Reply: How Being Troublesome Pays Off

Reply: How Being Troublesome Pays Off

Lichtenstein Replies to Dubofsky

MELVYN DUBOFSKY’S comments are highly useful to those of us who want labor to become a more powerful and influential force in American politics. Like any good critic he gets us to make distinctions, clarify evidence, and think about the use and abuse of historical analogy.

In my essay, “Labor’s Role in the Obama Era: A Troublesome and Unreliable Ally?” I left something important unsaid because it is so unfortunately obvious. We do not live in an era of working class mobilization, strikes, demonstrations, and political insurgencies familiar to those of us who have studied the 1930s or other moments in times when such popular upheavals made politics enormously exciting. I was making a case for labor leadership to become a bit more “troublesome” in their relations to the Obama Administration in the absence of the kind of social ferment that punctuated the rise of labor and the New Deal seventy years ago.

That being the case, much of the critique offered by Dubofsky is simply moot. Unlike the years 1934 through early 1937, when labor leadership in America stood largely in support of FDR and his program, there are no city-wide general strikes grabbing headlines, nor are factory occupations threatening the profitability of the nation’s most powerful corporations. Conversely, the backlash against organized labor which began in 1937 is in no way analogous to the anti-labor, anti-Obama politics of contemporary America. The demonization of labor today is far more a product of a still vibrant neoliberal ideology and Democratic Party timidity than of union militancy on either the industrial or political front. We can debate the extent to which the sit-down strikes of the 1930s really did fracture the Democratic Party coalition and embolden the GOP, but that discussion is truly academic today.

Dubofsky takes note of the poor relations that often existed between Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and the labor movement. Being a “troublesome ally” then did not do much to win labor law reform, which failed during both administrations despite large Democratic congressional majorities, nor did it appreciably shift either of these presidents to the left on other issues. But to be effectively “troublesome” requires more than a petulant attitude—it demands a set of politics that can win friends and legislative partners. As historian Judith Stein has demonstrated in her recent book, The Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, George Meany, the crusty, cigar-stomping president of the AFL-CIO, was progressive and often farsighted on economic issues when he clashed with Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. He could see the dangers of an unfettered free trade regime and of a Federal Reserve whose sky-high interest rate policy devastated manufacturing throughout the rust belt.

But Meany was completely tone deaf to the rest of the progressive agenda and to the social forces that might have been mobilized on its behalf. He kept the AFL-CIO an advocate of the most rigid and self-defeating Cold War ideology, ignored the changing composition of the working class that would soon make many unions thoroughly multiracial institutions, and strengthened the wall that had long stood between official labor and the intellectuals, college students, and feminists whose ideas and activism would eventually play a role in shifting labor from the center-right to the center-left of the Democratic Party. So yes, George Meany was a “troublesome” ally of Jimmy Carter, but his retrograde politics, diplomatic and cultural, did little to pressure or persuade that American president.

What is relevant for our time is the extent to which labor will carve out a distinctive voice for itself in contemporary politics. This is not just a question of pushing the Obama Administration to the left, a prospect increasingly unlikely as Republicans take advantage of the nation’s economic plight to make big gains in the fall elections. Rather, a labor movement which is seen as too close to the administration is likely to be tarred with the presumptive sins and shortcomings of the policies that now seem so inadequate to the task of economic recovery. One example of this came last year during the auto bailout. Because the United Automobile Workers’ prescription for resolving the crisis did not seem substantially different from either the administration’s or the auto companies’, the union and its membership became identified with a special interest bailout that proved intensely unpopular with a majority of Americans, and not just the Tea Party crowd.

In their post-Second World War heyday, both John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, presidents of the coal and auto unions, often adopted policies that were not all that different from those of management in their respective industries; this was the fate of business unionism in a corporate-dominated economy. But both leaders were sufficiently “troublesome” to keep industry chiefs and the administrations of that time unsure of whether they would stay on the “reservation.” That enhanced their bargaining leverage and gave the labor movement a reputation that was attractive to a lot of potential members.

Dubofsky concludes by asserting that contemporary union leaders have read their history in a fashion that will make them reject my advice. I can’t speak for any of them, but I have been told that when I talked at the AFL-CIO executive board in early March, my remarks were well-received by the union movement. Its members support the Obama agenda but are frustrated with the inability of Democrats in Congress and the White House to push forward their program with the urgency and power it deserves. Gossip aside, the important point is to see what labor has actually done to become a troublesome ally, and here very recent history seems to indicate that the leaders of organized labor are acting on their impatience.

Case in point: during the spring of 2010 a coalition of unions spent upwards of $10 million to challenge Senator Blanche Lincoln in the June 8 Arkansas Democratic primary, where she faced Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, a far more steadfast liberal. Lincoln had angered labor and many other progressives by standing against the card-check labor law reform, voting against a public health insurance option, and shifting to the right on a number of other issues. The primary battle split the Democratic Party coalition, with Bill Clinton campaigning for Lincoln while many environmental groups and the liberal blogosphere supported Halter. When Lincoln squeaked through the primary with an unexpected victory, mainstream Democrats redoubled their condemnation of this labor tactic. The money could have been better spent defending other vulnerable Democratic officeholders. “To use $10 million during a recession on beating up their own rather than trying to save the endangered makes no real sense,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant, in a typically disdainful appraisal of labor’s strategy.

But such troublesomeness may well have paid off. Attacked from the left, Lincoln, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee (which holds jurisdiction over financial futures trading legislation), proved remarkably aggressive and steadfast in support of a financial reform bill that required banks and Wall Street firms to spin off much of their derivatives operations. And even with their (close) defeat, union officials were unified in praising the outcome as a strong warning to Democratic incumbents who take labor support for granted without coming through on the hard votes. “It’s been well worth it,” concluded American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president Gerald McEntee. “We’ve gotten more publicity and been talked about in terms of powerful labor more than I’ve heard in the last twenty years.”

The more troublesome the better.

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.

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