Fifth in the series: On Organizing
Abandon Ideals All Who Enter: Welcome to the Machine
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 the trends toward outsourcing, plant closing, wage suppression, and the loss of jobs at the heart of labor’s current decline.
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. While an unprecedented feeling of national unity was momentarily forged, rising expectations also fueled the emerging labor and social movements.
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 Keynsian 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 and then 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 on the other hand, was a bi-partisan act of Congress with decisive support from Democrats, who joined Republicans in overriding Truman’s veto. 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 President Truman in 1945. Health care as an exclusive right of membership eventually undermined itself by allowing employers to cry competition and lower benefits in a “race to the bottom.”
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. Private 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 or mid-century social contract, Labor’s political perimeter was set and policed by the politics of 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 at times the most pathetic and temporary forms of patronage — for freedom, equality and democracy. Quite a bargain for the Corporate Power.
I challenge anyone to identify when and where political machines ceased to function as instruments of social control.
Next: Working Idealism In
- 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.
- Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walther Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, New York: Basic Books.