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Labor's Foundations | The Nation

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Labor's Foundations

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It didn't help that Andrew Carnegie said one thing and did another. He professed to believe that "trade unions upon the whole are beneficial both to labor and capital." That, from a man who fought unions to the death, as in the violent strike at Carnegie Steel in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. Carnegie was ridiculed from the left and right. One union magazine mocked the dispensing of money to charities when the "immense fortunes [were] known to be the product of cool, Christless robbery." A conservative publication, the National Labor Tribune, snickered:

About the Author

Colman McCarthy
Colman McCarthy, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, in Washington....

Also by the Author

If peacemaking is teachable, why are school so reluctant to offer classes in peace studies?

The movement she inspired--passionate, pacifist and siding with the scorned--is seventy-five and going strong.

Oh, most adorable Carnegie, we love thee, because thou art the almighty iron and steel king of the world.... We thank thee...for the hungry men, women and children of the land...for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves.

Magat is a reliable guide in reporting this history. He is competent, also, in analyzing current relations between foundations and unions. He notes the negatives and positives. "For a community that prides itself on knowledge and broad perspectives," he writes, "foundations often seemed to suffer from amnesia regarding organized labor's part in public policy innovations in the general interest--social security, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage.... Nor did they credit unions for being the most consistent mechanism for closing the race and gender wage gaps, and for disproportionately representing African American and Hispanic workers."

Beneath that generalization are a fair number of exceptions, grants from progressive foundations that directly or indirectly benefit the social justice goals of unions and workers. Magat singles out the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awarded $1 million in 1991 to the Chicago Teachers Union. He writes: "Foundations generally claim to stand above the battle, but many have tackled heated union-related public policy issues, ranging from the Wagner Act of the 1930s to NAFTA in the 1990s."

Magat praises the "new look" in labor ushered in with the 1995 election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO: His "accession energized labor's outreach to old and new constituencies, including the intellectual-academic community, with which foundations have always had an affinity." As "unions build coalitions with environmental, civil rights, senior citizen, and other advocacy groups, many of which receive foundation support, labor's political influence may be expected to grow."

Magat comes up a bit short in reporting the growth and power of anti-union foundations, which are richly fertilizing right-wing organizations, publications and think tanks. He does mention such conservative givers as the John M. Olin, Scaife Family, Sarah Scaife and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations, but only passingly. Some explanation would have helped for this statement: "Liberal foundations have not developed the comprehensive funding strategies, political goals, and media acumen of conservative foundations. Also, the latter vastly outspent their progressive counterparts, four-to-one."

The branches, limbs and leaves of the money tree continue to thrive, as more groups gather around the trunk to shake for falling dollars. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that in 1998 "giving by the nation's wealthiest grant makers soared," rising "by 28 percent over 1997 levels." If labor wants its share, it might follow the advice mentioned by Magat. Labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan wrote an open letter--"Dear Brother Sweeney"--when the new president took over the AFL-CIO, advising him, "Ask to get on every foundation board you can.

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