Labor and the Cold War: The Epic Fail

Fifth in the series: The Principles of Organzing




Cold War Liberalism

During the Cold War, Labor unions violated their own sacred principle of solidarity by joining with imperial elites and corporate interests to weaken militant trade unionism abroad — usually under the mantle of anti-communism. By undermining unions, AFL-CIO foreign policy helped corporations exercise global control and contributed its share to the availability of cheap labor abroad. That cheap labor then became a central ingredient in outsourcing, plant closing, wage suppression, and the loss of jobs at the heart of labor’s current decline.

This support for empire was sometimes called “Cold War Liberalism” because many liberals, progressives, even some radicals joined the anti-communist crusade. 

Labor’s own eager cooperation with the Cold War agenda undermined our unions and our way of life at home. That was the price we all paid so union officials could be “team-players” and reap the illusory benefits of the machine: status, minor concessions and patronage positions in city, state and national machines.

The domestic counterpart of the Cold War was the mid-century social contract, also called the labor-capital accord. The truly national mobilization during WWII opened new vistas for workers, women, and minorities both racial and sexual. An unprecedented feeling of national unity was momentarily forged and rising expectations fueled the emerging labor and social movements. 

This contradictory combination of fighting for workers during good times on one hand, while supporting the empire’s war against communism on the other allowed Cold War liberals to maintain their liberal image and radical criticism while collaborating with the ruling class. 

The Mid-Century Social Contract

In the wake of W.W.II, America’s unrivaled economic and political power allowed most Americans to enjoy a remarkable period of economic opportunity. Government promoted and sustained economic growth through a vast array of Keynesian spending programs including investment in higher education. As the GI Bill  opened the door to everyday people, higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post war economic activity. Business and administrative leaders upheld their end of the bargain by agreeing to a rising standard of living for most working people that included such protections as pensions, medical benefits, job security and meaningful minimum standards set by law.1

Unions were reluctantly tolerated as long as labor officials agreed to management’s right to be the sole authority governing business.

Both the limits and benefits of the mid-century social contract were formalized first by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which was supported by Democrats who joined with Republicans to override Truman’s veto of what he called the “slave labor act.” The other pillar of the deal between labor and capital was the 1950 UAW contact remembered as the “Treaty of Detroit.”2.  Taft-Hartley purged radicals, stripped unions of powerful tactics and promoted “right to work” laws, while the Treaty of Detroit set the pattern for increased material benefits for millions of workers.

The benefits of the 1950 UAW contract was the result of years of rank and file power. Such power, dependent on organizing and activism, is always insecure and could in no way be guaranteed by deals at the top.  Taft-Hartley Needless to say, the Treaty of Detroit has been “repealed” while Taft-Hartley is all too alive and well.

At that key moment in US history, labor made an admittedly tough but fateful compromise and chose to pursue private welfare plans rather than commit to the struggle for universal health care,   such as that proposed by Truman in 1945.

Special benefits may have temporarily functioned to motivate workers to join unions but once the peak of prosperity passed by the mid-70s, “exclusivity” backfired and encouraged resentment among unorganized workers making then open to anti-union appeals. Exclusive union welfare plans yielded decisive ground in US political culture: health care or pensions became private matters for “member’s only” not political rights for all.

Be it Cold War liberalism or mid-century social contract, Labor’s political perimeter was set and policed by the Democratic Party.  And, this is nothing new. Since the days of Tammany Hall in the 19th Century, big city machines have corralled first Irish-Americans  then African-Americans and many others since. The bribe: swap narrow self-interest in the form of racial, status, organizational or class privilege — even the most pathetic and temporary forms of  patronage and concessions — for freedom, equality and democracy.

Quite a bargain for the Corporate Empire. As the New Cold War (and the hot wars it provokes) intensified we can expect to see the reemergence of Cold War Liberalism.


Next: Working Idealism In

  1. For more on the mid-century social contract see David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays o the Twentieth Retry, Oxford University Oress 1980 Chapters 5 and 6; Barry and Irving Bluestone, Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business, Basic Books, 1992, Chapter 2; Nelson Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer, On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, University of Illinois Press 1989, pp. 1-16; Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968, Cornell, 1995.  For more see p. 109 Endnote #3, in Richard Moser, “Organizing the New Faculty Majority” in Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System,Keith Hoeller editor, Vanderbilt Press, 2014.
  2. Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walther Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, New York: Basic Books.

About Richard Moser

Richard Moser has over 40 years experience as an organizer and activist in the labor, student, peace, and community movements. Moser is the author of "New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era," and co-editor with Van Gosse of "The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America." Moser lives in Colorado.
This entry was posted in American Culture, Capitalism, Empire, History, Labor Movement, Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Red Scare, Uncategorized, union organzing, unions, War and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Labor and the Cold War: The Epic Fail

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    a real pip! I’m going to pin this one and give it an extra push on social media — sending it to Keith too since he does not follow blogs, not for lack of nudging (to put it politely) on my part.

    I remember readings (but not authors) comparing US and European unions on how US labor traded a voice on the floor for benefits. European unions didn’t but didn’t need to because of better national social nets. Globalization is doing that in.


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