FOR NEARLY forty years now the labor movement in the United States has been on the defensive and in decline. But for a brief moment, it appeared that the election of Barack Obama might offer labor an opportunity to revive. That moment seems to have come and gone. To recapture it, my good friend and colleague, Nelson Lichtenstein, offers labor leaders lessons from history about how to build a stronger movement.
Lichtenstein draws his primary lessons from the 1930s and 1960s. To prove that he is a realist and not a dreamer who romanticizes an unrepeatable past, Lichtenstein cites Mark Twain’s aphorism, that “History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” To which I would add, it offers no hard and fast truths.
The primary lesson that Lichtenstein derives from the past is that labor and its friends must act as “difficult and demanding allies of our president.” According to Lichtenstein, that is precisely what labor and its allies did during the 1930s and 1960s. Labor and civil rights movements, he claims, “achieved their greatest influence when the Democratic administrations in power perceived the leadership of these social movements as troublesome, unreliable, and unpredictable…” Moreover, he adds that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House advisers worried constantly about John L. Lewis, Phillip Murray, and Walter Reuther “going off the reservation.”
I have read and used the same White House files that Lichtenstein cites, but I draw quite different lessons from them. Between 1934 and 1936, when Lewis and other labor leaders provided the president and the Democratic Party with their firmest support, the president, his party, and the unions made their greatest gains. Union success resulted as much from White House support as from worker militancy and turbulent and contentious strikes.
Such success not only generated growing opposition to Roosevelt from the usual right-wing suspects identified by Lichtenstein, but also created enormous disquiet among elements within the Democratic electoral coalition. In the aftermath of the great Flint sit-down strike and a wave of others that culminated in the violent Little Steel Strike of 1937, Roosevelt’s political advisers warned him that labor militancy, including worker infringements on property rights, were turning many voters and even more moderate union members against the administration. They advised the president that labor’s militant and more radical factions had no alternative to the Democrats, and that it was time to assuage the unease of those made uncomfortable by labor militancy. Hence when Lewis appealed to Roosevelt for support in the course of the Little Steel Strike, the president responded by declaring “a plague on both your houses,” big capital and big labor.
Roosevelt read the common mind more accurately than Lewis, whose response to the president as cited by Lichtenstein reads like the sorrows of an unrequited suitor. Yes, the public that listened to Father Coughlin and Huey Long detested Wall Street, international financiers, and giant corporations but it also disliked “big labor” and its militant, sometimes violent adherents.
Did Lewis gain anything for himself, his union, and the broader labor movement by “going off reservation,” partly in 1937, and more decisively 1940 by endorsing Wendell Willkie for president? Unlike Lichtenstein, I believe that Lewis failed on all counts. His failure would have been even grander had the Republican Party nominated his preferred candidate in 1940, Herbert Hoover, but even Republicans were not that foolish. In the election, Lewis’s closest union allies, including most of the officials in the United Mine Workers (UMW) and union members in CIO strongholds and coal-mining towns, voted Democratic. Only Communist Party affiliated labor leaders and their union loyalists still in their “Yanks are not coming” phase followed Lewis into the political wilderness.
Lewis and his supporters lacked a mass base among the electorate, or in any social movement for that matter. Ever since the labor upheaval and triumphs of the first half of 1937, the political tide had been turning against the Democratic Party and its more leftist elements. In Detroit, the UAW could not elect its preferred municipal candidates in 1937, and the following year labor saw its great benefactor, Michigan Governor Frank P. Murphy, lose decisively in his reelection campaign. A similar swing away from Democrats and toward Republicans developed across a wide swath of the nation. Labor did best not where its leaders went off the reservation but rather where they remained committed parts of a New Deal coalition, such as in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or New York’s American Labor Party. AFL officials were similarly shrewd, operating cooperatively with the White House while simultaneously forming tactical alliances with business and Republican critics of the New Deal.
When war came in December 1941, it was labor leaders like Sidney Hillman, Philip Murray, and William Green who played roles in shaping wartime labor policies that would provide unions with their greatest absolute membership gains in U.S. history. Roosevelt and the Democrats allowed such policies not because they feared troublesome, demanding labor leaders but because the demands of war and labor scarcity left them no choice. Yes, Lewis won his union members material gains denied other workers through strikes held on the eve of war and again in 1943. But those UMW victories came at a great political cost for the larger labor movement; Lewis became the personification of union greed and a primary reason for the belief that the power of unions had to be curbed.
By the end of the war, unions had reached the peak of their power in U.S. history, having organized nearly one third of the non-agricultural labor force. Neither employers, who would have preferred to operate without unions, nor politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats, could disregard a movement that incorporated a third of the labor force and a larger proportion of the electorate. Labor’s political influence came not from its leaders acting as “difficult and demanding allies” ever ready to go “off the reservation,” but from its role as a mass movement.
The triumphs of the civil rights movement during the 1960s also came not because Martin Luther King Jr. threatened to leave the reservation and give LBJ hell, but because the labor movement and civil rights leaders cooperated with the White House in its efforts to amass an anti-filibuster majority in the Senate. For a brief time the political coalition that Bayard Rustin had called for in his Commentary article, “From Protest to Politics,” paid off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During the good years for labor between 1945 and 1973, and even during the bad years that followed, union leaders, by working cooperatively within the corridors of power, won legislation that benefited the vast majority of citizens. Without labor’s lobbying influence and the votes of its members, civil rights legislation may have failed, the minimum wage would not have been raised regularly, and Social Security would not have been extended to increasing numbers of citizens, with expanded benefits. Nor would Medicare have been passed. As the political scientist Karen Orren observed, labor served as the core constituency of twentieth-century American liberalism. But it did not achieve the reforms in labor law needed to maintain and increase union membership.
FOR MORE than three decades, liberalism has been in retreat, as has the labor movement. Today unions cannot even claim as members 8 percent of employees in the private sector, and their far larger proportion of members in the public sector has come under relentless criticism and attack. Unions have yet to bring the primary goal of labor law reform, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), before Congress. Do the lessons that Lichtenstein draws from the 1930s and 1960s offer grounds for altering this dire reality? I think not, and more recent history as well as the history of the FDR and LBJ years shows why.
The 1976 election returned the Democrats to power, and the AFL-CIO trumpeted its contribution to Jimmy Carter’s victory. For the next four years, labor leaders behaved precisely as Lichtenstein recommends. Led by an obstreperous George Meany, union leaders proved themselves a troublesome and difficult presence. As the labor secretary and good friend to trade unionists Ray Marshall noted, Meany did not even speak Carter’s language–Southern Baptist. Committed to frugal management of the federal budget, the president refused to spend money on an ambitious jobs program when his economic advisers told him that such expenditures would only serve to intensify the then-record level of inflation. They also advised him that the best way to advance his political fortunes was by taking the offensive against union leaders whose labor market “monopolies” fostered wage-generated inflation, lower wages for nonunion members, and unemployment for young workers.
Carter’s political advisers assured him that women and minorities, the other core elements of the Democratic electoral coalition, could be satisfied with cost-free measures like affirmative action, and that labor’s electoral influence was declining rather than rising. That led Carter to offer less-than-enthusiastic support to labor’s one cost-free demand, labor law reform, a measure that lost by one vote in the Senate. The defeat of labor law reform and the president’s refusal to fund an expansive jobs program led labor leaders to break with the administration and to act as Lichtenstein’s “unpredictable and unreliable allies.” As the 1980 election approached, union leaders turned against Carter’s candidacy for reelection and instead supported Edward Kennedy. Reagan and hard years for labor followed.
A similar story played out in the Clinton years. Unlike Carter, Clinton did fight for labor law reform, and the commission (led by John Dunlop) that he appointed to propose such reforms recommended revisions that went beyond those that labor had sought during the Carter years. Yet when the commission delivered its final recommendations, its union members dissented, claiming that the reforms were too generous to employers and subverted independent unionism. The immediate aftermath of labor’s rejection of the Dunlop Commission proposals was the Newt Gingrich-led Republican congressional triumph in the election of 1994 and the burial of the Dunlop Commission report.
Today the leaders of labor seem to have read their history lessons better than Lichtenstein has. Obama has not given them everything, or even much of what they desire. EFCA appears dead, if not yet buried, although today labor has been open to compromise on the particulars. They again have a friend as labor secretary, Hilda Solis, who has implemented reforms that benefit workers and unions, and the president has reconstituted a full National Labor Relations Board that promises to be friendly to unions and truer to the original purposes of the National Labor Relations Act. For good reason, labor leaders have concluded that more is to be gained by working with and within the administration than by acting as a troublesome and threatening presence.
As long as unions represent less than 8 percent of private sector workers, barely 12 percent of all non-agricultural workers, and an even smaller sector of the electorate, their influence is bound to be circumscribed, as is their ability to build a social movement. Lichtenstein wants labor leaders to make a place in their movement for those who think like him and seek to transform unions into his vision of what a social movement should be. I doubt that labor’s vision of a social movement coincides with Lichtenstein’s. Despite its rhetoric of middle-class Americanism, the labor movement remains at its core bound to a class-based version of reality. And it is that core that is missing from Lichtenstein’s vision, in which labor allies with feminists and civil rights’ advocates, many of whom have little in common with workers. A social movement whose members lack class commitments and harbor mutually conflicting goals is no movement at all. Humans may exercise agency and make their own history but only within the bounds set by tradition and current realities. In words written by the French nineteenth-century observer of democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville: “Providence has, in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man beyond which he cannot pass; but within these vast limits, man is strong and free.” Unlike Lichtenstein, today’s labor leaders have learned from hard experience that Tocqueville was too optimistic–that the constraints binding human agency are not so loose.
Melvyn Dubofsky is Distinguished Professor of History & Sociology Emeritus, Binghamton University SUNY, and author of numerous books and essays in U.S. history, including a major history of the IWW, a biography of John L. Lewis, a study of the role of the federal government in regulating labor-capital relations, and a collection of essays on labor history under the title Hard Work.
Homepage photo: John L. Lewis (right) with fellow UMW leaders (Alfred T. Palmer / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)