The Decline and Fall of American Labor

Peter Seybold might have been born and educated in the Northeast, but the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) sociology professor found the Hoosier state’s labor movement intriguing from the dawn of his political awakening back in New Jersey.

“When I became interested in politics I didn’t know much about Indiana,” he said during an interview in late October 2011. “But I thought, ‘Wow, this must be an interesting place. Vance Hartke and Birch Bayh as senators – this must be a pretty interesting place.'”

Hartke and Bayh were liberal Democrat, pro-labor, antiwar, U.S. senators who led Indiana’s congressional delegation from the late 1950s – Hartke was elected in 1958 – through the 1970s – Bayh lost a bid for a fourth term in 1980. Not coincidentally, their careers spanned the height of organized labor’s power in Indiana and laid the foundation for Seybold’s 15-year career in labor studies.

From 1986 to 2001, Seybold educated students and state union workers about labor and the movement through the IU division of labor studies, the last seven as director. He taught in classrooms and union halls around the state.

“I’ve been a part of this political culture for some time now,” he said over a late-morning breakfast at the Bakehouse on Bloomington’s east side.

For most of that time, Seybold watched organized labor sputter in Indiana and across the nation, effectively losing to the Radical Right a generation of Americans, some of whom asked him for help getting jobs at union plants, despite their anti-union attitudes.

“When I was in labor studies, I taught on many of the campuses in Indiana,” he said. “In Kokomo I had some students who weren’t in the labor movement, and they were pretty hostile to the labor movement.”


Seybold’s connection to the American labor movement literally began at birth. He was born into a union family and earned a doctorate in sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, where, he said, his mentor was proud to be on a list of the 100 most dangerous professors in America, as delineated by the Right.

Seybold began his academic career at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha in 1978. When he was terminated from his assistant professorship in 1984, his reaction hearkened back to his roots.

“I fought it publicly,” he said.

Consistent with a growing and common practice in the early days of the Reagan Revolution, Seybold’s contract was simply not renewed.

“It is easier to dismiss faculty on contract renewals than tenure hearings,” he said. “They did that in this institution to a number of people in the sociology department.”

Unlike their tenured counterparts, when contract professors are denied contract renewal, they usually don’t have rights to a full review from people in the field from outside the particular university, he said.

Rather than just accepting his fate, Seybold opted for public hearings, which drew more than 100 students and community members in support of his renewal.

While this public process exposed the growing anti-labor practice at UW-Parkside – in response the university rewrote the rules to restrict public input – Seybold lost his position and spent the next two years consulting and teaching as an adjunct at UW-Milwaukee. In 1986, he accepted a job in the division of labor studies at IU-Bloomington.

“Originally I started out as administrative associate for division of labor studies, sort of second in command,” he said. “Eventually I was the director for seven years. I left in 2001 and went to IUPUI as a sociology professor.”

Seybold said labor studies at IU dates to 1946, when the post-World War II industrial expansion was beginning and the labor movement was strong. State labor leaders approached IU President Herman B Wells and essentially said, “The university is doing all this stuff for business, don’t you think some of the resources of the university should be devoted to educating union members?”

Wells, “the far-sighted person that he was,” agreed, Seybold said, and labor studies at IU began as a 1½-person office in Bloomington. Ultimately, the department expanded with six other offices around the state with a faculty of about 17 at its height.

“It had as its mission doing both credit and noncredit labor education,” he said.

Indiana at the time was a center for industries like automobile, steel and electrical, he said, so the labor movement had a fair amount of legislative influence. Eventually, labor got a legislative subsidy for the labor studies division.

Seybold and other faculty taught for-credit classes to union members, as well as non-credit classes on nuts-an-bolts things like collective bargaining, health and safety and grievance handling, he said.

“Eventually a bachelor’s degree put IU on the map because there were very few bachelor degrees in labor studies,” he said.


Bayh’s loss to Republican Dan Quayle in 1980 accompanied Ronald Reagan’s presidential election and foreshadowed a precipitous decline in American labor’s membership and political clout. While the pro-labor Bayh was poised to run for president in 1976 before his wife contracted cancer, Reagan, in less than a year, initiated the war on working Americans that has nearly eliminated the middle class.

Specifically, Reagan fired 13,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Control Operators union in a workplace showdown that changed the course of American labor history. On the 30th anniversary of the confrontation, Georgetown University associate professor of history Joseph A. McCartin wrote in the New York Times on Aug. 2, 2011:

“More than any other labor dispute of the past three decades, Reagan’s confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or Patco, undermined the bargaining power of American workers and their labor unions. It also polarized our politics in ways that prevent us from addressing the root of our economic troubles: the continuing stagnation of incomes despite rising corporate profits and worker productivity.”

Seybold agreed. “Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers union really was a signal to business that it was open season on unions,” he said.

The Reagan Revolution also spawned attacks on university programs such as women’s, Afro, gender and labor studies, Seybold said.

“These are all part of what (right-wing hit man David) Horowitz and his folks have been railing against – multiculturalism, political correctness,” he said. “And so, as the times turned more conservative, labor studies programs were the focus of some of these attempts to cut back on programs that essentially came out of pressure from social movements.”

Envisioning a future of conservative change, Seybold left labor studies for a chance to teach and do research full time at IUPUI in 2001, and the program has been shrinking ever since. The state subsidy peaked at roughly $380,000, which Seybold said was a significant portion of the division’s budget.

“When Gov. (Mitch) Daniels came into office in 2005,” he said, “my understanding was … that he zeroed out that legislative subsidy. ”

That forced labor studies into an economic Catch-22 situation of trying to earn more money from its programs, Seybold said. “That was difficult to do, given the fact that the numbers of union workers were declining, and the availability of tuition assistance programs and support for labor studies program was on the wane.”

Attaching a program like labor studies to a market like that was tantamount to “slow strangulation,” he said. “That’s what I think has happened.”

Today, the division is a “program” still has offices on six campuses, he said, but it has no director and has been subsumed into the School of Social Work at IUPUI.

“I think it is fair to say that labor studies, along with the labor movement, has suffered greatly in the last decade,” he said.


The attack on labor, labor studies and other outgrowths of 1960s social movements were part of a coordinated, broader political offensive inspired by a 1971 memo from then-soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell that urged the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to precipitate class warfare in America.

The Powell blueprint included revisionist assaults on American history and language, Seybold said. Students, for example, don’t know what a picket line is. And they don’t know that it’s not good to cross one.

“No one knows what the term scab means,” he said. “It’s been sanitized by talking about replacement workers. This was part of the plan that Powell talked about in this memo.”

The matter was fresh in Seybold’s mind, as he has just finished a review of Edward P. Morgan’s October 2011 book What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.

“There has been a fundamental effort to rewrite and revise what happened in the 1960s,” he said.


Seybold watched from the classroom as the labor movement in Indiana and nationwide sputtered and lost support.

“When I was in labor studies, I taught in many of the campuses in Indiana,” he said. “In Kokomo, I had some students who weren’t in the labor movement, and they were pretty hostile to the labor movement.”

During class breaks, however, those same students approached him asking for help getting hired at the union shops in their communities.

Seybold doesn’t blame just the Powell-inspired forces that swept Reagan into office and have decimated the labor movement over the past three decades.

“Labor had something to do with that itself, in that it was very insular not very responsive to the movements of the ’60s,” he said.

Labor also failed to counter the common perception that unions were corrupt.

“That comes up a lot,” he said. “I think that it’s generally very overstated, but when I used to go into the school systems around here and in Bloomington and Ellettsville … the two questions most frequently asked were: ‘Why would I have somebody take union dues out of my paycheck?’ and ‘Isn’t the labor movement corrupt?'”

Seybold cited the 2010 book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, by Jefferson R. Cowie, when he explained how American workers’ embrace of Ronald Reagan contributed to their own downfall.

“It’s about the 1970s and the labor movement and the insurgencies that came out of the 60s and how these were eventually marginalized,” he said. “Reagan successfully created Reagan Democrats and fooled a lot of union members for quite some time.”

“I always said to the UAW members in Anderson when I was teaching them, ‘I could give you 1980 because you were confused,'” he said. “‘But I won’t give you 1984, repeating the mistake.'”

After Ohio voters in a Nov. 8, 2011, referendum overwhelmingly rejected Republican Gov. John Kasich’s law to deprive public employees of their collective bargaining rights, Seybold responded with guarded optimism, at least for the short term.

“The Ohio vote was a significant repudiation of the governor,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In many states Republicans have overreached and provoked significant resistance by workers to their policies.”

He is hopeful that momentum from Ohio will carry on to Wisconsin citizens’ attempts to recall Gov. Scott Walker and fuel retaliation in other states where Republican governors have implemented similar anti-worker measures.

“In Indiana, so-called Right to Work legislation will be back on the legislative agenda, and it is very important to defeat this measure,” he wrote. “The Republicans are sadly mistaken to think that they can compete for jobs by reducing worker’s rights and bargaining power. What this leads to is a race to the bottom and will create more working poor in this state.”

No one gains from such policies except the already-privileged elites, Seybold concluded.

“We tried this formula before under George W. Bush,” he wrote, “and it contributed greatly to our current economic crisis.”

Steven Higgs can be reached at

Steven Higgs is a retired journalist and author who lives in Bloomington, Ind., and teaches journalism at the Indiana University Media School. He can be reached at