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!

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.

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