacturing nurtures skilled jobs and high wages. Because of its high productivity, manufacturing itself will not provide huge numbers of new jobs that will be needed. But manufacturing does create jobs upstream in financial and technical services and then downstream in transportation, storage, and wholesaling, boosting employment considerably. Finally, manufacturing is a goal that can produce political majorities.

I have not exhausted the necessary elements of a new industrial policy. But a debate over industrial policy is one the nation needs, and the labor movement is the only group that has the interest and expertise to initiate it.