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”.
When Walt Disney testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he identified suspected communists among his workers and insisted that the Bolsheviks had “really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are, so that all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American, can go out without the taint of Communism.”
Disney’s instinct—to keep the unions “clean”—involved what Fraser calls broad “linguistic cleansing.” (There’s a reason it took more than 60 years for a presidential candidate to speak of socialism in America!)
3. We forgot pre-capitalism
Why didn’t America ever experience something like European social democracy? Fraser’s interested in a different question: How do you account for the rich tradition of American anti-capitalism, from communes to self-sufficiency and rural gift economies?
Fraser says the age of resistance (beginning in the 1880s) had essentially foreign, pre-modern roots. America’s first organizers were aliens. They saw industrial wage-slavery as heartless—“not as civilization, but as anti-civilization”:
Because people back then had come from handicraft backgrounds, or were independent farmers, or were skilled artisans, or were peasants from southern and eastern Europe—they knew that there other ways of living. Not that they glorified those ways, but they knew there were alternatives to the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism, which offended them and which was driving them out of social existence.
Those people were still hunting and fishing. They had their own garden plots or their own workshops or small businesses. They could still imagine alternatives to capitalism. And I think by the mid-twentieth century that recedes into an almost unremembered past. We had left that kind of of life. There are no more roots that take us back there.
4. First came Carter, then came Reagan
The 1981 PATCO strike is thought of as the Waterloo of the American labor movement. Air-traffic controllers, who complained of stress and overwork, made an ambitious request for a shorter work-week and for special status under labor law.
Ronald Reagan—whom the union had endorsed over Jimmy Carter—was the first and only president to have served in a union (he was president of the Screen Actors Guild). But on the day the PATCO strike began, it was Reagan who stood in the Rose Garden and invoked a precedent set by Calvin Coolidge in 1919, forbidding “strikes against the public safety.” He issued an ultimatum, demanding that air-traffic controllers return to the job. Two days later, he followed through: firing the stragglers and banning them from work in federal government.
But Fraser tells a more complicated story: He says that this last great anti-union slide began under Carter, whom he considers “the first neoliberal president.”
In this week’s podcast, you can hear Carter trumpeting his widespread deregulation of sectors of the American economy. And the speechwriter and Democratic Party operative Bob Shrum defected from the Carter campaign when he heard Carter, in private, back off public pledges for black-lung relief, saying of victims “they chose to be miners.” (FWIW: Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source, published a 1977 story in The Atlantic describing Carter as a “Rockefeller Republican.”)
5. The unions go exclusive, and the culture goes consumer
No longer the emancipation organizations of the 1930s, late-phase labor unions turn into what Fraser and others call “private welfare states,” determined to serve their members but all the while representing a shrinking portion of the American workforce. Fraser traces a union retreat beginning in the 1950s, with agreements like the Treaty of Detroit:
The decision was, “We’re not to fight for the welfare state generally, but to fight for it in our industry.” And they won that battle, in the electrical industry and so on: great long-term contracts, cost-of-living escalators, wage increases, vacations—all of that.
This was about private welfare states. And what that meant in the long term was they were cutting themselves off to unorganized workers: that is to say, agricultural workers, black workers in the South…domestic workers, retail and service-sector workers…. They [gave] up that much more challenging crusade for the entire working class.
Meanwhile, consumption set in as the cardinal behavior of the American public—hence the advertising drive to ask the audience to “look for the union label” while out shopping. Together, the two trends represent a turn against the “freedom” felt by a successful striker—of collective strength aimed, successfully, at a common goal.
Today, Fraser concludes with a sigh, Americans find ourselves in a more atomized and fractured political environment, and that’s what drives our “acquiescence” to the inequalities we cannot escaping seeing.
The new union drive
But we may have been here before. In 1932, the labor movement was on “life support.” Then it came back. Amid corporate power and consumer acquiescence, Fraser sees some green shoots. What does a union look like in the 21st century? We asked some of the young workers leading the new union drive.
Unioning Bike Share Workers in The Hub
You wouldn’t know it, because the bikes appear to replenish and repair themselves like magic, but Hubway—the Boston-area bikeshare company—employs about 40 bike mechanics, transporters, and dispatchers. Last December, those workers voted to unionize. Now, with representation from the New York-based Transport Workers Union Local 100, Hubway workers have joined hands with a movement that’s already taken root in New York, Chicago, and Washington.
Even after going toe-to-toe with Hubway’s infamous union-busting law firm, bike mechanic Talia Leonard says there’s “no vitriol” with corporate managers. And while workers are still trying to settle their contract and fighting to make their work safe and sustainable, they also say they love their jobs. While Steve Fraser may be calling for a return to an earlier, more aggressive form of labor language—bringing words like “class warfare,” “scabs,” and “wage slaves” back into the lexical fold—these bike-share organizers share what a newer, friendlier, yet no-less-feisty union effort might sound like.
— Zach Goldhammer.
At Gawker, New Media Grows Up
This past summer, over 100 writers and editors at Gawker Media voted to unionize. “Every workplace could use a union,” Hamilton Nolan, writer and leading organizer, wrote in a blog post about the company-wide push to be represented by the Writer’s Guild of America, East. “A union is the only real mechanism that exists to represent the interests of employees in a company.” On Labor Day, we caught up with Hamilton in Prospect Park in Brooklyn to talk about Gawker’s effort to organize and why working “gig to gig” isn’t always that great.
This project is produced in partnership with Open Source with Christopher Lydon. Please subscribe to the podcast for coverage of capitalism, climate change, arts, and politics, with Naomi Klein, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Lewis, Cornel West, and Ralph Nader. Follow Open Source on Twitter and Facebook for more.