Organized labor has had a rough few years. Over this decade, more than half the states in the Union passed “right-to-work laws,” which limit the capacity of unions to require membership or the payment of dues as a condition of employment in specific industries. This anti-organized labor trend culminated in the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which found that public-sector unions could not compel non-members to pay dues without violating the First Amendment. The results of this cultural shift have been dramatic. AFSCME lost 98 percent of agency fee payers last year. The SEIU lost 94 percent. In 2018, only 10.5 percent of the American workforce remained unionized—the lowest rate of union membership since the 1980s, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping relevant records.
All this pressure appears to have driven the labor movement into a state of abject mania. For one of America’s largest organized labor organizations, the AFL-CIO, supporting the right of workers to organize just isn’t enough anymore. It’s time once again for the capitalist oppressors of the working classes to drown in their own blood.
As part of a campaign opposing the unionization of its workforce, Delta Air Lines recently began distributing literature aimed at dissuading its employees from organizing. One example notes that “union dues cost around $700 a year,” and suggests that this capital might be better spent on consumer goods. The AFL-CIO responded by posting a picture of a guillotine and observed that the costs of constructing this executioner’s tool were only a fraction of what Delta’s CEO made last year. “Get outside with your buddies, share some brews—sounds like fun,” they suggested.
The veiled appeal to Jacobin methods for dispatching with class enemies led to enough bad press that the AFL-CIO apologized and the tweet was removed. But this was not, apparently, a one-time error in judgment of an unsupervised social media manager blinded by rage. Less than a week later, the AFL-CIO made its new support for class war even more explicit.
This week, the AFL-CIO promoted a video produced by “Means TV,” which bills itself as “the first anti-capitalist worker-owned streaming platform,” featuring a self-described Marxist arguing that the American middle class had developed a false consciousness. “Class is actually determined by a person’s relationship to or ownership of the means of production,” the agitator said. The very idea of a middle class is supposedly a “myth” that obscure the realities of the “conflict between workers and the owners of society.”
The post-millennial intern manning the AFL-CIO’s Twitter account may not realize it, but this kind of unreconstructed 19th-century revolutionary socialist dogma was once anathema to American organized labor leaders. The labor movement in the United States was once thoroughly infiltrated by the Soviet Union, and it was only through the coordinated exertions of the Democratic Party and labor’s leaders that those elements were isolated and, eventually, purged.
In my book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, I outline the process though which Communist elements were stigmatized and removed from labor as an example of how political movements can effectively purge dangerous ideas without sacrificing their numbers. In the 1920s and 30s, the nascent Soviet state vested substantial resources in the effort to coordinate international socialism with global trade unions. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) founder Samuel Gompers was initially a self-described socialist, as was American Railway Union founder Eugene Debs. The Trade Union Educational League’s leader, William Foster, advocated the “abolition of capital” and the creation of a “workers’ republic.” Moscow directly funded his work and the efforts of other Communists to take control of other American unions.
The Communists quickly became a liability. A 1943 miners’ strike that led Roosevelt to briefly nationalize the coal-mining industry and the dissolution of the American alliance with the Soviet Union after World War II forced labor to choose between patriotism and its commitment to international socialist solidarity. In 1946, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) passed a resolution rejecting “efforts of the Communist Party” to interfere with its affairs. The Moscow-backed Communist apparatus responded by going to war with the CIO and its president, Philip Murray. Similar efforts were made by the leaders of the United Auto Workers and the National Maritime Union. Painstakingly, often traumatically, Communist sympathizers were dislodged from their union posts.
Ultimately, this effort was not the product of labor’s ideological sympathy with capitalism. These were acts of self-preservation. The passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman’s veto, which prohibited unions from engaging in certain political activities and even compelled its members to sign affidavits affirming their anti-Communism, presented labor with a stark choice. Either they band with Truman in 1948 and preserve the only realistic chance they had to repeal this onerous new law or they oppose him and empower his Republican opposition. This was no choice at all. The dedicated Soviet sympathizers in labor pushed their chips in with fellow traveler and Progressive Party candidate for president, former Vice President Henry Wallace and, in the words of historian Gary Donaldson, “all went down to defeat together.”
Tweet by tweet, the work of men like Philip Murray is being undone by a generation that isn’t familiar with the sacrifices made by labor organizers in the 20th century to remain relevant. They don’t remember the horrors meted out by Communist insurgents in the pursuit of utopia. They don’t know the stagnation wrought by “government knowledge” or the incapability of command economics compared to the accuracy and efficiency of market signals. They don’t even seem all that opposed to insinuating that violence is a legitimate means to achieve their objectives. These painful lessons were already taught once, and at great cost to the labor movement. It seems they must be taught again.