The labor-conservative faction led by American Compass—an ostensibly conservative think tank funded by liberal Big Philanthropy—has an insurmountable problem in converting the conservative movement and the Republican Party from its nearly 80-year consensus position of skepticism of the institutional power of organized labor: Organized labor’s political activities are—and have been for a century—strongly Democratic in partisan alignment and left-progressive in ideology.
American Compass itself admits that union political activities are a problem for its would-be takeover of conservatism. Its manifesto of mostly terrible statist economic-policy proposals included a functionally toothless limitation on union political activities, and it released polling showing that workers’ principal hang-up on forming labor unions is their political activities.
The implied solution to the problem is “get labor unions out of politics.” But is that possible?
The Early History of American Labor Union Politics, in Brief
First, consider the question: “Have nonpolitical or nonpartisan labor unions ever existed in America”? The answer is “Not really, no, and definitely not within living memory.” Let us start our story around the turn of the 20th century. While American organized labor originated before then, the political dynamics become more recognizable around that time.
Organized labor was, as it often has been, divided into two major factions: a craft-unionist moderate faction under AFL president Samuel Gompers and a radical socialist faction led by, at various times, Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood. Both factions played politics in their own ways to their factional advantage. Gompers, who had spent the 1870s and 1880s flirting with political radicals, first tried to work with allies of William McKinley in the National Civic Federation, but later shifted allegiance to the Democratic Party after the Democrats offered a more aggressive proposal to restrict injunctions against strikes. Debs would run for president repeatedly as a candidate of the Socialist Party, of which Haywood was an executive board member until his ouster in the early 1900s (orchestrated in part by Debs).
By the 1930s, the labor-liberal (or labor-progressive) alliance was consummated. Franklin Roosevelt had signed the Wagner Act in 1935, granting unions extensive powers over the private sector including the power to compel employers to bargain in good faith. This duty was not made reciprocal to unions until the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which constrained the Wagner Act powers that Big Labor had begun to abuse. In return for these powers, organized labor rewarded Roosevelt’s Democrats with support from “Labor’s Non-Partisan League.”
When Congress prohibited unions from using dues-funded treasuries to fund political campaigns under the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, Big Labor invented the political action committee to continue its political support for Roosevelt. The CIO industrial union federation organized the CIO-PAC to back Roosevelt’s final election campaign. According to a former CIO official who later admitted to being a Communist, the idea for the CIO-PAC even came from a Communist Party USA official.
The Wages of Corruption and Communism Are Reaction
The end of World War II led to a massive strike wave amid inflation and economic disruption as the military shrank to peacetime size and industry shifted from the “arsenal of democracy” to the new consumer society. In response, the Republicans took power in Congress and constrained union power within the bargaining model of the Wagner Act by passing the Taft-Hartley Act.
Aiding the passage of Taft-Hartley was the spread of Communism in the labor movement as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe. Then-Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan testified before Congress on his efforts to prevent the actors’ union and the film industry more broadly from succumbing to Communist control.
The CIO, the more radical faction of organized labor, was deeply influenced by Communists at the time of Taft-Hartley’s passage. The law contained provisions restricting the ability of Communists to hold union offices. While many anti-Communist provisions would later fall to legal challenges, the anti-communist faction of the CIO led by the democratic socialist UAW organizer Walter Reuther had to aggressively campaign to drive out the Communist faction. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing dockworkers on the West Coast, was so committed to its Communist-backed leader Harry Bridges that he stayed on as union president even after the CIO kicked out the ILWU in 1950. (For his part, Reuther’s UAW funded the creation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as a left-wing student group. SDS would be taken over by Communist and Maoist factions by the end of the decade.)
While the CIO was influenced by Communism, the Mafia was influencing the Teamsters Union, the largest union in the country at the time. This—and presumably the Teamsters’ occasional alignment with the Republicans at that time—provoked an investigation from the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor-Management Field, led by Sen. John McClellan (D-AR) and organized by chief staffer Robert F. Kennedy. The Teamsters were proven to be corrupt, Congress passed and President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, and Teamsters boss James Riddle Hoffa effectively swore a blood feud against Bobby Kennedy and his brother. (Hoffa reportedly was called by his top aide after the news broke of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Upon hearing that the aide had the flags at Teamsters headquarters lowered to half-staff in mourning, Hoffa ordered them fully raised. The aide refused and resigned shortly thereafter.)
One consequence of this blood feud (or Vendetta, to quote the title of journalist James Neff’s book on the Uncle Bobby–Jimmy Hoffa war) was support from the Teamsters to the GOP at the national level and support from federal GOP politicians for Hoffa’s legal situations. President Richard Nixon would grant early release to Hoffa, with conditions, in 1971.
When Democrats nominated the pacifist, left-wing Senator George McGovern (D-SD) for president in 1972, the center-left leadership of the united AFL-CIO denied McGovern the federation’s endorsement. An AFL-CIO political official characterized McGovern’s platform as “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” (McGovern would repay the favor in the late 2000s, fronting a campaign to oppose the “card-check bill” that would have made union organizing easier.)
During the Reagan era, the AFL-CIO may have aligned with anti-Communist efforts, but a new power was rising in the union movement that would swing the labor movement from the center Left to the far Left.
Big Labor’s Hard-Left Turn
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. With the Cold War over, organized labor’s center-left anti-Communism, epitomized by AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland, was no longer relevant. When Kirkland stepped down from the AFL-CIO leadership in 1995, a battle for control of the federation ensued between his center-left faction and a socialist faction based in the government worker union movement.
Kirkland’s more centrist faction lost. John Sweeney, leader of the SEIU and reportedly a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and his left-wing slate swept into office with a plan to tighten the alliance between Big Labor and the rest of the progressive Left. As Heritage Foundation scholars Kenneth Weinstein and August Stofferahn wrote in 1996:
Organized labor has decided to use its billions of dollars in dues revenue to defeat conservative Members of Congress, while also encouraging the Boy Scouts to admit homosexuals and atheists, offering financial contributions to political groups that promote abortion, and opposing welfare reform and a balanced budget.
A decade later, Sweeney’s old union would quit his AFL-CIO, not to move back to the political center, but to align even more closely with the liberal movement and Democratic Party. Both the SEIU and the AFL-CIO were instrumental in forming the Democracy Alliance liberal donor collaborative. The SEIU even housed the Democracy Alliance’s offices in the group’s early years.
By the 2012 election cycle, the SEIU was effectively the Democratic Party’s banker, as the Democratic National Committee moved its accounts to the Amalgamated Bank of New York, which the union controlled.
The contemporary American labor movement is wholly committed to the ideology of “social justice unionism,” under which organized labor aligns in full with the broader liberal-left-progressive agenda. On issues from gun control to affirmative action to abortion to sex education in public schools, organized labor unions aligned with social justice unionism put their members’ money on the line in the service of the broader, non-economic liberal agenda.
For as long as anyone now living has been alive, American organized labor has been politically involved. For the past two generations, that political activity has almost exclusively been on the Democratic left. Even before that, any Republican alignment was contingent, often on circumstances no one would wish to repeat, and a minority position in the House of Labor.
So back to the American Compass poll result. If workers’ principal hang-up on forming labor unions is their political activities, they are right to be concerned.
For more than a century, American organized labor has pursued a political agenda aligned with 19-century radicals, the Progressives, Socialists, Communists, New Deal liberals, Great Society liberals, contemporary Democratic Socialism, and other left-wing factions. Those considering “buying” Big Labor’s services are right to beware.