When Labor Unions Were at the Center of Politics

Eric Alterman explains why labor unions need to be center stage in politics, not sidelined as a special interest.

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In this April 14, 2011, file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Committee. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
In this April 14, 2011, file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Committee. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

In Tuesday’s New York Times, pundit Joe Nocera writes a lengthy plug for Tim Noah’s new book on inequality, The Great Divergence. In his review, Nocera focuses on one of the myriad causes Noah identifies as responsible for the explosion of inequality in recent decades: the decline of labor unions. Nocera and Noah are both alumni of the neoliberal magazine The Washington Monthly, which made its name, in part, by attacking unions during the Carter and Reagan era. Looking back, both agree that neoliberals certainly overdid it.

Many non-neoliberals also attacked unions during this same era. In the case of leftists and others, many of them chose “identity politics over economic justice,” and we continue to live in an era defined by these values, as I argued here. As a result, the “high-water mark for unionism” in America occurred in the mid-1950s, when almost 4 out of every 10 workers were fortunate enough to be “nonunion members who were nonetheless covered by union contracts.” In the early postwar years, even the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed that “collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process.”

That statement would today be considered controversial not only on the far right but also by many in the mainstream media. Over on the other side of the Times’s op-ed page on Tuesday, David Brooks wrote about the vicious antiunion efforts of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as an argument over “debt indulgence,” and pretended that a vote for the man dedicated to destroying the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public workers—denying what even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce once embraced—“won’t be an antiunion vote.”

Rethinking the positions they adopted in the early days of neoliberalism, both Noah and Nocera argue, in the latter’s words, that “if liberals really want to reverse income inequality, they should think seriously about rejoining labor’s side.” To do so, it might help to recollect the example of the kind of leadership the U.S. labor movement enjoyed in its heyday.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, liberal leaders were not much interested in attempting to create a mass movement in support of their program during the postwar years. This was an age of distrust in “the masses,” which were now associated with both Stalinism and fascism among both intellectuals and much of the general population, leading up to the period when Joe McCarthy’s brand of fear-based politics dominated much of America’s political discourse. Still, liberals needed to find a way to push Democrats to turn their ideas into policy.

The one institution capable of doing this at the time was organized labor. Unions had been the linchpin of New Deal activism, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had helped galvanize them in many ways, but most importantly via his successful push to pass the Wagner Act in 1935, which vastly extended the right of workers to collective bargaining.

The liberals’ favorite among the nascent national labor leaders was the firebrand Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, or UAW. As a young socialist, Reuther had begun organizing in Detroit during the Depression. Although his original support within the UAW began with a tenuous alliance of socialists, communists, and other militants, Reuther turned on the communists when they adopted a noninterventionist policy toward Hitler following the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

After a narrow victory for the UAW presidency in 1946, Reuther consolidated his power by purging more than 100 communist staffers from every level of the organization.

“Abe Lincoln said that a nation cannot exist half free and half slave. Nor can the CIO exist part trade union, dedicated to the ideals and objectives of the trade union movement, and part subservient to a foreign power,” Reuther explained to his brother workers. “The Communists are to be pitied more than despised, because they are not free men,” he continued. “Their very souls do not belong to them.” 

This was, in many respects, a turning point for the American labor movement. As historian Steven Gillon points out, of the three largest CIO unions, only the 650,000-member United Electrical Workers maintained close ties with communists; they were significantly outnumbered by the anticommunist UAW and the United Steelworkers, or USW, each one boasting more than 1 million members.

Reuther’s transition from socialism to liberalism came with a proclivity toward deal making. He was more than ready to seek out more civilized ways to do business with business, hoping that union-company relations might eventually mature. Unlike some more militant labor leaders—or Republican-friendly ones, especially the United Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis—he was also eager to cooperate with the government during the war. He insisted that Ford and other automakers could retool and produce planes and the like, and still treat their workers with fairness, dignity, and respect. He also supported, albeit quite reluctantly, the no-strike pledge demanded by the government. “The smart, dancing-eyed Reuther,” explained a Harper’s editorial during the war, “is something special among labor leaders, a person who moves in a world of ideas that includes a concept of the general welfare as distinct from short-term labor welfare.

Following the war and all the concessions it demanded on the part of the unions, Reuther felt he needed to switch gears and adopt a militant position for his workers. The UAW launched a strike against General Motors that demanded not only a 30 percent wage increase but also insisted that the company absorb the costs in the form of reduced profits rather than pass them along to consumers in the form of higher prices, as was customary. In doing so, Reuther sought to break the famous wage-price spiral that connected pay increases to inflation in the public mind.

Even more significant, however, he was making an implicit argument about capitalism that would underlie the liberal vision of the economy for much of the postwar era. “The war,” he said in a speech, “has proven that production is not our problem; our problem is consumption.”

In Reuther’s view—resting, naturally, on that of John Maynard Keynes—everyone would enjoy greater prosperity from a demand-driven full-employment economy. Corporate profits would be ensured by high-volume production, which would enable prices to remain low and the fruits of capitalism to spread outward in a virtuous circle of increased distribution, technological innovation, and greater leisure time for all. Growth would float almost all boats, and the welfare state and the Social Security net could assist those in danger of sinking without them.

Reuther made certain to frame the UAW’s agenda in terms not just of its members’ economic interests but also those of all workers and, indeed, of all Americans.

“We are not going to operate,” Reuther explained, “as a narrow economic pressure group which says ‘we are going to get ours and the public be damned’ or ‘the consumer be damned.’ … we want to make progress with the community and not at the expense of the community.”

It was a fight for which many leading liberals were eager to enlist. The Nation praised Reuther for “fighting the government’s battle and the consumer’s battle,” while The New Republic saw the “most advanced unions” following Reuther’s lead, acting “not only in the interest of their members but in the interest of sound national policy as well.”

Reuther fought militant battles against General Motors. Some strikes succeeded, some failed. Ultimately, in 1948—and following a failed assassination attempt—Reuther did win his workers a major victory: a cost-of-living adjustment that tied pay to prices and overtime, and produced almost all of the autoworkers’ wage increases for a generation. The agreement also included more generous pensions and benefits and obviated the need for future strikes.

What made Reuther unique was that he cared about more than just his own rank and file. In a time when so many labor leaders appeared to the public as fat-cat bureaucrats—C. Wright Mills called them “new men of power,” and “managers of discontent” in an otherwise supportive treatment of them—Reuther projected a different image entirely. His own brand of democratic socialism was converted to liberal anticommunism, but he never gave up on his belief that a labor movement ought to fight for more than just its members’ material interests. In doing so, his leadership would provide a crucial pillar of postwar liberalism.

Reuther was a leader in the forging of a new, proudly anticommunist version of liberalism, manifesting itself in the organization Americans for Democratic Action, as well as playing an absolutely fundamental role in support of the civil rights movement two decades later. Indeed, he successfully joined the two.

While George Meany’s AFL-CIO kept itself safely at arm’s length from the movement, Reuther and the UAW worked tirelessly with the aging but much admired labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph out to the rest of the largely white labor brotherhood. From the beginning of his union presidency, Reuther had confronted racism in southern locals of the UAW, albeit with mixed results. He helped raise significant sums for bail in order to help keep them going and was particularly thrilled when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited him to address the 1963 March on Washington. He would deliver one of the day’s most salient speeches, at least from President Kennedy’s standpoint, when he proclaimed, “We cannot defend freedom in Berlin so long as we deny freedom in Birmingham!” 

Obviously, Reuther lived in different times and under quite different circumstances. But one obvious lesson one can draw from his success was the need for labor to insist on its centrality to the political life of the nation and to act this way as well. In those days labor leaders were negotiating not only for their own workers but also for much of the workforce. They concerned themselves with foreign policy, political philosophy, and the moral health of the nation.

Today we have allowed labor to become perceived as just another special interest, making workers vulnerable to assaults like Gov. Walker’s, and to the apathy of the rest of us. But liberalism was strong when labor was strong. Both sides may have been responsible for the failure to see the mutual interests of labor with civil rights, feminism, anticommunism, immigration, and environmental issues. But both sides must now see that the only path to the restoration of the rights they believe in is by placing labor at the center of our story, where the power of money currently reigns supreme.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also The Liberal Media columnist for The Nation. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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