At some point, Democrats and unions went their separate ways. I wanted to know when and how. This is the second post in a series telling that story. The first can be found here.
The FDR coalition generally is thought of as Catholics, Jews, Blacks, White Southerners, unions, urban machines, progressive intellectuals, and populist farm groups. They shared a belief in “governmental action on behalf of the citizenry ….” But big business was not alien to it.
Business sectors that supported FDR were capital intensive and, therefore, not “threatened by labor turbulence ….” They included investment banks, international-commercial banks, international financiers, General Electric, IBM, and oil companies. I would like to think that their support was due to Roosevelt having saved the banks, in fact, having saved capitalism. More likely, it was because they benefited from Roosevelt’s trade liberalization.
FDR’s business bloc stood with him when the First New Deal collapsed in 1935 and helped make a success out of the Second New Deal formula: “social welfare, trade unionism, minority rights, expanded popular participation in government, …. a progressive income tax, and free trade….” As part of this coalition, even with freer trade, unions saw historic growth in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.
It would not last. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 crippled unions and does so to this day. It was passed over Truman’s veto by a coalition of reactionaries and racists (Republicans and southern Democrats).
The sustained boom of the mid-to-late 1960s brought good times and demand for workers. That pushed wages up generally. Being human, potential members wondered why they should pay union dues. (The sun is out; quick, sell the umbrella.)
Then, there was leadership.
Attempts to penetrate the South and the West were dismal failures. Membership drives were expensive, so, attempts to organize new membership dwindled everywhere. When asked, in the 1970s, about the extended decline in membership, long time AFL-CIO president George Meany replied, “I just stopped worrying about it.” That’s probably true, given that, when Democrats began to back away from labor, leadership failed to push back.
Finally, by this time, unions were known as much for leadership’s corruption and for racism as for collective bargaining. The corruption was, as it always is, a human problem generalizable to all groups and all organizations. Racism is the same, but, in this case, it had been sanctioned by law.
To pass his legislation, Roosevelt had had to deal with the devil, or at least with southern Democrats. One result was the exclusions put into the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act). Juan Perea, writing in the Ohio State Law Journal, says that the New Deal era’s “statutory exclusion of agricultural and domestic employees was well-understood as a race-neutral proxy for excluding blacks ….” Those exclusions remain to this day.
If the Electoral College was an accommodation of the colonial slave power, the National Labor Relations Act included an accommodation of a vestigial slave power. (The Taft-Hartley Act, then, was that vestigial slave power exerting itself. And the sins of the fathers ….)
Early on, parts of labor supported the civil rights movement. More often, driven by fear of competition, labor would turn to “ugly … attempts by entrenched union leaders to crush black worker organizations.” Furthermore, leadership’s attitude “toward the emerging women’s movement was openly hostile.”
Leadership walked away from sources of reinvigoration and sustainment. The effect on membership, limiting it largely to white males, reinforced the image of and the growing reality of unions as a special interest group.
By this time, Democrats already were distancing themselves from labor in hopes of expanding the FDR corporate bloc. As the free-trade policies of the Democrats ate into union jobs, Kennedy and Johnson ignored labor’s concerns. These were the first Democratic administrations since those of FDR and Truman that had built the unions. Yet, they already were pivoting away from labor.
What should have been the wake-up call came in 1965, when Democrats held overwhelming majorities in Congress but could not repeal that section of the Taft-Hartley Act that allowed states to ban union shops. Lyndon Johnson, who had strong-armed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress, allowed this repeal to die of a Republican filibuster. In turn, that emboldened business to create new organizations that “flailed away at existing legal protections for workers.”
So, the Democratic Party as the home of working men and women did not outlive the Roosevelt-Truman era. In the early ‘60s, Democrats began to sidle toward their corporate bloc. Unions contributed to the initial cracks in the relationship. The institutionalized racism and stagnant, unimaginative leadership made unions less popular with the Democratic establishment and cost them alliances.
The relationship still was repairable, but the cracks were starting to reach the foundation. It was an inside job all the way, perpetrated by unions and by establishment Democrats without a reactionary in sight. Democratic reactionaries soon would play a role, but they were not prime movers. In fact, the final break-up would be a similar story: driven by unions themselves and by the Democratic left – the “New Left” to be exact, which I’ll look at that in the next post.