Since the election, I’ve been trying to figure out when the Democratic Party separated itself from working men and women. This is the fifth post in a series. Previous posts can be found at the following links.
The blunt answer to the question of what happened to unions always will be Ronald Reagan. No one ever did more to hurt working men and women. His anti-labor crusade was part and parcel of the sudden rise of inequality. However, what he did was done with the complicity of Democrats.
Reagan was elected in 1980. He had played to white supremacists and segregationists in the South. He had railed against a non-existent “unilateral disarmament.” Most important, though, he had been blessed to run against an economy still crippled by stagflation and by the recession of 1973-4. Further, by election time, the economy was reeling from the additional punch of Fed chairman Paul Volker’s deflationary, relentless rate increases. Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter.
Having recently lost the FDR corporate bloc to the Republicans, the fear on the left was that “Reagan would lead a united business community on a triumphant “new class war” to destroy both the New Deal and the Great Society.” That fear would prove all too real.
In August of 1981, Reagan crushed a strike by the Profession Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), one of the few unions to have endorsed Reagan in 1980. The strike was illegal, but had there been an air-traffic accident, his administration would have been crippled. There wasn’t, and it was unions that were crippled. Reagan had gotten away with purging skilled workers, and that gave business a greenlight to beat any strike.
Meanwhile, the continuing recession was adding millions to unemployment rolls. Wages fell. Union bargaining positions evaporated. But to Reagan, unemployment was not a problem. It was a cure. To him, famously, the problem was government: that same government which, under FDR, had lifted us up from the Depression, had saved capitalism, had won WWII, and had given us a still unmatched prosperity over nearly three decades.
Regardless, Reagan set about to make labor’s losses permanent.
He made “a string of anti-union appointments at the Department of Labor.” The National Labor Relations Board eventually would be controlled by Reagan appointees. Policies shifted dramatically in favor of business. “By the end of Reagan’s first term,” enforcement of labor laws was so lax as to provide “virtually no deterrent” to violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Reagan had effectively “gutted much existing law through biased application of it.”
Where were Democrats? They had lost the Senate in 1980 but retained a healthy majority in the House. However, these were Watergate-generation Democrats. They had, almost cavalierly, abandoned traditional Democratic economic doctrine. Banks had replaced unions as constituencies, and monopolies had replaced competition as policy. Working men and women had no standing in that philosophy.
When business wanted a military build-up, Democrats voted for Reagan’s massive spending on big, new weapon systems. When Reagan told the middle class that his tax policies were aimed at “cutting off undeserving minorities,” Democrats voted for them knowing that they would, instead, shower “money on the very richest Americans.” Democrats gave Reagan most of what he asked for in gutting social programs, including his policy of cutting benefits “most drastically for those who could least afford it.”
The public was not happy with either the massive defense spending or the draconian social cuts. Throw in a bad economy, and Reagan’s approval rating dropped 33 percentage points, to 35%, by 1983. Democrats and unions, despite “discontent in the rank and file,” failed to take advantage of this.
What establishment Democrats were willing to do, possibly because the party was so far in debt, was redouble efforts to attract business. Business was nervous about Reagan’s plan to cut federal spending by creating “budget crises,” the so-called “strategic deficits.” Besides being a childish scheme, the results tended to be only massive deficits and no cuts. And 1981 – ’82 had been “the most economically disastrous period since the Great Depression … imports, interest rates, and unemployment were soaring.”
But business had no incentive to bolt from Republicans when Democrats offered no alternative economic message. Reagan fell back on his (and Nixon’s) go-to fear-mongering about crime, and, in the end, Democrats posted modest mid-term gains in the House, which they already controlled, and could not cut into the Republican hold on the Senate. It was a stunning failure of leadership.
1983 was rock bottom for Reagan. By 1984, a recovery ten-years in the making was in progress, creating a block-busting business cycle. In the general election that year, Mondale never offered a jobs program, a concrete economic program, or even a social program. This contrasted poorly with Reagan’s claims of growth to come and of “Morning in America.” Mondale got clobbered.
No man ever hurt working men and women more than did Ronald Reagan. That he sits at the apex of the Republican pantheon tells you everything you need to know about Republicans. That Democrats helped Reagan has, for decades, told working men and women all they needed to know about modern Democrats.
The aberrant love that the party establishment showered on Reagan would go beyond the pale in his second term as they aided and abetted his attacks on working men and women. The establishment would go so far as to redefine the Democratic Party in Reaganesque terms. That was done via a direct line from the Watergate Babies through neoliberalism to the Democratic Leadership Council. I take up neoliberalism next.
(Edited 2 March: changed Fed “cuts” to “increases,” as both polecat and ej heinemann tried to tell. Finally took the time to go back and think it through. Sorry about that, but good catch. Thank you both.)
Comments are closed on this story.