Labor’s Role in the Obama Era: A Troublesome and Unreliable Ally?

Labor’s Role in the Obama Era: A Troublesome and Unreliable Ally?

Lichtenstein: Labor in the Obama Era

WITH A perilous set of midterm elections on the horizon, it would be understandable if labor and its liberal allies just closed ranks with President Obama and the Democrats, downplayed any disappointment they might feel, and muted their critique of his often lukewarm liberalism. After all, if the Republicans take one or both houses of Congress, then the whole Obama presidency will be in danger.

As every good unionist knows, solidarity is a great thing, but in this case it is the wrong prescription for the American labor movement. Instead, the unions and other labor partisans should be difficult and demanding allies of our president. History shows that such a posture would generate the greatest political and organizational dividend, for labor as well as any insurgent group that seeks to transform American politics and policy. To show what I mean, let’s take a look at two eras of labor and social movement success—the 1930s and the 1960s—in order to win a few insights that might be useful for our own times. As Mark Twain once wrote, “History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”

There are three points to be made about such times past. First, conservative movements and right-wing ideas actually grow more extreme in eras of liberal and labor reform. We know that is true today, but it was also true at other moments of change or potential change in twentieth-century U.S. history. Second, when a Democratic administration is in power, the most potent and efficacious strategy for labor and its leadership is to be—and be seen as—a troublesome, even unreliable ally. And third, the labor movement needs to be, and be seen as, a social movement. This does not come without organizational costs. It is a dangerous strategy, but such a transformation is essential if anything resembling an organized labor movement is to survive.

WE SOMETIMES look at past moments of victory through rose-colored glasses, but neither the era of the New Deal nor that of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s were times of uncontested liberalism. They were also times of mobilization, a renewal of ideas, and activism on the Right. The opponents of reform were not always out-of-touch reactionaries. They were often innovative and aggressive men and women who would later achieve power and position when the political winds tilted in their direction.

The Right grew in these eras not because of too much radicalism on the part of labor and civil rights activists, but because any great reform, no matter how carefully put forward, polarizes a society. The rise of labor in the 1930s created a kind of civil war even within the working class. It was mainly nonviolent, and it would later subside, but such polarities can be expected whenever many Americans, even some that one might expect to be allies, see change as a subversion of their religious or ideological worldview. In the 1930s that social and ideological civil war divided not just American parties, but also churches, factories, and many communities. Anti-labor and anti-FDR rhetoric was pervasive in the years of the Great Depression, even as the unions triumphed at Flint and Pittsburgh and in the mines and mills of countless smaller towns.

One of the great right-wing demagogues of that time was Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Royal Oak, Michigan who pioneered the use of radio for sermons and political talk. He was a brilliant speaker whose audience far exceeded, in comparative terms, the reach of Fox News and its most flamboyant pundits. Coughlin had been a supporter of FDR and labor in 1933 and 1934 because he hated the big banks, the big corporations, and the Depression itself. “Roosevelt or Ruin” was the slogan he deployed when FDR ran for president in 1932.

Indeed, Coughlin thought that Wall Street and the Communists were the twin evils of a secular Satanism subverting the virtuous citizens of the United States. And as Elizabeth Warren has reminded us in such compelling fashion, Americans really do mistrust the bankers and the speculators of that New York street, today as much as eighty years ago.

Father Coughlin broke with FDR when he realized that the New Deal would regulate Wall Street, not abolish it; and because Coughlin and some other conservative Catholics believed that the new, militant industrial unions, who deployed as organizers lots of socialists and Communists and other kinds of secularists, were stealing the loyalty of their own parishioners right out from under them. Indeed, it was the success of the UAW-CIO right in Coughlin’s own Detroit that sent him into a frenzy of anti-labor, anti-Semitic, and anti-FDR invective. To Coughlin, the New Deal was a Jewish plot and the UAW a red front. Sinclair Lewis was thinking of people like Father Coughlin, as well as Huey Long, the roughshod governor of Louisiana, when he published in 1935 It Can’t Happen Here, a novel which imagined a fascist dictatorship come to America.

Father Coughlin was eventually defeated and silenced when the very highest leaders of the Catholic Church realized that he was a grave liability. The Church did not want to force American Catholics, who were probably a majority of all the workers enrolled in the new unions during the later years of the Great Depression, to choose between their Catholic faith and the CIO and its New Deal allies. Cardinal Francis Spellman, the powerful, conservative New York bishop, eventually told FDR and other federal officials that he would stand aside if the federal government cut off Coughlin’s radio license.

The first point to remember from this tale is that liberal administrations and social movements are bound to face right-wing demagogues. To defeat that threat, labor and other progressive groups must go after their base. This is best done by mobilizing their own constituencies, so as to create an alternative structure of meaning and motion around which those on the fence or even deep within the enemy camp may rally. That is what the CIO did to Coughlin. The second point is that there was never an era of good feeling in American politics, nor for that matter an era when labor and its liberal allies could comfortably command the allegiance of a majority of the populace. They have always been under attack.

THE NEXT important point to remember is that the labor movement, as well as the civil rights movement, achieved their greatest influence when the Democratic administration in power perceived the leadership of these social movements as troublesome, unreliable, and unpredictable allies. Labor leaders like John L. Lewis of the Mineworkers, Philip Murray of the Steelworkers, and Walter Reuther of the Autoworkers were frequently seen by the White House as “going off the reservation,” a phrase I first encountered in the archives at Hyde Park when I poured through the files of FDR’s public policy staff.

In 1936 John L. Lewis took a half million dollars from the UMW treasury—real money in those days—and parceled it out to FDR’s reelection effort, but on Labor Day 1937 Lewis denounced the president for trying just a few months before to remain neutral during the Little Steel strike, an industrial war that reached its bloody climax when ten demonstrators were shot to death by police outside of the Republic Steel Corporation on Chicago’s South Side. Declaimed Lewis in his rich Shakespearian voice:

Labor, like Israel, has many sorrows. Its women weep for their fallen and they lament for the future of the children of the race. It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.

In 1940 John L. Lewis, by then president of the CIO, rejected FDR’s bid for a third term and supported Republican Wendell Willkie, because he thought U.S. entry into the Second World War would lead to the same disastrous results for labor as involvement in the Great War twenty years before: right-wing reaction, strike-breaking, and the destruction of industrial unionism.

John L. Lewis was a difficult and sometimes vain individual. Did he win friends in the White House? Certainly not! Did he win respect for the labor movement and policies more to their liking? Yes, if only because FDR and his advisors were determined, on the eve of the Second World War, to ensure that labor would be an ally and that the influence of Lewis, and the politics he represented, would be effectively marginalized.

The same was true of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights leadership in the early 1960s. Like the leaders of labor during the insurgent 1930s and 1940s, civil rights leaders were unreliable allies, because the movements they represented were multifaceted and in many respects uncontrollable. These ministers, students, and local activists were loyal first and foremost to the movement over which they tried to preside.

Although King’s canonization today often obscures the real tensions that existed between his movement and the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, King, like John L. Lewis, was indeed a troublesome and unpredictable ally. When, in the late summer of 1964, LBJ asked King to suspend demonstrations during the fall campaign, King was inclined to go along, but he soon rejected the president’s request because he simply did not have the power or even the moral authority to enforce such a suspension on a social movement then at flood tide. King thereby cemented his own leadership and pushed the president to back with unprecedented vigor one of the nation’s most radical pieces of legislation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally consigned a reactionary brand of states rights to the dustbin of American history.

One other example of this sort: just before May 1, 2006, Congressional allies of the Latino organizations and unions that were about to stage a massive “Day Without Immigrants” march advised organizers to hold off—or at least to have their march on a Saturday, not a workday, when the event would be less disruptive. But the organizers, a very loose-knit coalition, went ahead, and with magnificent results, which transformed a march into a general strike and helped solidify a Latino-labor alliance that did much to engender the massive vote for Barack Obama two years later.

AND NOW to my final point. The labor movement wins when it is broad and inclusive, but the expansion comes with its own dangers. Today, given the dire straits in which the labor movement finds itself, those risks must be courted. We know about those risks and rewards from the experience of social movements in the recent past. The feminist movement provides a fitting parallel. It has transformed America—but who are the feminists, and how do you organize them? You don’t. In the late 1960s and early 1970s when that movement took off, people simply announced that they were part of the women’s liberation movement: there was no test, no membership card, no dues to pay, no line to follow.

The same was true of the labor movement in the first third of the twentieth century, before the codification of labor law and the creation of the administrative apparatus necessary to enforce it. Under those circumstances there was plenty of room for a labor movement to define itself in expansive fashion. Was it an immigrant rights organization which gave voice to Southern and Eastern Europeans recently stigmatized by the 1924 immigration restriction law; was it a movement for industrial democracy, even socialism, in which middle class people could participate, and even become leaders; or was it a community mobilization in which women and all sorts of non-workers of that time could play major roles?

Those questions remain controversial. In the early 1970s when the feminist movement pushed at labor’s door, many women unionists began to organize a group which eventually became the Coalition of Labor Union Women. But would unaffiliated pro-labor feminists be allowed to join? This would have added invaluable energy to the new labor-feminist alliance, but it would also have transformed CLUW into the kind of grouping that the labor leadership of that era might not entirely understand, much less control. So George Meany, who actually remembered similar conflicts stretching all the way back to the Women’s Trade Union League in the 1920s, decreed that only existing union women could become part of CLUW. That organization was built, but it lost its links to the feminist Left.

It is therefore not enough for organized labor to broaden itself by welcoming new forces into its ranks. It must also adopt as its own the students and activists who are now on the outside looking in. It is from those unruly movements and initiatives that a new generation of activists will arise. In courting such individuals, labor faces the unpredictable and the untidy, because the AFL-CIO may well be held responsible for the actions and rhetoric of people it does not fully understand or control. But that is a risk that must be taken if we are to become a social movement once again.


Nelson Lichtenstein is MacArthur Foundation Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. His most recent book is The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. This article is taken from a talk given at the AFL-CIO Executive Board Meeting on March 1, 2010.

Homepage photo: John L. Lewis (right) with fellow UMW leaders (Alfred T. Palmer / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)