Commentary Magazine

The Labor Movement

To the Editor:

Arch Puddington’s article, “Is Labor Back?” [July], inevitably leads one to ask a more fundamental question: “Do we want labor back?” If one accepts Mr. Puddington’s portrait of labor as a force that promotes “protectionist schemes,” fights for “restrictive work rules,” and supports “federal bureaucracies” that “have added layers of regulations governing every aspect of the workplace,” then the eventual disappearance of trade unions should be cheered. For some reason, however, perhaps sentimentality, Mr. Puddington never draws the inevitable conclusion. Instead, he ends his article by feigning worry about labor’s future. “If those running the organization persist in their current path,” he solemnly predicts, “they will only accelerate American trade unionism’s steady decline.”

Mr. Puddington seems willing to bid farewell to labor for one reason: labor’s political complexion has suddenly changed from solid red, white, and blue to something pinkish, if not exactly crimson. What is so utterly amazing is that Mr. Puddington announces this as news. Has political amnesia set in?

For almost a century, trade unions supported the most liberal elements within the Democratic party. The list of labor-endorsed candidates from the beginning of the century to the present reads like a litany of liberalism. To assert, then, that labor has been a “centrist anchor” in the Democratic party is to forget that on economics, civil rights, consumer issues, health care, and issues of political process, the labor movement has always been on the Left.

Furthermore, Mr. Puddington complains that the “new AFL-CIO leadership” has discarded “labor’s traditional independence” in favor of an open alliance with the Democratic party. Traditional independence? Does Mr. Puddington really believe the fiction of labor’s political independence? Almost 30 years ago, J. David Greenstone, in Labor in American Politics, traced the Democratic-labor alliance all the way back to 1908. He also described labor in the 1950’s and 1960’s as “a faction within the Democratic party.” Even with the neutrality of AFL-CIO President George Meany in the 1972 presidential election, many large unions supported the hapless George McGovern. How could Mr. Puddington have forgotten all this so soon?

While the political orientation of the labor movement and its relationship to the Democratic party are virtually unchanged from the past, one crucial thing has changed, yet Mr. Puddington says not a word about it: the Republican party has become nearly monolithic in its hostility to labor and even toward the institution of collective bargaining. Though the labor movement has almost always supported Democrats, there were a good number of Republicans who received union backing, or at least benign neutrality. Think of labor-friendly Republicans like Jacob Javits, Richard Schweiker, Clifford Case, Charles Mathias, Robert Stafford, and Edward Brooke.

This diversity within the Republican party has virtually disappeared. With Ronald Reagan’s destruction of PATCO, the air-traffic controllers’ union, which, incidentally, was one of the few unions to support him, blatant opposition to collective bargaining became acceptable, indeed almost obligatory, within the GOP. Why is labor oriented to the Left? The answer is simple: there is no alternative. Even the so-called “center” offers no welcome.

When all is said and done, Mr. Puddington’s real complaint is that the labor movement has not “grown” with him and other conservative intellectuals into an acceptance of a completely “free-market” society, the vision so persuasively espoused by Ronald Reagan and his heirs. The only labor movement acceptable to Mr. Puddington would be one that ceased to bargain about work rules, allowed wages to be set by the market’s “invisible hand,” and abstained from politics, except, of course, to denounce totalitarian Communism. Who would join such an impotent, tame organization?

Mr. Puddington, a careful observer of international politics, knows well the importance of trade unions as counterweights to monopoly political power. After all, it was Solidarity, the Polish trade-union movement, that poked the first hole in the Iron Curtain. As someone committed to freedom and democracy, he should rejoice—and not bemoan—the fact that the United States still has a mass-based democratic Left.

Is labor back? Maybe not Do we want labor back? If we want a genuine democratic system, we had better say yes. The alternative is a frightening prospect.

Michael Kerper
Franklin, New Hampshire



Arch Puddington writes:

Michael Kerper is apparently suffering from nostalgia for the good old days, the days of well-paid, unionized jobs in cities like Lackawanna, New York; Youngs-town, Ohio; and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I understand the sensation, having experienced it myself from time to time. But nostalgia will not contribute to a revival of organized labor’s fortunes.

More to the point, labor is unlikely to resolve its current predicament as long as its leadership and its supporters, like Mr. Kerper, blame its problems on Ronald Reagan and the free market. For the record, I favor changes in our current labor laws to remove unfair obstacles to union organizing. I also oppose measures that would restrict labor’s ability to promote its political agenda in the absence of serious attempts to reduce the political influence of all interest groups.

But labor’s institutional decline is not at bottom due to either profit-obsessed businessmen or conservative politicians. Mr. Kerper’s letter is notable, indeed astonishing, for its failure even to refer to the enormous changes in the American economy over the past three decades. The election of Democratic Presidents would not have impeded the inexorable march of technological change, a major factor in the disappearance of smokestack America. Nor would Democratic Presidents have blocked America’s integration into the global economy.

I do not mean to minimize the disruption triggered by these massive shifts in the American economy. Entire occupations have been transformed or eliminated altogether. In the process, communities have been devastated and lives shattered. Nevertheless, the American economy today stands as the wonder of the world, outperforming the economies of Europe and of the Asian tigers, and generating jobs at a rate few if any countries can match. I suspect Mr. Kerper would prefer the European way in which government policies make layoffs and plant closings much more difficult to accomplish than is the case in the U.S. In Germany and other countries, the result of such policies has been double-digit unemployment, economic stagnation, and a looming problem of youth joblessness. America has done a much better job in adapting to the new realities of economic life, especially in job creation.

Instead of complaining about the Republican party’s shift to the Right, Mr. Kerper should give serious thought to the fundamental question of labor’s role in a high-tech, trade-oriented economy. And instead of sneering at conservatives, he might well ponder why conservative ideas about the proper role of government have proved so popular in recent years. Whether the issue has been government efficiency, the reduction of welfare dependency, the deregulation of various industries, or moving America back toward race-neutral social policies, the most interesting new ideas have come from conservatives. Meanwhile, organized labor has resisted any and all change, with the result that unions play practically no role whatsoever in the debates over the future of government policy in the United States. I would think that this would disturb Mr. Kerper, who no doubt remembers a time when labor’s ideas on the economy, the workplace, and even America’s role in the world were taken seriously.

Finally, I want to assure Mr. Kerper that my appreciation for trade unions extends well beyond the AFL-CIO’s contribution to the anti-Communist cause during the cold war. It is worth noting, however, that organized labor’s policies during the cold war were important both for its assistance to Solidarity and other organizations promoting freedom and for its valiant campaign to prevent the Democratic party from lurching toward an anti-defense and anti-engagement stance.

That labor no longer provides a centrist anchor on foreign policy and defense issues is to be lamented. And while I recognize that the nature of labor’s international involvement has of necessity changed since the collapse of Communism, I find it dismaying that the ranks of the new union leadership include many individuals who during the cold war favored a labor movement that was neutral in the struggle between totalitarianism and democracy and identified the AFL-CIO’s international policies as reactionary. I would hope that this would also concern Michael Kerper, a man who has shared the anti-Communist convictions of the labor movement.


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