“The Shift From the Unions”

A Twitter-friend and I have been batting around an analogy between the 1920s and the era we’re living through now. There’s the brief rise of a white Protestant right-populist movement (the KKK then, Tea Party now). There’s the likeness between Obama’s conservative brand of progressivism and that of Herbert Hoover — an analogy that was drawn out at length by Kevin Baker in an essay in Harper’s a couple years ago.

But what got that ball rolling was this comment from the economics blogger Noah Smith:

The country is becoming more liberal, but unions are losing more and more battles. This should tell us something.

It was in reply to that aperçu that I retorted, “Sounds like the 20’s” — and it went from there. Of course, the 1920s came on the eve of a great labor upsurge, as Jacobin’s own Shawn Gude noted — which was kind of my point, in a snarky way. And it reminded me of a little bit of history I came across recently and thought I’d share. Amidst the events in Michigan, and the trend stories about the inevitable decline of labor, it’s worth putting in your pocket.

From an editorial in the New York Times:

“The Shift From the Unions”

June 27, 1926

Samuel Gompers used to declare that the American Federation of Labor “never would surrender the advantages gained through the war.” Yet in the six years 1920–25 it fell off in mere numbers from its peak of over 4,050,000 to 2,877,297. According to a writer in Current History, there has been an even greater decline in prestige. As Research Director of the Pennsylvania Old Age Commission, Abraham Epstein lately inspected “1500 of the larger concerns of the United States.” Almost everywhere, he found a shift away from the unions. “If the labor movement is doomed,” he asks, “what then?”

Mr. Epstein pays high tribute to the achievements of the Federation. Not only to its own members but to American labor in general it has brought shorter hours, higher wages, improved working conditions. But he quotes its very leaders as attesting that its “vitality and missionary zeal” are in decadence. In the Pennslvania Federation twenty-two out of twenty-six officials “unequivocally declared” to this effect. Some of them conscientiously took the blame upon themselves. Others found refuge in current patter — “the automobile, the radio, the movies, the good times, the bad times, President Coolidge, the ignorance of the workers, the Communists, the gross materialism of the labor movement, the capitalism of the labor movement, the capitalist press, the lack of a labor press. Our younger members, especially, have gone jazzy.” Mr. Epstein finds, rather, that “the hopes and aspirations of the rank and file” are in process of being transferred from outside union leaders to the managerial forces within the workers’ several shops.