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September 06, 2003

No Progressive Policy w/o Labor

Usually when labor in politics is discussed, it comes down to comparisons of PAC dollars contributed where labor is outspent 12-1 by business, and is even outspent by corporate contributions within the Democratic Party.

More than the PAC Dollars: But these numbers horribly understate the importance of labor in politics and for maintaining a progressive agenda. First, even within the Dems, their spending is the only serious financial counterweight to the corporate interests. And despite various Nader types that want to point to the nominal larger PAC dollars by business as evidence of labor irrelevance, that argument just ignores the far larger dollars spent by labor in educating and mobilizing their members for elections and political work.

Conservatives sure recognize this fact, even if they may overstate the dollars. See this older essay by the National Right to Work committee or this more recent column by conservative Linda Chavez. Their hobby horse is of course the union members "coerced" to support candidates they might not like, although they never worry about the coerced consumer and shareholder dollars pumped into rightwing coffers without anyone asking permission. (I'll talk a bit about the ridiculousness of Beck and "payroll protection" in some other column).

The bottom-line is that many liberals and the Nader left often understate the labor dominance in progressive electoral politics, the liberals doing so at times to marginalize labor and ignore their debt and the left to ideologically justify their stupid third party stances. The reality is that without labor money, progressives would be obliterated from political influence by corporate spending.

Labor Dollars Worth More: But the real key to labor power is not the money they spend per se, but the fact that a dollar spent by labor is worth far more than a dollar spent by business interests. When labor spends a dollar, they can spend it not on a one-off communication, a ephemeral TV ad or whatever, but can instead use it to activate members as volunteers, who can then multiple the message to others for free. It is the money of labor combined with its democratic grass roots that creates any sort of level playing field for progressives in the political world.

And this has been true from almost the beginning of the Republic. When labor strength has been high, progressive initiatives have been born. And when labor power wanes, conservatives and business interests have taken over. Every major advance in economic justice has depended on labor support over the years.

19th Century: The first wave of worker organization would help establish in the 1840s the right of public education for children regardless of class in the North. That role for labor is agreed upon by both historians ("widespread demand for schooling from urban workers...Workers supported schools even though they depended on the wages of their children.") and conservative commentators ("The primary supporters of Mann's drive [for public education]...included the trade unions, whose members benefited from the removal of children from the labor market.") (See also this account of Chartism in the same period in Britain, from which many US educational reformers took their inspiration.)

False Dawn of Progressive Era: Broad-based industrial unionism in the late 19th century, after a brief upsurge under the Knights of Labor, would be crushed by the Robber Barons, leaving largely the limited elite strata of skilled craft unions in the American Federation of Labor. This would limit progressive policy in the US for decades. With the rise of new militant unions like the American Clothing Workers Union (ACWU) and the radical Industrial Workers of the World, combined with the Socialist Party, the Progressive Era of the 1910s promised a false dawn of new progressive labor legislation (see Labor's Great War for one good account of the WWI era for labor.) But the crushing of militant labor unionism by the Red Scare and Palmer Raids -- the post-WWI anti-left crusade that makes McCarthyism look mild -- would usher in the pro-corporate policies of the 1920s.

Labor and Rise of New Deal: In New York state in the 1920s, because of the survival of a strong labor movement, there would be a partial reshaping of New York state social policies that would be a precursor to the changes in the national politics that would come in the 1930s.

But the crucial change was the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that led to an upsurge of organizing in the workplaces of America but also to a new broad-based progressive politics led by labor. The vehicle for this change was the first Political Action Committee, the CIO-PAC, which gave labor for the first time a coordinated national structure for involvement in politics. And the result in the 1936 election was a realignment of politics tied to the New Deal. Business substantially shifted its support to the Republicans, leaving the Democrats dependent on labor unions for the core of their political funding and support.

Post-New Deal Surprise: After World War II and the death of Roosevelt, this New Deal politics seemed to be at an end, as Republicans took control of Congress and passed, over Truman's veto, the Taft-Hartley Act, which attacked the right to organize and largely destroyed left-leaning unions through making them ineligible to stand for elections in workplaces-- allowing more conservative unions to replace them.

Still, while labor politics would lose some of its militancy, the surprise of 1948 was the establishment that labor-backed politics still could take on this rightwing assault. With the firm support of labor, Truman would pull off his surprise victory. As this chronicle from the Truman Library details:

In 1948, as well, the labor movement became a more significant factor than it had ever been before in a Presidential election...While the labor effort was helpful in 1944, it was of much greater importance in 1948, when Democratic party organization was weak and defeatist; in many parts of the country the only strong local organization was provided by the labor unions. Labor, of course, had no greater faith in Truman's chances of election than did the party leadership, but it was eager to elect liberal Democrats to the Senate and House of Representatives; its strenuous effort on the part of local candidates inevitably helped the national ticket.
And along with reelecting Truman, tha year ushered in a whole new generation of progressive labor-backed leaders like Hubert Humphrey who would dominate politics for the next generation. The merger of the AFL with the CIO in 1955 would cement both this broad-based political alignment and the turn to less militant politics.

Labor and the Great Society: But less militancy still meant that with the 1960s, even as labor would come into opposition with progressive allies on the Vietnam War, it would remain the prime political backer of the Great Society, both electorally and in Congress. And despite the rap that labor looked out only for its own interests, one particular instance highlights how committed labor was to its broad-based social agenda, even at the expense of its own particular institutional needs. Since the passage of Taft-Hartley, labor has sought to reform the labor law, repeatedly facing Republican filibusters over the decades. In particular, labor has sought to repeal the so-called "right to work" 14(b) provisions of the labor code that allowed states to bar union security agreements in labor contracts.

Yet in 1965, the Republican minority leader Senator Dirksen offered to cease opposition to 14(b) repeal if the AFL-CIO would agree not to resist a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's recent "one person, one vote" reapportionment of state legislatures. AFL-CIO leader George Meany's reply is worth remembering for those who dismiss labor as narrow and self-interested (and Meany is in many ways the emblem of such narrowness):

As badly as I want 14(b) repealed, I do not want it that badly. And the Senate Minority Leader and all his anti-labor stooges can filibuster until hell freezes over before I will agree to sell the people short for that kind of a deal."
This story is from Taylor Dark's The Unions and the Democrats: An Enduring Alliance, which details the ongoing core role of unions in the progressive Democratic agenda from the 1960s to today.

Today: There is a lot to criticize in labor 's political efforts over the years, especially its aimlessness during the Lane Kirkland era of the 1980s, but its central role in preserving progressive social policy throughout this century is undeniable. Especially with a much sharper leadership at the national helm of most unions today, progressive activists need to understand why building the strength of unions institutionally is also a key to gains in the whole realm of progressive politics. Without strong unions, there will be no progressive policy in the long term.

Posted by Nathan at September 6, 2003 11:50 PM