Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign

Early last Fall, I received a surprising circular email from a high union officer and erstwhile leader of SDS, way back in the early 1960s. It contained an urgent appeal: get behind Hillary, because this is an era for defensive struggles. The letter-writer had also been an early and articulate opponent of the US invasion of Vietnam. I puzzled at his conversion to the War Candidate. I winced, some months later, as his union staffers crossed the border from my own Wisconsin to work feverishly in Iowa against….the labor candidate, Bernie Sanders, who lost by a hair (perhaps a hair that did not exist!). And again back in Wisconsin, where the best or worst efforts of his union, joined to the purported idealists of the labor movement, SEIU, failed somehow to keep the state in line for Hillary. They could not carry the working class vote.

Echoes of 2011, the year of the great conflict in Wisconsin. Shortly before the occupation of the capitol building, setting off months of intense struggle, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (the earliest of unions to support Hillary and oppose Bernie in 2015) came to town to warn AFT members on campus against rash action. The AFT, whose pet Shanker Institute functionary was the union’s attack dog against opponents of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, could not act otherwise.  It has been dominated in every respect by the New York affiliate, UFT, where Shankerism is never out of style, and where domestic reform demands, never be aimed seriously at prestigious neoliberal Democratic officials like Rahm Emanuel, takes second place or last place to the hawkish global agenda. Which is to say: war, war, war, Albert Shanker’s favorite subject as he urged the US on and on toward an elusive Victory in Vietnam. He could not accept the loss, and it troubled him to his last days, when his allies had been driven from AFL leadership and he devolved personally into a symbol of hawkery and of opposition to Affirmative Action within the labor movement. (All credit goes to the AFT membership at the grass roots, especially but not only in Chicago, which has resisted Command Central.) It is easy to imagine that Hillary Clinton channels his ghost, howling for victory in all the next Vietnams, at whatever loss of civilian blood and tax-payer treasure.

All this must remind the aging historian of…well, the old AFL-CIO of the Cold War years extending from the pre-merger purge of Left unions in 1949-50 all the way to the defeat of the badly fumbling, incompetent AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland in 1995. It’s not a pleasant story, especially at the leadership levels. I won’t try to recuperate the details from my 1999 study of the labor bureaucracy, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor.. But a few of the highlights are worth referencing during this campaign season.

Samuel Gompers, although a socialist when young, swiftly became the model leader of exclusionary and conservative-leaning craft unionism. He lobbied furiously against Chinese workers’ presence in the US, as he ruled out nonwhite workers and most women workers (some managed to get in anyway, mainly if not only at the margins) as unsuited to his version of unionism, whose strategic vision focused upon the limitation of the competition for jobs. To the end of his days, he sought to end European immigration as well, including Jews who might have been saved by the hundreds of thousands if not millions, had they been permitted entry into the US. Not that he was a key figure in immigration-restriction legislation, but he was an ardent spokesman in its ranks, giving evidence to the public of cross-class support, that is to say working class Archie Bunkerism.

Gompers’ crucial moment–among the decades of bitterly opposing socialists and wobblies, breaking strikes of competing unions–was surely the First World War. For reasons peculiar to the moment, he had argued against the US entry into the Spanish-American war. (One strong argument of the time: the fear of encompassing too many nonwhites into the expanded American empire.) It was otherwise in 1917. President Woodrow Wilson, with Gompers’ ardent support, had thousands of socialists and wobblies arrested, their publications shut down, and a strong message sent to restless Latin American workers: get in line for business unionism, US style, or else. In return, the AFL prospered until….the Red Scare of 1919 and the recession that followed wiped out most of the gains. Whether Gompers’ deal with Wilson really offered essential steps toward the statutory acceptance of industrial unionism, enacted during the furious class struggle of the 1930s, remains an open question for historians.

Fast-forward to the 1950s, when the marriage of the AFL and CIO, overseen by intelligence agency veterans, seemed to herald a new era of respectability and advance. Organized labor’s leadership  had never really accepted domestic or farm workers into its ranks. George Meany’s AFL in particular showed precious little interest in women office workers or nonwhite workers at any location, thus ill-preparing the movement for the decline of industry not then far in the future.

Labor’s progressives and some distinctly non-progressive realists pushed forward at all levels of government employees, because here political pressure could be effectively brought to bear.  Besides, teachers, health workers and public servants at large were badly underpaid and willing to struggle. Here, labor actually embraced millions of women workers, at long last, not to mention African Americans employed at all branches of city, state and federal services. The labor movement, embracing them, became genuinely more democratic.

Soon enough, “making deals” at the expense of union members also became a standard practice, nowhere more than among teachers. The members of the National Education Association (NEA),  guild-members in their own eyes rather than outright unionists, also could not quite embrace a top-down AFT, obsessed with foreign affairs and given to odd alliances. Case in point: Albert Shanker’s protégé Linda Chavez, editor of its publication, the American Educator, bragged later that she had transformed it into an outstanding conservative publication. Making a parallel move into the Reagan administration, she made quite a career for herself along these lines. (Her latest book is titled Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.) Facing an era of budget retrenchment, public unionism has meanwhile sunk steadily downward, attempting to defend previous gains, reluctant to make waves, and determined above all to support Democrats, no matter how inclined toward budget-cutting and “reforms” that take power out of the classroom, in the particular case of teachers, and into the hands of privatizers.

We seem to have come to the end of the story, or at least one large chapter, with many of the big unions’ scorning of Bernie Sanders, socialistic working class champion. Badly-needed resources extracted from dues, sans membership votes, continue to be poured down the same drain, in expectation of favors from a future centrist administration. Lose-lose? Rebelliously democratic union locals and a handful of internationals, meanwhile, offer an alternative to the slow death of American unionism. What would Gene Debs do? We already know.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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