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What Happens If Labor Dies?

The only way unions can regain their strength and provide a counterweight to corporate power is if liberals join the fight.

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And then, it wasn’t. Unions, even Reuther’s mighty autoworkers, lacked the power to raise the question of corporate control ever again. Instead, the UAW’s subsequent strikes wrested from the auto industry a series of agreements that entitled workers to benefits, insurance, and vacations and that saw their wages rise with increases in productivity and the cost of living. Other unions followed suit, but the grand drama, the question of whether America would be a more social or more capitalist democracy, was off the table. Labor relations had been reduced to dollars-and-cents agreements between powerful companies and powerful unions. It was the end of ideology, wrote sociologist Daniel Bell. It was a matter of administering prices and wages in a stable oligopolistic economy, wrote economist John Kenneth Galbraith. It was, truth be told, a yawn.

The workers had power and prosperity—or so middle-class liberals believed. But millions of Americans didn’t. Indeed, they still lacked fundamental rights. Young African Americans began sitting in at Southern lunch counters and rode integrated buses into segregated cities. Liberals turned their attention and moral energy to the battles for equal rights. So, for that matter, did the more progressive unions, which were among the few racially diverse large American institutions.

This, in fact, is liberalism’s enduring achievement of the past half-century—the revolution in rights for the previously excluded: blacks, women, Latinos, and, increasingly, gays and lesbians. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act permits workers fired or discriminated against due to race, religion, gender, or age to go to court and collect damages far in excess of those a worker fired for joining a union can collect through the NLRA. As one labor activist puts it, “They can’t fire you for your skin color or your sex or your age. They can just fire you if they want to.”

Liberalism eliminated an entire edifice of privilege. But by thinking the labor question had been settled during the decades of postwar prosperity, and then by not thinking about the labor question at all, liberals ceased to address the issue of power: the economic and political power that capitalism concentrates at the top when unions are weak and regulations watered down.

Liberalism eliminated an entire edifice of privilege. But by thinking the labor question had been settled during the decades of postwar prosperity, and then by not thinking about the labor question at all, liberals ceased to address the issue of power: the economic and political power that capitalism concentrates at the top when unions are weak and regulations watered down.

Liberalism eliminated an entire edifice of privilege. But by thinking the labor question had been settled during the decades of postwar prosperity, and then by not thinking about the labor question at all, liberals ceased to address the issue of power: the economic and political power that capitalism concentrates at the top when unions are weak and regulations watered down.

Liberals and leftists had their reasons for dismissing labor. Throughout the Cold War, the AFL-CIO looked like, and to some degree was, an adjunct of America’s imperial power, an aging politburo that supported every administration’s overseas adventures. It reviled the New Left and the liberals who supported the anti–Vietnam War presidential bids of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. It was hostile to feminist and environmental causes. Of course, any number of unions—not just Reuther’s—worked to advance those causes, but they didn’t capture the imagination of many mainstream liberals.

Unions had a problem even closer to home than the indifference of liberals. For decades, labor was complicit in its own demise. The same union leaders who helped create the rift in the 1960s and 1970s between labor and liberals were also largely indifferent to organizing workers in the growing service sector—indeed, to organizing workers at all. As convinced as Daniel Bell that the balance of class power in America had reached a permanent equipoise, George Meany, who presided over the AFL-CIO from 1955 until 1979, told an interviewer in 1972, “Frankly, I used to worry about … the size of the membership. But quite a few years ago, I just stopped worrying about it.”

 
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