March 2011, Week 2


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Tue, 8 Mar 2011 20:35:12 -0500
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The Long History of Labor Bashing

By Nelson Lichtenstein

Progressive America Rising (via Chronicle Review)
    The Left-Progressive Wing of the Coalition that
    elected Obama, formerly 'Progressives for Obama,'
    now pushing forward!

March 8, 2011


[Note: Original posting: The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 6, 2011 -

Submitted to Portside by the author for re-posting]

When he was still President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm
Emanuel, now mayor-elect of Chicago, famously quipped: "Never
allow a crisis to go to waste."

Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and
other states have certainly taken that advice to heart. By
emphasizing, and in some cases manipulating, the red ink
flowing through so many state budgets, they have leveraged
the crisis to strike a body blow at the public-sector unions
that represent so many teachers, professors, social workers,
and municipal employees. The collective-bargaining rights of
the police and firefighters, often a privileged caste, are
also being threatened in some states.

Unionists and Democrats denounce this as opportunism, and in
Wisconsin they have made the case that there is hardly a
fiscal crisis at all, that public-employee wages and pensions
are not out of line with those in the private sector, and
that collective bargaining works pretty well. Neither the
Wisconsin Counties Association nor the League of Wisconsin
Municipalities was consulted by Gov. Scott Walker when he
drew up the anti-union legislation that he claims is
necessary for the solvency of his state's counties, towns,
and cities. Nor do officials of either group support the
governor's initiative.

But it would be a mistake to see the contemporary GOP
offensive against the unions as some kind of hasty and ill-
planned gambit. Walker's rhetoric and his legislative program
reflect and refract a multidecade barrage by conservatives -
in politics, academe, think tanks, and corporate management -
designed to eviscerate trade unionism so that it will, in
effect, simply wither away. Their assault, both ideological
and political, has depended neither upon the presence or
absence of a fiscal crisis at the state level nor, for that
matter, upon the profitability or competitiveness of those
American companies threatened by global competition. The
collective organization of workers, private or public, stands
athwart their vision of how markets should work and the
polity should function.

This right-wing critique of trade unionism has often been
contradictory and inconsistent. At the turn of the 20th
century, many establishment figures in the news media and
politics saw the unionism of their era as but a manifestation
of immigrant radicalism, often violent and subversive. After
World War I, the business offensive against the unions went
by the name of "The American Plan," with the American Legion
and other patriotic groups often serving as the antilabor
militants who broke picket lines and physically manhandled
union activists.

At the very same moment, a quite contradictory discourse,
which portrayed the unions as retrograde rather than radical,
was emergent. Progressives, as well as conservatives, often
denounced unions as self-serving job trusts, corrupt and
parasitic enterprises linked to ethnic politicians and
underworld figures. As early as 1903, the celebrated
journalist Ray Stannard Baker saw unions as "a close monopoly
in which all health-giving competition is completely shut
out." Of one "labor boss," Baker wrote: "Ignorant, a bully, a
swaggerer, a criminal in his instincts ... he yet possesses
those curious Irish faculties of leadership, that strange
force of personality, that certain loyalty to his immediate
henchmen familiar among ward politicians." This discourse has
its contemporary echo in the rhetoric of conservative
politicians like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has
labeled public-employee unions "special interests" who
exploit the "overburdened taxpayers of New Jersey," thereby
creating "two classes of citizens."

The New Deal pushed aside that kind of faux populism and gave
to the trade-union movement both a legal and ethical
legitimacy, endorsed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
as a counterweight to the concentrated power of corporations
and as the embodiment of the industrial democracy necessary
to revitalize a larger American democracy. In the process,
union membership grew from less than three million in 1933 to
more than 14 million by the end of the 1940s. By the 1950s,
unions enrolled one in three nonfarm workers.

Social scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset and historians
like Robert Zieger once thought that the era from the end of
World War II to the mid-1970s constituted a sort of golden
age in which business management and a good slice of the
Republican Party came to coexist with unions - and perhaps
even see their value as a source of economic stability and
social conservatism. A.H. Raskin, the veteran labor reporter
for The New York Times, wrote that labor and management were
engaged in a "live-and-let-live relationship rather than
endless confrontations." After all, unions had purged
themselves of Communists, endorsed the cold war, and
moderated their bargaining demands.

But the "labor-management accord" of those years was at best
a brittle truce in which each side probed for weakness and
division on the other side. Businessmen denounced "monopoly
unionism," i.e. industrywide bargaining in auto, steel, and
trucking; and Southern and Rocky Mountain state politicians
took advantage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to pass state
"right-to-work" laws that undercut the organizational
strength of labor by proscribing any collective-bargaining
contract that made union membership a requirement for
employment in any given workplace. By the late 1950s, a
corporate-financed National Right to Work Committee was
sponsoring referenda to enact such laws in many of the big
industrial states, arguing that compulsory union dues were an
immoral power grab and an economic burden on unwilling
workers. Wisconsin's Walker echoes that kind of right-wing
sentiment when he suggests that teachers and other state
employees could save upward of a $1,000 a year, if only they
kept their dues for themselves.

Although conservatives lost most "right to work" referenda,
the Republican Party's anti-union wing was growing. As the
journalist and historian Rick Perlstein has shown in his 2001
biography of Sen. Barry Goldwater - Before the Storm: Barry
Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus - the
Arizonan's candidacy was fueled by the anti-union passion of
a heretofore invisible corps of small-town businessmen and
midsize manufacturers who disdained both the unions and the
big corporations that bargained with them. In Wisconsin the
politically influential Kohler family, who waged a decade-
long battle against the United Automobile Workers to keep
their porcelain works nonunion, were among Goldwater's key
backers. Goldwater, in fact, devoted far more print and
energy to a denunciation of domestic unions than homegrown
Communists in his 1960 book, The Conscience of a
Conservative, which launched his presidential quest.

The rise of the right within the Republican Party coincided
with the spectacular growth of public-sector unionism in the
1960s and 1970s. To conservatives, that brand of unionism
soon became linked to, and responsible for, all the urban
ills and fiscal maladies that befell American cities during
the years of slow growth and high inflation of the 1970s. As
the historians Joseph A. McCartin and Jean-Christian Vinel
show in a forthcoming biography, a key ideological figure
here was the Wake Forest legal scholar Sylvester Petro, who
developed a critique of public-sector unionism that amounted
to a modern-day abolitionism, startling and extreme in an era
when municipal unionism was linked, as in Memphis and New
York, to the rise of the civil-rights movement.

Drawing upon the same kind of libertarian analysis that
Friedrich A. von Hayek had deployed in his The Road to
Serfdom (1944), Petro foresaw public-sector unionism as "a
fatal threat to popular sovereignty" and, therefore, a
slippery slope leading to governmental tyranny. In the 1970s,
he warned that an effort by Democrats to pass a bill ensuring
collective bargaining for all public employees would create a
threat to the Republic, forcing Americans "to take to the
hills and the fields and the caves once more, as our
ancestors have frequently had to do when integral - sovereign
- government has broken down." Petro's alarmist views soon
became mainstream on the political right. Elements of them
can be found in the rhetoric of President Ronald Reagan when
he broke the strike by the Professional Air Traffic
Controllers Organization in 1981. And still more can be found
in contemporary conservative denunciations of the political
influence wielded by public-sector unions that are said to
sit on both sides of the bargaining table, thereby rendering
any settlement over wages, pensions, or conditions of
employment illegitimate and corrupt. That is a point of view
forcefully advanced by the Manhattan Institute's Steven
Malanga in his 2010 book Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy
Against the American Taxpayer.

Today trade unions represent only 12 percent of all working
Americans, a signal testament to the decline of labor and its
liberal allies. But if the opponents of public-sector
unionism win their fight in the Rust Belt states, the victory
will be more than just another organizational defeat for the
unions. It will constitute an ideological triumph for a
generation of conservative thinkers and activists who are now
too often forgotten.

[Nelson Lichtenstein is a professor of history and director
of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at
the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the
author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave
New World of Business (Metropolitan Books, 2009) and the
editor, with Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, of The American Right
and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, Imagination,
forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press.]


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