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Labor's Foundations | The Nation

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Labor's Foundations

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Deep in the pages of the biweekly Chronicle of Philanthropy lies the "New Grants" section. The money flow from foundations--from the newly gilded spigots of Bill Gates to the Lillys, Fords and other titans of largesse--is listed in small print that details the purposes and amounts of the bequests. Scanners of the March 25 issue may have done a double take. Among the usual categories of education, arts and culture, and children and families was a rarity: "labor issues."

About the Author

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

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The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation of New York awarded $50,000 to the National Organizers Alliance (NOA), a labor-related nonprofit in Washington that oversees a pension plan for employees of small social justice groups.

In Unlikely Partners: Philanthropic Foundations and the Labor Movement, one of those interviewed by author Richard Magat is the NOA's founder, Kim Fellner, a veteran union organizer. She believes "there is a cultural strain on the left, including progressive foundations, that is a lot more touchy-feely than the real lives of low-wage workers. But I have been talking to foundations about the importance of having a strong labor movement if they want to maintain a healthy progressive presence in this country at all. It is in their interests to look at the whole union organizing sector differently from the way they have been."

If such interest is present, then Magat is a valuable source to consult, offering a reliable investigation into the historical and current relations between organized giving and organized labor. His research is deep and broad, and his reportorial prose is serviceable. A philanthropy executive whose toil included twenty-six years at the Ford Foundation, Magat offers in fifteen chapters facts, commentary and conclusions that are more groundbreaking than earthshaking. Library shelves aren't sagging under the weight of books on the relations between foundations and labor unions. Magat had the field--a bare shelf--to himself.

Historical ironies occasionally turn up: Anti-union, first-generation creators of wealth have often been followed by pro-union, third- and fourth-generation dispensers of the wealth, for instance. Few examples offer as sharp a contrast as the McCormicks. In 1954 the New World Foundation came into the world as Anita McCormick Blaine left it. Her philanthropic will passed along much of the family fortune of her grandfather Cyrus McCormick, and her father, Cyrus Jr., both enriched far beyond their immigrant dreams of wealth. Cyrus Sr., ruler of the boardroom when workers struck the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company--which led to the bloody Haymarket demonstrations in 1886--blacklisted employees who dared have ties to labor groups. Cyrus Jr., irate over strikes and walkouts during his reign from 1902 to 1919, refused to recognize his employees' unions. Preferring to fire pro-labor workers, he operated under the ethic of maintaining "managerial control over the workforce."

From the grave, he would lose control of his great-granddaughter, Ann Blaine (Nancy) Harrison. Under her guidance from 1954 to 1977, New World awarded grants to large numbers of labor groups--from the United Woodcutters Services to the Fresno Organizing Project. In following this money trail, Magat missed a curious fact: Nancy Harrison was the wife of Gilbert Harrison, editor of The New Republic from the late fifties to the mid-seventies. New World Foundation was philosophically aligned with a magazine that under Gilbert Harrison solidly stood with the causes of workers.

Nearly 90 percent of US foundations function on the assets of wealthy individuals or families. In 1996 some 40,000 foundations had assets of $268 billion and granted $13.8 billion, most of that to nonprofit groups. The numbers represent huge growth. In the thirties, fewer than 1,000 foundations existed; the first one dates back to 1867 when the Peabody Education Fund--created by George Peabody, a New England banker--directed money to black schools in the South. The early 1900s saw the birth of the Carnegie and Rockefeller philanthropies.

When these and other foundations appeared, Magat writes, "unions viewed them as surrogates for capitalist power. Resentment of trusts, voracious railroad builders, and monopoly capital was also shared by the public and the owners of innumerable small companies that failed in a series of financial panics and depressions of the late nineteenth century."

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:

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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