Labor Watch

Bad Labor Policy Starts with Bad Labor History

Regular readers will know that I look skeptically upon the faction of “labor conservatives” who have responded to the political and economic developments of the post-2015 era by proposing numerous policies that would ultimately strengthen labor unions and the broader woke-progressive movement.

The movement’s principal think tank is American Compass, which has taken substantial funding from the left-of-center William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network as part of those grantmakers’ programs to supersede free-market capitalism.

Bad History

For my sins, I receive American Compass’s email newsletter. The edition published March 30 requires extensive quotation because the error it demonstrates illustrates why we spend so much effort studying the histories of organized labor and the American Left at Capital Research Center.

American Compass’s unbylined newsletter drafter writes:

During yesterday’s Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on the unionization drive at Starbucks, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut advanced the argument we’ve been making since our founding about the importance of conservative support for a healthy labor movement. In his opening remarks, Sen. Murphy said: “Collective bargaining is a fundamentally conservative idea. We’ve lost track of that. It’s rooted in free-market principles, the idea that workers should be able to freely join together to negotiate in a free, open negotiation with their employer.” [formatting modified]

He went on to highlight the history of conservative support for labor, noting that “previous Republican candidates . . . worked hard to win the union vote, to speak at union conventions,” while the partisan divide on the issue “is, in fact, new.”

Perhaps one ought not use a liberal senator from one of the most consistently liberal states in the nation as one’s source for information on the political history of a pillar institution of the modern liberal movement. (Connecticut’s last Republican trifecta was broken in 1974, its last Republican statewide officeholder was elected in 2006, and it has not elected a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives since 2006.)

Those who have studied the political history of organized labor know that Sen. Murphy is wrong. Further, to the extent there is a “history of conservative support for labor,” those who have studied their history know that organized labor played its part in ending it.

What Is Old Is Old

So, in the spirit of fraternal education, let’s do some history. The partisan divide on labor dates back to at least the mid-1930s during the New Deal and arguably extends back into the Theodore Roosevelt administration. During TR’s presidency, unionists campaigned for limitations on anti-strike injunctions and received a more welcoming hearing from the Democratic Party than the then-ruling Republicans. By the Woodrow Wilson administration, the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act (which, in theory, limited these injunctions) secured labor’s support for the Democrats of the Progressive Era.

In the “modern era” of American labor relations that began with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, the Democrats have consistently aligned with organized labor, expanding its powers and nationalizing its goals when in office and defending its position when not in office. The NLRA, incidentally, defines how decidedly unfree the current collective-bargaining regime is. The law and its practical consequences compel bargaining exclusively with a majority union, meaning that private-sector workers who think they could get a better deal without one must accept the union contract anyway, and in 24 states (now once again including Michigan, which not coincidentally has its first Democratic trifecta in over three decades) pay for the “privilege” or lose their jobs.

Labor has returned the favor. When Congress banned direct contributions from union treasuries to candidates in the early 1940s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations—the heavily Communist-influenced faction of industrial unions—invented the political action committee to circumvent the prohibition and support Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth election campaign.

Labor’s New Left, in Brief

While the labor-Democratic alliance (formally memorialized in the official name of the state Democratic party for Minnesota, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) is generations old, the depth of that alliance has grown over time. As the old Southern Democrats (like Sen. John McClellan of the Rackets Committee) passed from the scene, the Democratic scrutiny of organized labor that helped enact the Taft-Hartley Act and Landrum-Griffin Act also passed. Likewise, as the often less-than-scrupulous leadership of unions like the Teamsters exited, the possibility that unions would consider supporting conservatives fell away.

But it was more than personalities that calcified the labor-Democratic alliance: Great forces in American life and politics did their parts. Since the 1950s, increasing numbers of government workers, people literally dependent on Big Government for their daily bread, have been granted collective bargaining powers and unionized. The close of the 1960s drew alumni of Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and other New Left factions into labor organizing. And the sclerosis in manufacturing created in part by union labor rules bled members from the private-sector union movement as Western Europe and Japan ramped up their production recovery from World War II.

The consequence of these forces was the rise of modern social justice unionism. While some crusading leftists in the labor movement (most notably Walter Reuther, long-time head of the United Auto Workers and leader of the non-communist faction of the CIO) had intervened in support of the social progressives of their time, large sections of the labor movement remained neutral. The AFL-CIO even denied George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, its endorsement for president because of his left-wing foreign policy.

But by the 1990s, the great forces and the trends they had unleashed had fundamentally changed Big Labor. New Dealer-Cold Warriors in the mold of former AFL-CIO leader Lane Kirkland were out. Democratic Socialists and anti–First Gulf War campaigners like then-SEIU president John Sweeney, who won the federation leadership in 1995, were in. Kirkland had been a merchant mariner during World War II and then joined the AFL-CIO. In the AFL-CIO, he rose to become one of former plumber George Meany’s chief lieutenants and an occasional speechwriter for Vice President Alben W. Barkley (D) and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson (D) during their vice presidential and presidential campaigns. Sweeney rose through the ranks of the SEIU and left-wing organizing, merging the union with government-worker and parastatal unions and recommitting it to “progressive” movement building.

Why We Read History

Sweeney’s successors have continued Sweeney’s left-wing program, a development one must presume is related to Sen. Murphy’s praise of their institutions. But in their public statements, American Compass and its associated network deny that they want to advance a non-economic left-wing agenda, promoting their statist economic agenda as the best way to advance a right-leaning social agenda.

And this is why one must study the history of left-of-center movements: how they behave, how they operate, and from where they arise. Even if one wishes to break with a supposed “market fundamentalist” “dead consensus” that guided conservative activism for a generation (it didn’t, but that’s misremembered political history, not misremembered labor history), one must take care that one is not unwittingly enabling the broader woke-progressive assault on American culture. This assault is currently being demonstrated by another favored policy of the statist right, the CHIPS Act industrial policy, which the Biden administration is using to push all sorts of other social-liberal agendas that Congress refused to pass when it let the administration’s Build Back Better plan die.

In the quest to avoid unintended consequences, a firm historical knowledge is a wise and prudent guide. At the very least, it can lead one to properly discount the partisan rambling of a partisan senator who may not have one’s best policy interests in mind.

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
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