“We want a better America, an America that will give its citizens, first of all, a higher and higher standard of living so that no child will cry for food in the midst of plenty.”
So said Sidney Hillman, the president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and co-founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who defined the relationship between organized labor and the “New Deal” Democratic Party of the 1930s and 1940s. The relationship was beneficial to both, as union membership expanded exponentially and the Democrats secured the greatest and steadiest victories in their history. And the relationship was close, so close that when the party was selecting a vice-presidential nominee in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly said, “Clear it with Sidney.”
The president did not have to defer to the union leader; FDR had the support of labor. Roosevelt respected Hillman’s perspective on matters that extended far beyond the shop floor. He relished Hillman’s vision of a “social unionism” that sought to address economic challenges and to build strong communities (and which saw the ACWA start a bank, develop housing cooperatives, and invest in research that helped define a consumer movement).
At the heart of the relationship was recognition on the part of FDR and top Democrats that union leaders had more to offer than counsel on industrial relations. “Labor statesmen” like Hillman and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph were brought into discussions about civil rights, women’s rights, and strategies that would respond to the Great Depression and the fight against fascism.
These are different times. But not so different that Democrats should make the mistake of compartmentalizing labor leaders in a way that misses a chance to tap their expertise on everything from education to healthcare to immigration and broadband policy. Unfortunately, that was not the signal that was sent when a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee told The Washington Post Wednesday that, “Because union leadership was represented on the full platform committee, a decision was made no union leadership would be represented on the platform drafting committee.”
It is not just an issue with the DNC. Both parties, and most of our political and media elites, frequently fail to respect the depth and breadth of the insights that union leaders and activists bring to debates about the issues facing America. While business leaders comment on everything—and even run for president—labor leaders are rarely recognized as the experts and advocates that they are. Even allies of the labor movement often miss opportunities to fully utilize that expertise.