EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of three installments in a podcast series on American work co-presented by The Nation and Open Source with Christopher Lydon, a weekly program on Boston’s WBUR. Next episode, we’ll feature conversations with Barbara Ehrenreich, Astra Taylor, and Nikil Saval about work in the 21st century. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or listen anytime at radioopensource.org.
This labor day season, Steve Fraser’s book The Age of Acquiescence reminds us that America’s worker movement—100 years ago—was a rather militant creature compared to today. Then, it was worker militias, “bread and roses,” and unabashed class conflict; now, it’s defense and dwindling membership, and disappointing Democrats. How did we get here? Is there still power in a union?
Above is a timeline of the capsule history of the rise and fall of organized labor in America over almost 150 years. But Fraser’s history goes beyond the highlights to include more than a few surprising turns. Here are our five favorites from our conversation.
1. FDR bailed out American capitalism
Steve Fraser reminds us that Franklin Roosevelt, even as he won the hatred of the plutocrats, conceived of the New Deal as a way to civilize—and save—a capitalist system in what appeared to be its “terminal crisis.” The New Deal brought corrective changes long favored by labor unions, including outlawing child labor, imposing mandatory wage-and-hour laws and safety regulations, establishing affordable tenement housing and promoting public health.
But as the American standard of living began its world-leading climb, the changeover to a fundamentally different economy—to European-style social democracy, peopled with a Labor Party and a strong single-payer state—didn’t follow. Fraser writes:
From this time forward , all criticisms of capitalism from the left, no matter how militantly or defensively expressed, accepted the underlying framework of civilized capitalism installed by the New Deal. If that system failed to deliver the goods, so to speak, or violated the newly established elementary rights of working people, then it should be called to account. But not otherwise.
It was in the post-Deal context that Walter Reuther of the UAW, pioneer of the sit-down strike in the 1930s, signed the 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors management: trading the right to strike and bargain over some issues for pensions and other employee benefits.
2. The McCarthy era contaminated our vocabulary
When asked about the first great defeat of organized labor in America, Fraser doesn’t point to a failed strike or a single piece of legislation. He points to the McCarthy years. It wasn’t just public service but public language that was purged: there would be no more talk of “wage-slaves” or “plutocrats”—or even of “capitalism.” A 1955 Army pamphlet on spotting communists advises that communists might use phrases like:
“McCarthyism,” violation of civil rights, racial or religious discrimination, immigration laws, anti-subversive legislation, any legislation concerning labor unions, the military budget, “peace”.