Why Labor Moved Left

tags: Labor Union

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.

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. ...

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