A Short History of Liberal Myths and Anti-Labor Politics


Photo by www.GlynLowe.com | CC BY 2.0

Photo by www.GlynLowe.com | CC BY 2.0

“The working-class and the employing class have nothing in common.”

– preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World

Democrats, liberals, and Social Democrats have been throwing up their hands about Donald Trump’s victory and the loss of the traditional white working-class base of the Democratic Party. Maybe Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton didn’t “pay enough attention” to workers, or perhaps those workers have been convinced to “vote against their own interests” by Trump’s racist demagogy.

These arguments miss the central problem with liberal politics. Those politics, and their social democratic left flank, assume that business owners and workers have some basic interests in common. These include the “national interests” that Obama, Clinton, Trump, and the rest “defend” in other countries. They include imprecise phrases like “the economy.” They also include infrastructure, education, and other basic services. But this core assumption is fundamentally wrong. The problem with the politics of Obama and Clinton from the perspective of the working-class is not that they “ignored” or “forgot” workers – it is that, like the Republicans, they carried out every policy from the perspective of business, which meant that their policies hurt working-class people.

Since the end of the Civil War, working-class organizations in this country have struggled over the question of whether to make alliances with business groups and their parties, the Democrats and Republicans. And every time labor politics has been reduced to some version of liberal politics, it has ended in disaster for the working-class.

In the Reconstruction period, unions and workers’ groups in the North who had overwhelmingly supported the Civil War expected the Union victory to lead to an improvement in their situation. They thought that “free labor,” which the North had supposedly been fighting for, meant the right for workers to eventually become independent craftsmen or farmers. To this end, they pushed for laws limiting the work day to eight hours, so that they could enjoy free time to develop a trade and to reduce unemployment. Many allied with the Republican Party – and in many states Republicans passed eight hour laws right after the war, in 1867. But these laws were toothless. In Illinois, for instance, the law said that eight hours was a legal work day, unless employers and workers agreed to a longer day – meaning, the work day could be as long as employers could get their workers to accept. When they struck in many towns and cities across the country to try to enforce the eight-hour day, the Republicans deployed the forces at their disposal to break those strikes.

A similar story could be told about the right to form unions before the 1930s. Workers usually confronted an overwhelmingly hostile state. In a few exceptions, liberal mayors or governors pulled back from repression and tried to tamp down class conflict by establishing electoral alliances with moderate unions. One example was Mayor Carter reformrepressionHarrison of Chicago. He stopped the police from breaking strikes for the first years that he was mayor of Chicago in the early 1880s and gained electoral support from the main unions. He used that time to build up the police force, which had been rendered illegitimate in the eyes of many workers after its role breaking the 1877 strikes. When the workers’ movement got too big and threatening in late 1885, Harrison changed his policy and deployed the new police force to smash a streetcar strike. He then oversaw the massive repression of the workers’ movement after the May Day strike and Haymarket bombing in 1886. Moderate union leaders (and many liberal historians) still let Harrison off the hook and blame the police themselves – when they were completely under Harrison’s command, and he promoted the officers who most effectively led the attacks on the working-class and fired those who refuse to change policies.

So when and how have workers been able to improve their situation? When they have mobilized enough to push the balance of power in their favor and force businesses and a layer of the politicians who serve them to pass some reforms. In other words, it is a question of the balance of power, not of whether there is a liberal mayor, governor, or president in office.

But myths about elite pro-working-class reformers persist. Consider the early twentieth century, the so-called “Progressive Era” — when, liberal historians tell us, sturdy “labor-liberal” coalitions emerged to fight for pro-labor reforms and union rights. While certain groups of workers, especially women and children, benefited from the protective legislation passed in reaction to the demands of the labor movement, workers confronted an aggressive anti-union open-shop movement supported by the government at all levels. Many prominent self-identified progressives, both in and outside of industrial relations settings, viewed open-shop campaigns as virtuous fights designed to challenge “labor trusts” and protect “free workers”—scabs and non-unionists. In fact, open-shop leaders were more inclined to see themselves as far-sighted progressive visionaries following in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln than, say, cold-hearted social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer. Many of these same progressives supported eugenic policies, racial segregation, and the restriction of immigration of “inferior” Eastern and Southern Europeans. “Progressives” like Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis were just as anti-union as the recent inheritors of their politics, like Clinton and Obama. Given the true history of progressive reform, it is surprising that many who claim to be on the left have adopted “progressive” as a label with which they wish to be associated.

The favorite examples of “progressives” and liberals alike are the series of reforms carried out by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). But liberals usually leave out the key part of the story – FDR came into office hostile to the working-class, and was dedicated to using the power of government to bail out failing capitalism. His first New Deal was very similar to the policies Obama carried out in response to the 2008 economic crisis – a stimulus package, help for the banks, and loans to corporations.

In fact, workers won meaningful improvements only after they began to fight on an unprecedented scale. Starting in 1934, they carried out militant strikes and protests, often culminating in armed battles in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, Flint, and others cities across the country. On a level far beyond anything we have seen recently, they challenged the right of the bosses to run, and, in some cases, to even own, the companies. In several places, protestors took over cities. And in the process they demonstrated a willingness to fight liberals and progressives – many of whom were far to the left of anyone in current mainstream politics, including Bernie Sanders. During one of the Minneapolis strikes of 1934, for example, Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd Olson issued a declaration of martial law and dispatched thousands of National Guardsmen to break the movement. Such actions illustrate that even progressives like Olson — who was to the left of the Democrats — prioritized upholding “order” over championing the interests of the working-class. But wage-earners in Minneapolis won that strike by continuing their struggle, even against their supposed ally in government. The massive workers’ movements of the 1930s and 1940s established the unions in the mass production industries and led to series of reforms, including unemployment insurance and Social Security. These victories were the result of solidarity and militancy from below, not because of the moral goodness of liberal politicians.

FDR’s “second” New Deal was an attempt to ally with union leaders to create a state-sponsored system of union recognition and negotiations that would keep the working-class within the framework of capitalism. FDR and subsequent Democratic Party politicians undoubtedly appreciated labor’s financial contributions and their get-out-the-vote mobilizations, but fought all expressions of labor militancy. This was painfully clear in 1937, when FDR responded to the deaths of ten Chicago strikers, murdered by city police officers, by invoking Shakespeare: “A Plague on Both Your Houses.” Starting in that year and accelerating as the country began to rearm for war, Democratic Party politicians on all levels turned their back on labor as local police departments and National Guardsman brutalized, and sometimes killed, strikers. By 1941, FDR was himself responsible for smashing strikes, including a massive one at North American Aviation.

Unfortunately, most labor leaders continued to uncritically back FDR and the Democratic Party, and this relationship ultimately led to the famous “Treaty of Detroit” after WWII. In response to another nation-wide strike wave, union leaders and employers agreed on a labor-management framework that limited workers’ ability to stage independent struggles. It also set businesses on a course to agree to dramatic improvements in workers’ standards of living. The whole post-war “golden age” was made possible, not by FDR or Truman or Eisenhower, but by the fact that the working-class had fought hard enough to change the balance of forces in its favor. Additionally, capitalism received a respite from its chronic crisis of overproduction because the war had blown up half the world. And, of course, that “treaty” set the U.S. working-class up for the attacks that began in earnest in the 1970s, when the post-war boom ended and businesses tried to retain their rate of profit by attacking workers’ standard of living. In general, the union leadership did not mobilize the rank-and-file to fight back. Instead they blamed Reagan, Bush, or the Republicans in Congress, and looked for some liberals to protect them. We’ve seen how well that worked out.

Many social democrats and liberals look to the countries of Western Europe where there are indeed more social programs and life for working-class people is less brutal. But those social democratic gains were not made by allying with liberals. In many cases, they were implemented by parties that the working-class created. But in some important cases, they were put in place by conservatives.

The most interesting of these cases is Germany. Otto von Bismarck, an arch conservative advocate of “iron and blood” and opponent of democracy, put in place the beginnings of the German welfare state in the 1880s, including the framework of national health care and pension systems. He did not do this because he was a strong advocate of social protections. He did it, very openly, because of the threat of the working-class and its political organization in the growing German socialist movement.

And remember, while he was certainly a reactionary politician, Nixon created the EPA and OSHA and did, eventually, end the Vietnam war in the face of  a widespread Vietnamese anti-imperialist struggle, a massive working-class soldiers’ rebellion, and the uprisings in cities and prisons led by black people. That is not a defense of Nixon – but it illustrates how the central question is the balance of forces, not whether the politician in power is liberal or not.

The problem here is not that many establishment liberals lie, but rather that they put the interests of business first. If they consider workers at all, they think that business must succeed for workers to do well. And this is why their policies, especially in the present situation, almost always hurt the working-class and pave the way for the kinds of reactionary politics we see today embodied by Trump and by the outbursts of right wing “populism” that have spread across much of Europe.

Look at Obama’s bank bailouts, which set the tone for his whole administration. He came into office with three choices: 1. bail out the banks, which meant a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the world’s richest. 2. Let the banks collapse, which would have led to an even worse economic crisis than the one we experienced, or 3. Take the banks over and run them as a public service. Obama was never going to do number 3. That would have meant challenging the basic interests of the capitalists. So he did number 1 – which set the tone for his whole presidency during which we saw the greatest concentration of wealth at the top of any society, ever. Working-class people saw their standard of living continue to decline, while less and less money went into public services, schools, infrastructure, etc. because it had all been given to the already obscenely wealthy. Meanwhile, the standard of living for the majority continued to fall, even as the “economy” recovered — paving the way for Trump to play his manipulative “populist” game.

Defending the interests of business today means going against the interests of the rest of us. The Democratic Party, including its most liberal wing, argues that helping the poor, assuring a decent education for all children, and creating jobs will help everyone — and somehow this can be accomplished without challenging the fundamental interests of business. That is simply not true. Business needs the money that should go to these services to keep its financial bubbles inflated. Employers cannot hire all the educated people we have today – why would they want more educated people? Businesses make huge profits from health care – why would they want to give those profits up? To address any of these problems means challenging the basic interests of the capitalists.

The history we have sketched out challenges some long-held assumptions, including the notion that the Democratic Party once truly championed the concerns of the working-class but shifted to the right under Carter or Clinton—years shaped by what commentators fashionably call “neoliberalism.” The problem is much deeper, and one does not need to look far to find many examples of liberal or Democratic Party involvement in anti-working-class activities during all periods after the Civil War. Instead of always crying about “the rise of the right,” sober-minded observers must acknowledge that liberals deserve a considerable amount of blame for our current crisis.

That is why the working-class needs its own political organization, one that puts its interests first. We need a political party that is not limited to elections, but recognizes that the mobilization of the working-class is the only thing that can change the balance of forces in our favor. Such a party would demand, at minimum, that no company making a profit should be allowed to lay off employees, and that if there is not enough work, any remaining work must be divided with no loss in pay. It would demand that corporate subsidies and tax breaks be banned, and that the wealthy and the corporations be taxed to pay for schools and services. We realize this is far from an original proposal, but the working-class has not had a political party representing its interests since Eugene Debs’s day. A small group in Michigan got a Working-class Party on the ballot this year and did reasonably well. But to organize a real working-class party on the scale of the country requires that we first stop listening to what Cornel West aptly calls the “dishonest liberal establishment” and break with the two capitalist parties for good.

Sam Mitrani is an Associate Professor of History at the College of DuPage. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2009 and his book The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850-1894 is available from the University of Illinois Press.

Chad Pearson teaches history at Collin College in Plano, Texas. He is the author of Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) co-editor with Rosemary Feurer of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (forthcoming).

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