Michael Kazin: What Happened to Labor?
Michael Kazin is the author of the new book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is coeditor of Dissent.
The American left was once in love with the labor movement. Take, for example, the careers of this quartet of famous progressives: Margaret Sanger, John Steinbeck, Betty Friedan, and Martin Luther King Jr. All were committed to audacious reform and had the ability to turn their political passions into memorable prose. And all believed, at critical times in their lives, that a powerful union movement was essential to making their nation a more decent, more egalitarian society....
There once would have been nothing surprising about the pro-labor sympathies of the famous four. From the Gilded Age into the 1960s, nearly every left-wing thinker and activist placed his or her faith for far-reaching social change on the fortunes of the union movement. Only when wage earners built strong institutions to fight for their interests would politicians take steps to markedly improve the lot of the American majority....
But gradually, many progressives and labor unionists soured on one another. The AFL-CIO leadership’s backing for the Vietnam War and the class tensions provoked by both the counterculture and the environmental movement had something to do with it. So did the shift of young leftists from fighting to remedy economic injustice to battling discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, groups with lavish resources like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Atlantic Legal Foundation moved aggressively to undermine enforcement of the Wagner Act. That thousands of workers got fired every year for trying to organize unions fails to gain much attention, even in left-wing periodicals and websites....
Today, perhaps, labor’s beleaguered champions should take a bit of inspiration from their own past. The first celebration of Labor Day occurred in New York City in 1882. Twenty thousand unionists paraded before a quarter-million cheering spectators. Planners boasted that the event would “show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” and “warn politicians that they shall go no farther in pandering to the greed of monopoly and reducing the condition of the masses.” Their language sounds archaic. But during the current rerun of the Gilded Age—when corporate profits are soaring and unemployment remains obscenely high—an updated version of that kind of protest would be an excellent idea.
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