September 10, 2015

What happened to the workers' fight for fairness in America?

The Fate Of The Union

When it comes to the politics of work in America, the times, they are a-changing. Scott Walker overtook Wisconsin, the one-time capital of organized labor, with a divide-and-conquer strategy — now he’s chasing votes on an anti-union platformBernie Sanders, once the lonely leftist in the Senate, has won over working people with straightforward talk of socialism. Union membership is way down since the 1980s, but public opinion of unions is rising after the 2007-8 crash.

We’ll begin a three-part series, produced in partnership with The Nation, on the state of work in America today with a little history. It’s a contradictory story of a century marked by incredible change, of a great boom and then a slow bust of labor power that brings the story current and into the presidential campaign of 2016.


In 1900, a railway fireman turned organizer and politician named Eugene Debs — the hero of Bernie Sanders’ youth — looked out at his country and declared: “Promising, indeed, is the outlook for Socialism in the United States… No sane man can be satisfied with the present system.”

When Debs was writing, 10 percent of Americans owned 75% of the wealth. (That number is back up to around 76% and rising now.) The average annual wage was $438 (about $12,000 in today’s dollars), the industrial work week ran almost to 60 hours, and child labor was still a fact on factory floors.

So individual workers and craft unions combined to form groups like the Congress of Industrial Organizations and American Federation of Labor which organized sit-down strikes and boycotts and nonstop political pressure. Debs himself would go on to win almost a million votes for president at the top of a socialist ticket — against war and for workers’ rights. In short, throughout the 20th century, organized labor — and worker protest — was a central feature of American life.

The question, then: what happened — between Roosevelt and Reagan, between the UAW and Uber?

Our guide, the historian Steve Fraser, presents an important version of that history in his new book, The Age of Acquiescence. It’s the story of a resistance movement to the market’s hard edge that collapsed under attacks and also under its own success. It was a populist politics that was caught up and co-opted by the institutional Democratic Party, and recast as consumer freedom — the liberty to buy — that replaced collective political action.

Underneath the story of the collapse of the American labor union there’s a pressing story for today about what work means in this country — then and now — and how our politics makes room, or doesn’t, for the people who wait tables, clean, cook, and take care of children and the elderly. It’s a story full of surprises and twists and lessons for the bosses and the laborers who still power our economy, and always will.

This show begins a three-part series about American work: what it is, what it could be, and where we’re all going together. Let us know what you make of your own work, how you look at labor unions in 2015, and what you’d go on strike for.

The Story So Far

Here’s a timeline of the capsule history of the rise and fall of organized labor in America over almost 150 years:

But Steve Fraser’s history goes beyond the highlights to include more than a few surprising turns — here are five of our favorites.

1. FDR bailed out American capitalism.

Franklin Roosevelt signs the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Public domain).

Steve Fraser reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt, even as he won the hatred of the plutocrats, conceived of the New Deal as a way to civilize — and save — a capitalist system in what appeared to be its “terminal crisis.” The New Deal brought corrective changes long favored by labor unions, including outlawing child labor, imposing mandatory wage and hour laws and safety regulations, establishing affordable tenement housing and promoting public health.

But as the American standard of living began its world-leading climb, the changeover to a fundamentally different economy — to European-style social democracy, peopled with a Labor Party and a strong single-payer state — didn’t follow. Fraser writes:

From this time forward , all criticisms of capitalism from the left, no matter how militantly or defensively expressed, accepted the underlying framework of civilized capitalism installed by the New Deal. If that system failed to deliver the goods, so to speak, or violated the newly established elementary rights of working people, then it should be called to account. But not otherwise.

It was in the post-Deal context that Walter Reuther of the UAW, pioneer of the sit-down strike in the 1930s, signed the 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors management: trading the right to strike and bargain over some issues for pensions and other employee benefits.

UAW negotiators with Walter Reuther (center) arrive at an agreement with General Motors.

2. The McCarthy era contaminated our vocabulary.

When asked about the first great defeat of organized labor in America, Fraser doesn’t point to a failed strike or a single piece of legislation. He points to the McCarthy years. It wasn’t just public service but public language that was purged: there would be no more talk of “wage-slaves” or “plutocrats,” even of “capitalism.” A 1955 Army pamphlet on spotting communists advises that communists might use phrases like:

“McCarthyism,” violation of civil rights, racial or religious discrimination, immigration laws, anti-subversive legislation, any legislation concerning labor unions, the military budget, “peace.”

When Walt Disney testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he identified suspected communists among his workers and insisted that the Bolsheviks had “really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of Communism.”

Disney’s instinct — to keep the unions ‘clean’ — involved what Fraser calls broad “linguistic cleansing.” (There’s a reason it took more than 60 years for a presidential candidate to speak of socialism in America!)

3. We forgot pre-capitalism.

Many have asked why America never experienced successful capital-S Socialism. Fraser’s interested in a different question: how do you account for the rich tradition of American anti-capitalism, from communes to self-sufficiency and rural gift economies?

Fraser says the age of resistance had essentially foreign, pre-modern roots — a perspective that saw quantified, appropriated wage-slavery as heartless: “not as civilization, but as anti-civilization”:

People back then, because they knew other ways of life other than industrial capitalism — they had come from a handicraft backgrounds, or were peasants from southern and eastern Europe: they knew there were other ways of living, not that they glorified those ways, but they knew there were alternatives to the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism, which offended them and was driving them out of social existence.

Those people were still hunting and fishing. They had their own garden plots or their own workshops or small businesses. They could still imagine alternatives to capitalism. And I think by the mid-twentieth century that recedes into an almost unremembered past. We had left that kind of of life. There are no more roots that take us back there.

4. First came Carter, then came Reagan.

The 1981 PATCO strike is thought of as the Waterloo of the American labor movement. Air-traffic controllers, stressed by their responsibility and overworked, made an ambitious request for a shorter work-week and for special status under labor law.

Ronald Reagan  — whom the union had endorsed over Jimmy Carter — was the first and only president to have served in a union: the Screen Actors Guild. But on the day the PATCO strike began, it was Reagan who stood in the Rose Garden and  invoked a precedent set by Calvin Coolidge in 1919, forbidding public-sector strikes against the public safety. He issued an ultimatum, demanding that air-traffic controllers return to the job. Two days later, he followed through: firing the stragglers and banning them from work in federal government.

But Fraser tells a more complicated story: he says that this last great anti-union slide began under Carter, whom he considers “the first neoliberal president.”

In this week’s podcast, you can hear Carter trumpeting his widespread deregulation of sectors of the American economy. And the speechwriter and Democratic Party operative Bob Shrum defected from the Carter campaign when he heard Carter, in private, back off public pledges for black-lung relief, saying of victims “they chose to be miners.” (FWIW: Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source, published a 1977 story in The Atlantic describing Carter as a “Rockefeller Republican.”)

Jimmy Carter signs the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (NARA/Wikimedia).

5. The unions go exclusive, and the culture goes consumer.

No longer the emancipation organizations of the 1930s, late-phase labor unions turn into what Fraser and others call “private welfare states,” determined to serve their members but all the while representing a shrinking portion of the American workforce. Fraser traces a union retreat beginning in the 1950s, with agreements like the Treaty of Detroit:

The decision was, “We’re not to fight for the welfare state generally, but to fight for it in our industry.” And they won that battle, in the electrical industry and so on: great long-term contracts, cost-of-living escalators, wage increases, vacations — all of that.

This was about private welfare states. And what that meant in the long term was they were cutting themselves off to unorganized workers: that is to say, agricultural workers, black workers in the South… domestic workers, retail and service-sector workers… They [gave] up that much more challenging crusade for the entire working class.

Meanwhile, consumption set in as the new cardinal behavior of the American public — hence the advertising drive to ask the audience to “look for the union label” while out shopping. Together, the two trends represent a turn against the “freedom” felt by a successful striker — of collective strength aimed, successfully, at a common goal. Today, Fraser concludes with a sigh, Americans find ourselves in a more atomized political environment — a “source of acquiescence” to inequality today.

Guest List
Hamilton Nolan
writer, editor, and union organizer at Gawker.
Reading List
No union mines left in Kentucky, where labor wars once raged
Dylan Lovan, Associated Press
The last remaining union coal mine in Kentucky closed down last New Year’s Eve. Harlan County, Kentucky, had been the front line of the bloody war between workers and bosses, and it yielded fruit — from fairer wages for dangerous work to the union ballad, “Which Side Are You On?” and the documentary Harlan County, USA.
What’s the state of America’s labor movement?
Evan Horowitz, The Boston Globe
A profile, by-the-numbers, of where organized labor stands in America today. Since 1984, union density — the percentage of workers in unions — has contracted almost by half, entirely by losses in the private sector. Meanwhile popular support for unions has risen to almost 60 percent after the recession.
This study explains why American labor unions are even more doomed than they look
Matthew Yglesias, Vox
Newly unionized firms don’t fare well in this economy. When union density’s low, firms that unionize face competitive disadvantages — higher expenses and departing older workers — in exchange for relatively little bargaining power. It’s a collective-action problem: how to turn a union-light economy into a better organized one.
On Labor Day, a look at the state of the unions
Vanessa Williamson, Brookings
Our friend, the political scientist Vanessa Williamson, looks at good and bad news for organized labor on the march. The good news includes bumps in the minimum wage for fast food workers in Seattle, San Francisco, and New York, the ruling that allows Uber drivers to file a class-action suit, and unionization in new media, from Gawker and The Guardian to Vice. The bad news? The continued erosion of collective-bargaining rights, the ability to collect dues, and the hollowing out of ranks and war chests — up in the air!
Are Labor Unions Going Down For The Count?
David J. Peterson, The American Conservative
A rare conservative case, or elegy, for labor unions in the present day of Republican governors cracking down on public service workers. Peterson argues that unions protect families and communities and keep people off of welfare, and they just may be the brace against inequality that the present situation needs.
Stanley Aronowitz: A ‘Post-Political’ Labor Movement
David Moberg, In These Times
Aronowitz, a legendary organizer and sociologist, makes the case that we’re at a point where anti-capitalist politics might once more resonate broadly with American voters — and unions are too much a part of the mistrusted establishment. Aronowitz argues for a ‘post-political’ labor movement — one that works within firms to serve their members better as opposed to serving as yet another big-money donor in electoral politics.

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  • Pete Crangle

    Thank you Chris and team ROS for the show and upcoming series. Kudos. Very germane for the moment; we’ve been in this moment for a number of years. A big thanks to your guest. An excellent discussion. I’m working through that reading list. And thank you for that, as always.

    A couple of polemical elephants in the room: Unions are moribund. The economic-political hegemon has removed them from the arenas of relevancy: the economic, political, technological, educational, and media arenas. And the consumer electorate has complied. To rebuild unions without a proportional removal of the economic-political hegemon from its arena of power and influence, one that it owns (by fiat), unions and collective bargaining are a non-starter (at least structured as the bygone era).

    The greenfield of mass inequality requires something innovative within the new context for collective labor, and a major power haircut for the economic-political hegemon. A rejiggering of the arena itself. A massive undertaking, pregnant with brutality, degradation, and upheaval. And it won’t take place at G20 summits, IMF meetings, or Davos, Switzerland. We are seeing pockets of small improvements being made, updates to a minimum wage in some places, more access to healthcare, etc. But, overall, given the status quo, it’s hard to see a massive rejiggering occurring. Of course, that’s always the case. These matters always seem to be a problem of the chicken and the egg, until they’re not.

    Another elephant: Capitalism is not merely a revolutionary force as Marx described it to be, it is an apocalyptic force; apocalypse feeds a collective emotional sweet-tooth in the fictionalized reality zeitgeist that is media driven, one that many people carry around in their hearts-and-minds (entertainment is huge business and a significant contributor to political and economic relevancy).

    Capital markets are in a continual state of destruction and renewal, and those renewals leave people behind, devastated, while offering a rise in living standards to a new class of what are essentially serfs, but slightly better off from previous generations. This is the heart of the matter, from a labor perspective. This is not competition as arbiter or the means of emergent progress, this is a conflict driven, zero-sum game where the bottom feeders are considered resources for exploitation and abandonment when the whim occurs. Can we embrace yet another Jobless Recovery? Apparently, yes. Wall street and the firms that are served by it recover upon the backs of tax payers, while a wasteland of labor is left behind and freed from the means of a reliable means of survival. This is part of the cyclic spiral downward.

    Another elephant: Organized labor and collective bargaining cannot ameliorate poor management decisions and execution (executive and management teams are rewarded regardless of performance). Detroit is an example of executive and management incompetence (along with political malfeasance) that has run the auto business (and the city) into the ground with recurring frequency, even with gains in productivity offered by skills and technology improvements on the labor end.

    It is not labor that ran Detroit into the ground, it is the political and corporate executive talent that did. The hangover of Alfred P. Sloane still persists; i.e. marketing and branding as the center of gravity in product sales, and not attention to changes in market dynamics or environmental realities, especially regarding product safety and fuel efficiency. Add into the mix an end-to-end supply-chain that is both victim and victimizer, and it’s a stew rife for capital market apocalypse. However, the meme of the boogeyman that is organized labor as the harbinger of doom is still present. Observe the events in Chattanooga, TN regarding Volkswagen and unionization. Note the presence of state and federal level politicians actively working to quash collective bargaining upon the verdict of a doomed Detroit, brought to its knees by organized labor. Yet another propaganda victory for those convincing labor to cut its own throat.

    Another elephant: Labor and the left have tended to be joined in mutual necessity. However, neither the left, nor labor, seems to have developed the infrastructural footing necessary to win the propaganda culture war. (Of course, one should ponder for a moment, why the center of the battle takes place in a propaganda culture war?) Part of that problem, and I’m speculating here, is that issues seen through a progressive framing tend defy the sloganeering and pollster acumen for a dumbed down, lowest common denominator agitprop that has been trafficked in by the likes of Frank Luntz, Lee Atwater, Christian Conservatives, Neocons, Wayne LaPierre, Talk Radio, Fox News, Corporate Advertising, Chamber of Commerce, et al. These manipulators can make you think, no scratch that, they can make you feel that clean air and water are not necessary, food, clothing, shelter, health, and education not a primary consideration of our society, and that you’ll be able to put freedom on your non-existent kitchen table in your non-existent home, defend it with massive arms, ammunition, and biblical invocations, and the rest will take care of itself. Add issues like racism into the mix, and as we’re seeing with a hyper-militarized security apparatus or Donald Trump’s provocative campaign, it gets downright xenophobic and dangerous.

    The closest thing we’ve had in mass media with a left leaning perspective (and not explicitly a labor orientation) is John Stewart and Stephen Colbert (perhaps now, Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah?). We should observe they are comedians, satirist, and in a posture of reaction. It’s nearly impossible to articulate a remedy from this posture. And frankly, it’s a burden and lift they needn’t be signed on for.

    As mentioned in this show here, we’ve lost the language to articulate a collective truth outside of a consumer herd mentality. This is no accident. Our education and media systems have played a significant role in this. Our educational institutions have been on their way to becoming factory education farms for years. In too many instances, preparation for the carceral state and slave labor farms. Human beings tend to yearn for understanding and the means to articulate it, but our institutions are failing in this regard.

    Another elephant: We are a hyper-militarized state, both domestically and internationally. Given the perpetual war footing and its associated perpetual profit making for important players in the economic-political arena, there is even more difficulty in cutting through the noise machine and security apparatus. Efforts to do so are disparaged as unamerican and unpatriotic. This was red-baiting from our recent history. Dissent from a neoliberal structure is lashed out against as aiding and abetting adversaries and inviting massive insecurity. The fate of Debs, or worse, is the fate of anyone or movement that gains critical mass and is seen as a threat to the status quo. We saw this to some extent with the dismantling of the occupy movement. Wars warp and twists agendas, perpetual wars leading to profit centers for major political and corporate players warp and twists realities into unrealities beyond the means to readjust them to equilibrium. We should note that an important advocate for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the U.S. Department of Defense.

    Another elephant: Environmental degradation. I’ve stated much about this here on this site. We have been in a situation of movement towards collapse. The collapse is coupled to the rise of industrial capital markets. Organized labor should look at this as a means and opportunity for positioning itself within the conversation. It should articulate the problem and how it can be a means to repair the problem.

    Last elephant: Capital markets and neoliberalism is one of the most provocative and dehumanizing forces, just short of militarized war-lord states or oppressive religious states. The goal of the market is the dehumanize it. That is, to evacuate as much human capital and labor from the arenas of relevance as possible, and to still maintain its position of dominance. Labor, and hence, collective labor as a force for repair, needs to make this crystal clear.

    • Jordan Weinstein

      Some unions may be moribund but not all.

  • GWelch

    This is one of the best hours of radio I have heard in a long time.

  • askold

    A first rate show today, Chris. Should be played in American History classes in every high school and college classroom in the country. Might kickstart something. Really brilliant. Thanks.

  • Cambridge Forecast



    This ROS discussion comparing the two Gilded Ages was masterful.

    The NEF (New Economics Foundation) London agrees with the thrust of the analysis:

    “For years, successive governments have moved to restrict the power of unions,
    suggesting that protest and industrial action is harmful to the economy.

    But in our new report, published today in partnership with the University of Greenwich, we reveal the huge economic boosts that come with stronger trade unions.

    Our analysis shows it is wages, not profits, that keep the motor of the UK economy turning.

    Higher wages equal greater spending and higher demand.
    Trade unions are a key force in ensuring that a fair deal of the nation’s income goes to workers.”


    10 Salamanca Place, London, SE1 7HB

    + 44 (0) 207 820 6300 | + 44 (0) 207820 6301 (fax)


    These analyses conflate Globalization I (up to WWI) and Globalization II (contemporary rise of financialization) and
    misunderstand the novel analytics between the two eras, as I will try to outline in future ROS post.
    The two Gilded Ages were each wrapped around these two Globalization episodes.

    Richard Melson

    • Cambridge Forecast



      Rodrik is a Harvard Kennedy School econ professor who
      reexamines the question of winners and losers in current Globalization/Gilded
      Age II and sees “wage insurance” as the potential remedy:
      “But if this line of reasoning is correct, the main threat to workers is not a Stolper-Samuelson type permanent compression in wages, but the more temporary (and limited) wage losses incurred by displaced workers.
      This is the kind of problem that wage insurance is ideally suited for.”


      2. Professor Robert Lawrence
      also of the Kennedy School makes the surprising point in his writings
      that if you extrapolate U.S. manufacturing employment from the seventies to today along the trendline, you get a manufacturing employment level within 25,000 workers of what we see.
      This implies the deepest change was “endogenous” (ie. from within, push not pull) like the move from farming to industry before it) and not about China ultimately.


      3. Professor Seymour Martin Lipset, erstwhile Harvard political scientist, tries to explain socially and historically why a Eugene Debs (discussed in ROS program setup) thrust would tend to fail in the American context, in Lipset’s classic essay:

      Lipset. 1977. Why no socialism in the United States?

      In “Radicalism in the Contemporary Age”,

      eds. Seweryn Bialer and Sophia Sluzar, vol 1.
      Boulder: Westview Press.

      “Why No Socialism: Two Main Answers:

      Answer 1: American society

      (sociological, economic, and political aspects).

      A new society, without a feudal, class-stratified past

      Ideological emphasis on equality, liberty, egalitarianism makes it hard to persuade
      Americans that they need socialism. US already emphasizes equal

      Mobility: either move West, or fill a job vacated by somebody else who went West

      Answer 2: Factors internal to the various radical movements in the U.S.

      Too diverse (too many languages, since most workers were immigrants in late
      1800s-early 1900s). Also racial divide (working whites didn’t cooperate
      with working blacks)

      Rapid economic growth: Workers better off in real terms than Europeans

      Electoral rules favor two parties; primary system helps these parties absorb fringe
      factions (think FDR–he led a coalition of society’s downtrodden). Harder
      for a third (socialist) party to emerge.”

      These three “outside flashlights” will enrich the Steve Fraser ROS narrative.

      Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The antipodes of the ROS age of acquiescence retrograde motion might be
    represented by the 1944 FDR “Economic Bill of Rights”speech.

    Wikipedia says in part:

    The Second Bill of Rights is a list of rights that was proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944. In his address Roosevelt suggested that the nation had come to
    recognize, and should now implement, a second “bill of rights”. Roosevelt’s argument was that the “political
    rights” guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved
    inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” Roosevelt’s remedy
    was to declare an “economic bill of rights” which would guarantee eight specific rights:

    “During President Roosevelt’s January 11, 1944 message to the Congress of the United States on the State of
    the Union, he said the following:

    It is our duty now to begin to lay
    the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and
    the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before
    known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living
    may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth
    or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

    This Republic had its beginning,
    and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable
    political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free
    worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They
    were our rights to life and liberty.

    As our nation has grown in size
    and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political
    rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

    We have come to a clear
    realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without
    economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.”[3]
    People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships
    are made.

    In our day these economic truths
    have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second
    Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be
    established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

    Among these are:

    The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

    The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

    The right of every to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

    The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from
    unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

    The right of every family to a decent home;

    The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

    The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

    The right to a good education.

    All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in
    the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

    America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have
    been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”


    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    I have a Bernie 2016 sticker on my car.

    The main stream media has no moral purpose, it seems, other than catering to what appeals to the lowest tired and angry mindset these days, for it’s own survival issues. I am lately including the NYTimes. That deficit is what makes this program so valuable though it will be probably heard and reflected upon by the few, and at that, the converted.

    I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. My father was a talented tool and die maker, worked with his hands making precision tools, non-union, and union shops during his long career after the war effort helping to build planes. Technology was making his work harder to find as the years went on. I remember he had previously broken picket lines to get to work. I have a photo of him on strike in his later years. He’s gone and so is his profession.

    I also remember the growing negative feeling about unions in the 50’s and 60’s: the bullying, the bosses, the seemingly excessive demands, workers getting paid high wages (and great pensions) for doing less and less. The unions, it seemed were guardians of the status quo as things changed in the world. Globalization. Technology. The pendulum swang and it had to. What did the unions do for it’s workers to prepare them?

    I look forward to your other episodes.

  • NotEasyBeingGreen

    One of my favorite ROS episodes in a long time. Steve Fraser was fascinating, and his argument that the Age of Acquiescence began with McCarthyism is really compelling. Unfortunately, as we see with the Trump phenomenon, it still pays to demonize and divide in America, all while pretending to care about working people.

  • jefe68

    It should be noted that Scott Walker is now out of the race. While Bernie Sanders is gaining.

    • Pete Crangle

      The Walker campaign is a right-to-work enterprise. His governorship will become a right-to-be-indicted, a right-to-be-tried-and-convicted, followed by a right-to-serve-time. Perhaps, he can finish up those college units in stir and get that degree.