Cold War Liberalism and the Labor Movement: The Epic Fail

Image Source: Seattle Union Record 11-01-1913 – Public Domain

During the Cold War, labor unions violated the basic principle of solidarity by joining forces with Imperial elites to weaken militant trade unionism abroad — usually under the mantle of anti-communism.

By undermining unions, AFL-CIO foreign policy helped corporations exercise global control and contributed its share to the availability of cheap labor abroad. That cheap labor then became a central ingredient in outsourcing, plant closing, wage suppression, and the loss of jobs at the heart of labor’s decline.

This support for empire was sometimes called “Cold War Liberalism” because many liberals, progressives, even some radicals joined the anti-communist crusade. Cold War liberals use a logic similar to the lesser evil thinking so prevalent in US domestic politics. It goes like this: “Sure the US Empire is bad but in this case the Russia, Chinese, etc. etc. “imperialism” is so much worse.” By this logic radicals vote for Democrats. By this logic radicals support US Imperialism. By this logic the peace movement is deprived of its most important political meaning: anti-imperialism. We cannot stop the wars unless we see war as a product of the war machine — not simply the foreign policy choices of one or another President. In fact, the enduring bi-partisan consensus on war has its roots in the Cold War liberalism of the post WWII period.

Labor’s eager cooperation with the Cold War agenda undermined our unions and our way of life at home. That was the price we all paid so union officials could be “team-players” and reap the illusory benefits of the machine: status, minor concessions and patronage positions.

The domestic counterpart of the Cold War was the mid-century social contract, also called the labor-capital accord.

The Mid-Century Social Contract

In the wake of W.W.II, America’s unrivaled economic and political power allowed most Americans to enjoy a remarkable period of economic opportunity. Government promoted economic growth through a vast array of Keynesian spending programs including investment in higher education. As the GI Bill opened the door to everyday people, higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post war economic activity.

Business leaders upheld their end of the bargain by agreeing to a rising standard of living for most workers that included such protections as pensions, medical benefits, job security and meaningful minimum wages set by law.[1] Unions were reluctantly tolerated as long as labor officials agreed to management’s right to be the sole authority governing business.

This contradictory combination of fighting for workers on one hand, while supporting the empire’s war against communism on the other worked a bit of ideological magic. It allowed Cold War liberals to maintain their progressive image and a seemingly radical critique of the system while collaborating with the ruling class. All they had to do was limit their vision of what was possible by keeping socialism, economic democracy, or anti-imperialism off the table.

The limits of the mid-century social contract were formalized by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Democrats joined with Republicans to override Truman’s veto of what he called the “slave labor act.” Taft-Hartley purged communists, stripped unions of powerful tactics and promoted “right to work” laws.

The other part of the deal between labor and capital was the 1950 UAW contact known as the “Treaty of Detroit.”[2].  While Taft- Hartley was the “stick” the Treaty of Detroit was the “carrot.” It set the pattern for increased material rewards for millions of workers.

The benefits of the 1950 UAW contract was the result of years of rank and file power. Such power, based on organizing and activism, is always insecure under capitalism and could in no way be guaranteed by deals at the top. The Treaty of Detroit has been repealed by half a century of austerity, while Taft-Hartley is all too alive and well.

At that key moment in US history, labor made a fateful compromise and chose to pursue private welfare plans rather than commit to the struggle for universal health care, such as that proposed by Truman in 1945.

Special benefits may have temporarily motivated workers to join unions. But, once austerity kicks in by the mid-70s, exclusive union rights backfired and encouraged resentment among unorganized workers making them open to anti-union appeals.

Exclusive union welfare plans yielded decisive ground: health care or pensions became private matters for “member’s only” not political rights for all. Cold War liberalism trapped unions into setting the stage for, and then adapting to, the great austerity which continues to the present.

Be it Cold War liberalism or mid-century social contract, Labor’s political possibilities were set and policed by the Democratic Party. And, this is nothing new. Since the days of Tammany Hall in the 19th Century, big city machines have corralled first Irish-Americans then Blacks and many others since. The bribe: swap narrow self-interest in the form of racial, status, or class privilege — including the most pathetic and temporary forms of material benefits or patronage — for freedom, equality and democracy.

Cold War Liberalism was quite a bargain for the Corporate Empire — it manufactured consent on the cheap.

As the New Cold War intensifies and the Biden Democrats throw a few crumbs our way, we can expect to see the reemergence of Cold War Liberalism.


1) For more on the mid-century social contract see David Brody, Workers in Industrial America, Chapters 5 and 6; Barry and Irving Bluestone, Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business, Chapter 2; Nelson Lichtenstein and Stephen Meyer, On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, pp. 1-16; Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968. For more see p. 109 Endnote #3, in Richard Moser, “Organizing the New Faculty Majority” in Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System,Keith Hoeller editor, Vanderbilt Press, 2014. Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit.

Richard Moser writes at where this article first appeared.