Clinton and Kaine’s Anti-Union Roots

Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine's forebears aren't the New Deal's labor liberals. They're the Progressive Era's anti-union reformers.

The Anthracite Coal Strike Commission in session in Scranton, PA on November 17, 1902. The Clarence Darrow Collection

In July of this year, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Chamber of Commerce, two organizations with long, proud histories of challenging organized labor, expressed genuine excitement at Hillary Clinton’s decision to tap Tim Kaine, the US senator and former governor of Virginia, as her running mate.

In a press release published immediately after the selection, Jay Timmons, the CEO and president of NAM, stated, “I have worked with Sen. Kaine in a number of capacities over the years and am pleased to count him as a friend. From his time as mayor of Richmond, to lieutenant governor and governor of Virginia, to his current service in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Kaine has proven to be a principled leader.” While acknowledging that he doesn’t agree with Kaine “on every issue,” the NAM head nevertheless lauded what he called Kaine’s “integrity.”

For its part, the Chamber of Commerce commended Kaine for understanding “how important global markets are for creating opportunities for U.S. companies and workers.” Both organizations applauded Kaine for his previous statements in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which critics have called “NAFTA on steroids.”

It also couldn’t hurt that Kaine hails from a “right to work” state, one of twenty-six where unions are prevented from collecting “fair share” fees for representing non-union employees and where workers generally enjoy a lower standard of living.

Business organizations have long pushed right-to-work laws, and the spokespersons for these organizations, including the National Right To Work Committee — an Astroturf group headquartered in Kaine’s home state of Virginia — present themselves as defenders of “worker rights” and opponents of “union bosses.” NRTWC describes itself as an honorable fighter for the rights of the underdogs, independently minded job-hunters, and workers forced to confront intrusive and often violent “labor union monopolies.”

And it has nothing to worry about locally: Kaine has a well-documented history of supporting his state’s union-crushing law.

We should neither be surprised by the support business organizations like the NAM and the Chamber of Commerce have given to Kaine, nor by the endorsements Hillary Clinton has received from hedge fund managers and business leaders.

In fact, the relationships Clinton and Kaine have cultivated with organized labor’s foremost opponents reflect earlier, though relatively under-explored, business-liberal alliances. For Kaine and Clinton, it’s not New Deal labor liberals who represent their forebears. It’s the Progressive Era’s middle-class reformers.

Liberal Reformers and the Open Shop

Most of today’s chroniclers of anti-unionism have taught us more about the dynamics and evils of conservatism than about the nature and limits of Clinton-style liberalism. In their hands, the story of the twentieth century has become one about the New Deal order’s rise and fall — “From Roosevelt to Reagan.”

Their narrative goes something like this: labor-liberal coalitions emerged in the late nineteenth century, securing a number of worker-related improvements in the Progressive Era and achieving huge gains during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt — particularly federally protected collective bargaining rights.

The conservative movement — a pro-free-market network of business organizations, economists, think tanks, reactionary newspaper columnists, faith-based leaders, and Republican politicians — sprung up in reaction. After languishing in obscurity, the Right gained strength, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan and his subsequent crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers strike.

In the decades since, politicians have established more right-to-work states, managers have kept wages relatively low, and employers have relocated millions of jobs to low-wage regions around the world. The gap has widened between the rich and poor, driven by the collapse in union membership. For this, many argue, we can blame conservatives.

But figures like Tim Kaine complicate such a narrative.

Indeed, there is a fundamentally different way to understand the origins, characteristics, and influences of anti-union ideas and actions, an interpretation that places middle-class liberalism, not conservatism, at the center of the story.

This story urges us to focus our attention on the Progressive Era — a period when a variety of religious and secular reformers, politicians, and policymakers sought to protect the environment, safeguard our food supply, break up industrial monopolies, and campaign to protect society’s most vulnerable wage earners, including women and child laborers.

The Progressive Era was also a time when employers, representing various-sized workplaces, helped establish a nationally coordinated, multi-industry open-shop movement, one designed, its spokespersons insisted, to break up “labor monopolies” and protect non-union workers’ “right to work.”

Mirroring the propaganda of today’s right-to-work associations, the movement’s representatives disseminated messages designed to draw attention to the plight of honest job-seekers and law-abiding workers, not power-hungry managers. Open-shop movement advocates, like contemporary anti-union crusaders, demanded that those seeking employment receive work whether or not they belonged “to some union.”

Such messages received enthusiastic support from a number of well-known reformers outside of industrial relations settings, including Louis Brandeis, George Creel, Washington Gladden, and, above all, Theodore Roosevelt. Together, they accepted the basic logic surrounding the movement and encouraged Americans to support its goals.

In 1909, The New Encyclopedia of Social Reform, the most influential handbook of Progressive Era reformers, featured an unambiguously positive write-up about both the open-shop principle and the leading organizations behind it.

By insisting on the need to protect the rights of non-unionists, open-shop advocates complemented, rather than undermined, the period’s middle-class reformist spirit.

Large numbers of liberals, both inside and outside of workplaces, believed that the open-shop principle was progressive and fully consistent with other modern developments, including child labor and consumer protection laws, anti-trust regulations, efforts to clean up city governments, and campaigns to eradicate signs of urban blight.

No individual helped to both legitimize the open-shop principle and inspire anti-union employers more than Theodore Roosevelt. Most historians have described Roosevelt as a genuine supporter of labor rights, but his record suggests that he was more inclined to side with management than labor during industrial disputes. As the more astute scholars have pointed out, Roosevelt was actually to the right of his predecessor, William McKinley, when it came to labor laws.

Consider Roosevelt’s involvement in the massive 1902 anthracite coal strike. Tens of thousands of United Mine Workers members had walked out after demanding wage increases, reduced hours, and a closed shop. Coal mine operators responded by mobilizing strikebreakers, prompting angry strikers to guard workplaces and protest, often violently, against the scabs.

Concerned about the potential shortage of coal, Roosevelt was eager to end the conflict. Yet rather than deploy troops like earlier presidents, he approached the conflict diplomatically, establishing the seven-person Anthracite Coal Strike Commission to investigate the walkout’s causes and to suggest reforms.

The commission, led by former Democratic senator George Gray, recommended modest wage increases, but refused to endorse the United Mine Workers’ primary goal, union recognition. The commission justified their decision partially by invoking history’s most celebrated champion of “free labor”: “Abraham Lincoln said, ‘No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.’ This is as true in trade unions as elsewhere.” Roosevelt and his commissioners named the settlement, which they touted as a win for both unionists and non-unionists, “The Square Deal.”

A major Progressive Era development, the Square Deal is still often hailed as a victory for the labor movement. After all, coal miners won a 10 percent wage increase, and Roosevelt had refused to unleash troops on protesters (as presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland had in 1877 and 1894, respectively).

And in many ways, the open-shop part of the deal appeared perfectly compatible with the period’s suite of reforms. First, by insisting that employees must enjoy access to the coal mines irrespective of union status, the commission complemented the anti-monopoly views that pervaded the era. Second, by stating that non-union members must be able to enter the workplace without confronting pressure from protesters, the Square Deal legitimized the plight of the underdog — another value that united many of the era’s reformers.

Finally, by citing the words of Lincoln — widely admired by liberals of the day — the commissioners positioned themselves as inheritors of an honorable tradition supported by one of the nation’s most farsighted statesman, a leader fully committed to protecting the rights of “free labor.”

“Let Us Not Array Class Against Class”

Those active in employers’ associations were thrilled at Roosevelt’s explicit advocacy of open shop. In 1905, Frederick W. Job, the Chicago Employers’ Association’s main strikebreaking coordinator, told an interviewer that “we believe that the open shop is merely the embodiment of President Roosevelt’s apt expression, ‘a square deal, no more, no less.’” Two years later, James Van Cleave, a St Louis stove manufacturer and the NAM president, announced that the movement he helped lead was committed to “the principles of the Anthracite Commission.”

Advocates of genuine collective bargaining rights and closed shops — the victims of the Square Deal’s underlying logic — also acknowledged Roosevelt’s importance. One writer called him “the hero of the open shop.”

Seven months after Roosevelt unveiled and trumpeted the Square Deal, an array of anti-labor actors — manufacturers, merchants, lawyers, clergymen, veterans of late nineteenth-century vigilante campaigns in the South and West, battle-hardened participants from Colorado’s “mine wars,” self-identified reformers, and an assortment of representatives from businessmen associations — assembled in Chicago to establish what became the period’s most inclusive and powerful union-fighting organization.

Delegates named it the Citizens Industrial Association of America, and chose David M. Parry, the NAM’s head at the time, to serve as president. It appeared that this motley crew — individuals responsible for firing and blacklisting tens of thousands of union activists across the nation’s diverse industrial landscape — was fully prepared to go into combat against the so-called “dangerous classes.” But the leadership, inspired by the “rights” language pointedly articulated by Lincoln, Roosevelt, and his commission, struck a more conciliatory tone.

“Let us not array class against class,” remarked the Reverend William J. H. Boetcker, a Presbyterian minister, movement leader, and conference delegate from Shelbyville, Indiana, at the organization’s first meeting. Parry echoed that sentiment at the group’s second meeting, stating that the organization’s chief purpose was to “serve the common welfare.”

In 1905, the CIAA, showing its deep appreciation for Roosevelt and recognizing the utility of effective framing, began publishing a monthly newspaper, The Square Deal. By mid-decade, over four hundred employers’ associations across the country had affiliated with the CIAA, vowing to protect “free workers” from “the labor bosses.”

Indeed, those active in the nascent open-shop movement did not describe the CIAA as an instrument to help employers break strikes, bust unions, or blacklist labor activists (though, in practice, it helped coordinate such practices). Rather, members were more inclined to point to what they considered their generous workplace policies, insisting that fair-minded workers had no need for their own independent organizations. Many open-shop advocates provided their non-union employees with attractive amenities, including sports teams, free turkeys during the holidays, and opportunities to attend company-sponsored outings.

In fact, movement spokespersons stressed their commitment to challenging both labor’s closed-shop advocates and industries’ most abusive employers. For them, the Square Deal meant more than simply providing a safe haven for productive non-union employees; it also meant offering desirable workplace conditions overseen by cheerful and compassionate managers. As one St Louis–based open-shop campaigner put it, the movement had “no worse enemy than the unfair employer.”

Clearly, the progressive language shamelessly employed by CIAA members contrasted sharply with the words used by the late nineteenth century’s most villainous robber barons. During the dramatic labor conflicts of that period, such figures often complained about the activities of the so-called “dangerous classes,” and cutthroat capitalists like William Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan proclaimed that they owed the public nothing at all.

Organized employers in the Progressive Era were more apt to articulate positive messages, hoping to convince the general public that the open-shop movement’s emergence marked the beginning of a genuinely liberal shift in management circles. Workplace divisions remained as sharp as ever, but managers supposedly provided their employees with a softer and gentler experience.

Though it reached its peak in the early twentieth century, employer-led reform campaigns persisted after the days of Roosevelt. Following World War I, union-fighting employers in Dallas established the “Open Shop Square Deal Association.”

And in 1938, following numerous, CIO-led victories at the point of production and pro-union political developments, Noel Sargent, a salaried leader of the NAM, denounced the National Labor Relations Act for encouraging collective bargaining at the expense of supporters of the open-shop principle, including employers and non-union employees.

In Sargent’s words, the legislation was “one-sided in its efforts to bring about such fair play,” adding that “it prohibits coercion of employees by employers but by no one else; when it lists a large number of ‘unfair practices’ by employers but recognizes not a single unfair practice by unions or union organizers.” The act, he concluded, was “contrary to the widely accepted principle so forcibly described by Theodore Roosevelt as the ‘square deal’.”

The Progressive Era’s Anti-Labor Legacy

The abiding influence of the open-shop movement can be seen in two contemporary tendencies.

First, the core messages of today’s right-to-work organizations mirror positions put forward by leaders of the early open-shop movement. In both periods, organized labor’s opponents — official business associations and Astroturf groups masquerading as champions of labor rights — have sought to conceal their obvious class interests. They framed their campaigns strategically, contending that they were motivated chiefly by an interest in defending society’s independently minded laborers rather than seeking more power and profits for themselves.

Second, the enthusiasm with which business associations like the NAM and the Chamber of Commerce have greeted Tim Kaine resembles the way an earlier generation of organized employers felt about moderately left-of-center figures like Theodore Roosevelt and George Gray. The liberals we might call neoliberal today have a long lineage.

Pro-business organizations know that Kaine and Clinton, like Roosevelt and Gray before them, will routinely make statements in front of labor unions and progressive groups they sincerely dislike. But they recognize that, in the area of political decision-making, they can be counted on to continue to promote pro-corporate trade deals, and do practically nothing to slow the decline in union membership rates. Then as now, liberals of Clinton and Kaine’s ilk have some interest in reform, but little in fostering the independent organization of workers.

If Clinton and Kaine are elected, the actions and goals of Progressive Era liberals — not the underhanded activities of mid to late twentieth century conservatives — provide the most useful guide of what to expect: anti-labor policies with a smiley face.