06/08/2012 08:13 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Think Again: When Labor Unions Were at the Center of Politics

In Tuesday's New York Times, pundit Joe Nocera writes a lengthy plug for Tim Noah's new book on inequality, The Great Divergence. In his review Nocera focuses on one of the myriad causes Noah identifies as responsible for the explosion of inequality in recent decades: the decline of labor unions. Nocera and Noah are both alumni of the neoliberal magazine The Washington Monthly, which made its name, in part, by attacking unions during the Carter and Reagan eras. Looking back, both agree that neoliberals certainly overdid it.

Many non-neoliberals also attacked unions during this same era. In the case of leftists and others, many of them chose "identity politics over economic justice," and we continue to live in an era defined by these values, as I argued here. As a result, the "high-water mark for unionism" in America occurred in the mid 1950s, when almost four out of every 10 workers were fortunate enough to be "nonunion members who were nonetheless covered by union contracts." In the early postwar years, even the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed that "collective bargaining is a part of the democratic process."

That statement would today be considered controversial not only on the far right but also by many in the mainstream media. Over on the other side of the Times' op-ed page on Tuesday, David Brooks wrote about the vicious anti-union efforts of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker as an argument over "debt indulgence," and pretended that a vote for the man dedicated to destroying the collective bargaining rights of the state's public workers -- denying what even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce once embraced -- "won't be an antiunion vote."

Rethinking the positions they adopted in the early days of neoliberalism, both Noah and Nocera argue, in the latter's words, that "if liberals really want to reverse income inequality, they should think seriously about rejoining labor's side." To do so, it might help to recollect the example of the kind of leadership the U.S. labor movement enjoyed in its heyday.

In the late '40s and early '50s, liberal leaders were not much interested in attempting to create a mass movement in support of their program during the postwar years. This was an age of distrust in "the masses," which were now associated with both Stalinism and fascism among both intellectuals and much of the general population, leading up to the period when Joe McCarthy's brand of fear-based politics dominated much of America's political discourse. Still, liberals needed to find a way to push Democrats to turn their ideas into policy.

The one institution capable of doing this at the time was organized labor. Unions had been the linchpin of New Deal activism, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had helped galvanize them in many ways, but most importantly via his successful push to pass the Wagner Act in 1935, which vastly extended the right of workers to collective bargaining.

The liberals' favorite among the nascent national labor leaders was the firebrand Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, or UAW. As a young socialist, Reuther had begun organizing in Detroit during the Depression. Although his original support within the UAW began with a tenuous alliance of socialists, communists, and other militants, Reuther turned on the communists when they adopted a noninterventionist policy toward Hitler following the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.

After a narrow victory for the UAW presidency in 1946, Reuther consolidated his power by purging more than 100 communist staffers from every level of the organization.

"Abe Lincoln said that a nation cannot exist half free and half slave. Nor can the CIO exist part trade union, dedicated to the ideals and objectives of the trade union movement, and part subservient to a foreign power," Reuther explained to his brother workers. "The Communists are to be pitied more than despised, because they are not free men," he continued. "Their very souls do not belong to them."

This was, in many respects, a turning point for the American labor movement.

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