Sunday, July 08, 2012

Labor, John L. Lewis and the New Deal

Charles Kindleberger's The World in Depression 1929-1939 (19730 is now considered a classic work on the Great Depression.

Kindleberger describes a critical feature of the New Deal, the federal guarantee of union organizing rights, originally included in the National Recovery Act (NRA). The NRA included direct regulations on prices and wages. As Kindleberger notes, the reactionary Supreme Court of the time struck down the NRA, a centerpiece of the early New Deal. But the Roosevelt Administration and the liberal majority in Congress restored the labor-rights provision into law:

N.R.A. left a strong imprint on the country, however, in its effect on union membership. Since N.R.A. suspended anti-trust action against industrialists, it was felt necessary also to allow workers to combine as a means of promoting industrial peace. Union membership rose from under 3·0 million in 1933 to 3·6 million in 1934 and 3·9 million in 1935. The Committee for Industrial Organization (C.I.O.) split off from the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) to organize along industrial and across traditional craft lines. Among its leaders were John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers and Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky of the needle trades. Labour and anti-labour violence followed in a variety of strikes in 1934 and 1935, which the National Labor Board, and a National Labor Relations Board succeeding it in 1934, sought ineffectively to contain. Sit-in strikes in automobile plants in Detroit added a new technique to the show of force in industrial and subsequently other types of disagreement. In 1935, after N.R.A. had been declared unconstitutional, the National Labor Relations Act re-enacted the labour provisions of N.R.A. to apply in interstate commerce. Parallel state laws in a number of jurisdictions extended the coverage to intra-state activity.

The National Labor Relations Act, considered by the Supreme Court to be constitutional in early 1937 following President Roosevelt's attack on the court at the end of 1936, was a signal to labour to extend its membership and its aggressive bargaining tactics. It marked the arrival of what was later called a 'labouristic' economy in the United States ... [my emphasis]
This is a newsreel from the time (presumably 1935), AFL vs. CIO split in 1935, featuring John Lewis; Sidney Hillman appears briefly, also:


The newsreel is a reminder that the CIO movement that was the single most important democratic advance of the New Deal period, the growth of the industrial union movement, was bitterly opposed by the then-dominant labor establishment of the AFL, who had carved a niche for themselves that they thought was stable and good enough.

Lewis was a larger-than-life figure, given to melodramatic purple prose that would have caused David "Bobo" Brooks to swoon at the "incivility" and lack of centrist moderation. The newsreel includes a report on the CIO's drive to organize the steel industry in Pittsburg. We see Lewis displaying an employers' anti-union ad and denouncing it as "the arrogant ultimatum of a brutal dictatorship. If they want a showdown, they may have it. Organized labor accepts the challenge of the omnipresent overlords of steel, to fight for the prize of economic freedom and industrial democracy." Poor Bobo would have gone into a flutter at the sound of such intemperate words!

It's a sad reminder of how big a failure President Obama's essentially complete disregard for his 2008 campaign promise to support the Employee Free Choice Act (belittled as "card check" by today's employers' associations and the Bobos who serve them) was. Had he pushed the EFCA through the Democratic-majority Congress in 2009 or 2010, it would have provided labor activists an opportunity to aggressively press organizing campaigns. And it would have been a serious motivator of the working-class base of the Democratic Party.

We saw another side of Obama neoliberal disdain for organized labor in his failure to aggressively support the campaign to remove union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Exit polls showed that around a third of union households voted to retain Walker. In that case, even greater blame goes to the establishment Democrats in Wisconsin and elsewhere who nominated Tom Barrett (with Obama's tacit approval, i.e., Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a major booster of Tom Barrett in the nominating primary) as opposing candidate who bragged about his own distance from organized labor and promised relief from all this upsetting political quibbling. (See Rick Pearlstein, How Republicans Cheat Democrats - and Democrats Cheat Themselves
Rolling Stone 06/12/2012; Charlie Pierce's various posts in his Esquire Politics Blog covering the recall, including What Happens If Scott Walker Wins Is No Good at All 05/16/2012 and Things in Politico That Make Me Want to Guzzle Antifreeze, Cheesehead Edition 06/06/2012; and, Hyde Park Johnny, Unions to protest Rahm at Milwaukee fundraiser Wednesday (3/28/12) Daily Kos 03/24/2012)

Rick Perlstein gives a summary of how the Wisconsin recall election played out, and how it indicates the larger weakness of the Democratic Party:

... the leading candidate in the primary to face Walker in the recall ran with a take-no-prisoners strategy to restore union rights: she pledged to veto any budget that didn't restore collective bargaining. That meant that if she won the statehouse, Republican legislators in Madison could hold on to their anti-union law only on pain of shutting down the state.

Then, out of nowhere, little more than two months before Election day, a new candidate announced: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Two days earlier, he'd had a $400-a-plate fundraising luncheon, closed to the media, hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Here was a signal: Barrett was the Democratic Party Establishment's man. And the Democratic Establishment, in this age of Barack Obama, does things in a very certain way: it never takes any prisoners, never takes the most gutsy path (this is even true for the vaunted "tough guy" Rahm Emanuel, whose standing orders as White House chief of staff was never to take on any fights unless victory was assured in advance).

Barrett immediately announced a different plan to reverse the anti-union law if he became governor: He would call a special legislative session, in which he would introduce a standalone repeal bill. He would make it hard for his side on purpose. He would make the lions lay down with the lambs, Obama style. He would sell himself to the electorate as the peacemaker. He would follow the Bill Clinton strategy, triangulate against his own side. If swing voters hate union cronyism, he would prove he wasn't a union crony. "I'm not the union guy," he would say on the campaign trail – he was the guy the unions didn't want; they even tried to talk him out of running. [my emphasis in bold]
Lewis would have had harsh words for Obama's timidity on labor related issues, from the EFCA and the Grand Bargain to cut benefits for Social Security and Medicare in exchange for cosmetic tax reforms. He was a constant thorn in the side of FDR as he pressed the Democratic President to support labor.

John Lewis and Rahm Emanuel would not get along well together.

And organized labor, despite the vast amounts of hot air blown around on the subject, are still a vital component for any democratic movement (small-d and large-D) to be able to reverse the current oligarchical drift in US politics and create a practical alternative to the bipartisan neoliberal economics that has made our elites largely forget the practical experience of fighting depressions that were still more present in the minds of even Republicans when Kindleberger wrote his book in 1973.

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