Highlights for A Contest of Ideas

One cannot chart a course of social action without understanding the world in which one lives, works, and struggles.

The rise of a system of global supply chains, with their multilayered set of factories, vendors, and transport links, has created a world system in which legal ownership of the forces of production have been divorced from operational control. This shift has generated a system in which accountability for labor conditions is legally diffused and knowledge of the actual producers is far from transparent.

Like the global retailers of our time, they favored free trade, a weak regulatory state, transnational production, and cheap, if not unfree, labor.

Most auto industry foremen took home wages about 25 percent higher than the men they supervised. More important, their paycheck was a good deal more predictable because managers sought to keep a core of experienced men employed even during large layoffs. Such employment stability enabled foremen to purchase solid houses in the better working-class neighborhoods and maintain a standard of living that approached that of the lower middle class.

Freemasonry stood for brotherhood and respectability and propagated a creed of sober self-improvement, conventional morality, and class harmony.

However, on a deeper social and psychological level, the foremen’s union orientation proved a tribute to the ability of a newly mobilized working class to sweep into its orbit whole social strata that in more socially quiescent times might have opposed it.

The Reuther plan nevertheless cast a long shadow, for it contained hallmarks of the strategic approach that was so characteristic of labor-liberalism in the 1940s: an assault on management’s traditional power made in the name of economic efficiency and the public interest, and an effort to shift power relations within the structure of industry and politics, usually by means of a tripartite governmental entity empowered to plan for whole sections of the economy.

Its vision and its power attracted a species of political animal that is hardly existent today: the “labor-liberal,” who saw organized labor as absolutely central to the successful pursuit of his or her political agenda.

The fight for collective bargaining, they argued, had to remain secondary to the more important goal of racial betterment, which could only be achieved by “good will, friendly understanding, and mutual respect and co-operation between the races.”

Others rejected the influence of people who “have always told us what the white people want, but somehow or other are particularly silent on what we want.” “

The union hall, only a few blocks from the Reynolds Building, housed a constant round of meetings, plays, and musical entertainments, as well as classes in labor history, black history, and current events.

The activists encouraged the city’s blacks to participate in electoral politics. “Politics IS food, clothes, and housing,” declared the committee that registered some seven hundred new black voters in the months before the 1944 elections.

With almost one hundred thousand black workers organized in the Detroit area, black union activists played a central role in the civil rights struggle.

Soon after the war, the company began a mechanization campaign that eliminated several predominantly black departments.

But most historians came to see the world of working-class politics as a venue in which a genuinely progressive, multiracial ethos had the best chance to realize itself. This was because the unions, for all their imperfections, were sites of racial empowerment, sometimes within a genuinely integrated context, but perhaps even more as political entities in which black caucuses and factions could emerge in an organic fashion, as they did in unions representing workers in the steel, packinghouse, auto, shipbuilding, and railroad industries in years that long preceded the 1960s.

The responsibilities and expectations of American citizenship—due process, free speech, the right of assembly and petition—would now find their place in factory, mill, and office. A civil society would be constructed within the very womb of the privately held enterprise.

During those dramatic years in the early 1960s, when demonstrations and marches led by Martin Luther King and other militants pushed civil rights to the top of the social agenda, the entire discourse of American liberalism shifted decisively out of the New Deal–labor orbit and into a world in which the racial divide colored all politics.

From the early 1960s onward, the most legitimate, and in many instances the most potent, defense of American job rights would be found not through collective initiative, as codified in the Wagner Act and advanced by the trade unions, but through an individual’s claim to his or her civil rights based on race, gender, age, or other attribute.

That’s true, because this recent advance in social legislation arises not out of the potency of the American labor left, which has been in retreat, but relies instead on the enormous political legitimacy amassed by the civil rights movement and its many rights-conscious heirs.

This is because solidarity is not just a song or a sentiment but requires a measure of coercion that can enforce the social bond when not all members of the organization—or the picket line—are in full agreement. Unions are combat organizations, and solidarity is not just another word for majority rule, especially when their existence is at stake. Thus, in recent decades, employer antiunionism has become increasingly oriented toward the ostensible protection of the individual rights of workers as against undemocratic unions and restrictive contracts that hamper the free choice of employees.

As anti-sweatshop and human rights advocates are now rediscovering, no consistent regulation is really possible without hearing from the workers themselves, and their voices will remain silent unless they have some institution that protects them from the consequences of speaking up.

Thus, the same species of rights-conscious liberalism that abolished racial segregation, ended McCarthyism, and legalized women’s rights has also undermined the legal basis of union power and turned solidarity into a quaint and antique notion.

Rights consciousness therefore transfers authority into the hands of another body—a court, a panel, a government agency—to sort out the various claims and strike the approximate balance. Justice may be served for a particular individual, or even an entire class, but not always through a system of participatory debate and democratic decision making.

In the United States workers have used the new workers rights that emerged out of the civil rights movement to democratize gender and racial hierarchies, only to see their real security and opportunities undermined by the dramatic transformation of a working environment over which they have had little control.

First, the unions must themselves champion the rights impulse so that it does not become the presumptive property of the corporations, the free marketers, or even the human rights NGOs. To flourish again trade unionism does require civil rights and human rights and their vigorous enforcement in every global workplace.

Like the socialists of Europe and the industrial democrats of New Deal America, trade unionism requires a transformative vision to sustain its moral and institutional existence, to link individual rights and social purpose.

Like many other American progressives, both were enthusiasts for Mussolini-style corporatism. Fascism’s appeal to such liberals was found in its experimental nature, its antidogmatic temper, and its moral élan.

The 1935 Wagner Act did offer as its key rationale the establishment of industrial peace, but only after providing guarantees that genuinely independent trade unions had the power and solidarity to meet with their capitalist adversaries on a terrain that gave to labor the economic and political power necessary to cut a negotiated bargain.

In a pattern that really did have a fascist character, Southern elites had long figured out how to mobilize a big slice of the white working class in the interest of a reactionary and violently oppressive racial order. Thus the bitter resistance to the civil rights movement and to the implementation of school desegregation, which reached its apogee in the 1950s, was just the most overt manifestation of the reactionary manipulation of popular white sentiment—a sentiment that had first become apparent when Southern elites confronted New Deal statutes covering crop allotments, minimum wages, welfare payments, worker rights, and voting procedures.

In many of these authoritarian states, opposition movements that were defeated in 1968 reemerged a decade or more later, providing the leadership and a good deal of the spirit for the “velvet revolutions” that brought down the Eastern European regimes in 1989.

Mark Lilla has reminded us,

There was a tension between what capitalist society required of its citizens as producers and the habits it fostered in them as consumers. This contradiction, Bell wrote, would leave advanced capitalist societies without the moral basis they needed for continued prosperity and cohesion.

All revolutions, successful or not, link a transformation of the cultural and ideological terrain with a shift in power and governance.

There were culture wars in the 1930s as well as in later decades; one reason FDR was such a polarizing figure was that he embodied in his administration and in his persona the “class treason” that was so hateful to a generation of Yankee conservatives who had been the natural arbitrators of power and taste for so many decades.

The longest-standing argument against public sector unionism rests on the idea that such collective bargaining by workers in the public sector undercuts the sovereignty of government. The second idea is that public sector unionism makes government too expensive and sets a standard that private industry cannot meet. And the third conservative argument, which reflects the rise in recent years of an intense hostility to the very idea of a welfare state, asserts that public sector unions are bad not because they undermine the sovereignty of the state, but because they sustain it, especially insofar as the state, at either the local or national levels, creates a set of public goods, like education, infrastructure, health care, and even public safety, that conservatives seek to either abolish or privatize.

Trade unions oppose the fragmentation of the public school system, they fight the privatization of municipal services, they sustain the Democratic Party, and they politicize and mobilize voters who would otherwise remain alienated and voiceless.

“Many of the new research people,” he wrote in 1946, probably indicating his own feelings, “are disaffected and morally unhappy: they will their minds to people they don’t like for purposes they don’t feel at one with . . . What some of them really want is to connect their skill and intelligence to a movement in which they can believe; they are ready to give a lot of energy to an organization that would harness these skills in the service of the left. And the left to most of them means labor.”

Mills responded, “By intellectual here we mean humanitarian socialist. What the hell else? So I’ll say so in some innocent, hard-boiled way.”

The phrase “political publics” is important to this typology and in Mills’s mind is quite distinct from the more passive, uninformed “public opinion.” The political publics are more self-conscious, more politically alert communities either of ideology or interest that bring to bear a particular sensibility to the issues of the day. They formulate the ideas and programs that operate on the consciousness of the passive, atomized mass.

Not if “the power and the intellect” are united. And that is why Mills found trade union leaders to be “the strategic elite in American society,” even as he also warned on the very last page, “Never has so much depended upon men who are so ill-prepared and so little inclined to assume the responsibility.”

Trade unions are hybrid institutions—half monopoly seller of labor, half nascent social movement—and their leadership is just as mixed, though not always in the same personage: “an army general and a parliamentary debater, a political boss and an entrepreneur, a rebel and a disciplinarian.”

Here they defended the wildcat strikes that periodically erupted, pushed for a labor party, and attacked those in the labor movement, such as the Communists, who subordinated working-class aspirations for a better life and a more democratic workplace to the foreign policy interests of one of the big powers.

Despite high levels of consumption, unionization, and political complacency, Swados would later write, “there is one thing that the worker doesn’t do like the middle-class: he works like a worker.”

Confronted with the financial and political strength of the most powerful American corporations, the UAW tempered its fight against job dissatisfaction, unemployment, and racial discrimination.

As early as 1945 and 1946 the Communists were overwhelmingly defeated in Western Zone trade union elections by those who remembered the disastrous role played by the Reds during the immediate pre–Nazi era (the Communist slogan then was “After Hitler Us!”).

Thus Lovestone helped erect the ideological Iron Curtain that walled off the unions from an entire generation of New Left activists and civil rights militants whose energy and talent was essential to the health of a truly “free” labor movement.

Some were now union officers and staffers: their resistance, equivocation, and hypocrisy fueled Herbert Hill’s outrage for the rest of his life. Nothing infuriated him more than the complicacy, condescension, presumption, and outright racism that he found in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In 1960 the ILGWU still traded on its socialist roots, its pioneering role in the New Deal, and in some circles its Jewish and Italian communitarianism. Yet anyone who bothered to look could also see that a stratum of aging Jewish liberals was presiding over a trade union that systematically excluded African Americans and Puerto Ricans from advancement in both the shop and the union hierarchy.

Hill wrote that she “denies the record of union racism in order to sanitize labor history,” along with many other labor historians who “find it necessary to minimize or deny racism in the labor movement because its existence conflicts with the useable past that they are constructing as labor history.”

Hill condemned what he called the “revived populist neo-Marxism that advanced the ideology of working class consciousness and solidarity against the social realties of race.” And as he put it in his critique of Gutman’s study of the late nineteenth-century United Mine Workers, “The attempt to dissolve race in class thus emerged in the ‘New Labor History’ as a modern version of the old socialist dream: that the class struggle, joined by united workers, would in time resolve the persistent and ideologically vexing issue of race by rendering it irrelevant.”

Organized labor is embattled, and not just at the bargaining table, but in a fundamentally ideological way that calls its very existence into question. In this context, academic intellectuals play a vital role as defenders, legitimizers, and even spokespeople for a movement that no longer quite knows how to explain itself to a larger public.

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