From Revitalization to Dispossession

On the twentieth anniversary of New Labor Forum, Steve Fraser reflects on organized labor’s hopes and disappointments over the last two decades.

Edith Ransom and Charles Zimmerman (center) of ILGWU Local 22 march with others in the 1937 May Day parade. Kheel Center / Flickr

New Labor Forum’s (NLF) first issue appeared in 1997, but its birth pangs — labor pains if you will — began two years earlier.

In 1995, the American labor movement underwent a rare change in leadership, as the “New Voice” slate took charge of the AFL-CIO. To many at the time, it seemed to signal something more important and far-reaching than a routine changing of the guard.

I remember writing a letter, along with my friend and labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, to the New York Review of Books welcoming this unexpected upheaval at the top because we thought it might refresh not only a weakened labor movement then in deep retreat but also inspire hope that such a revitalized labor movement might bring back broader movements for social justice and equality. A variety of intellectual and political luminaries, including such unlikely brothers as Arthur Schlesinger Jr and Noam Chomsky, cosigned the letter, illustrating the breadth of hope excited by John Sweeney’s election.

Twenty years on, very, very few of those hopes have been realized. A wise friend once told me that there are really only two questions in the world: What’s the problem, and who do you blame? The left-progressive world mastered this approach to life long, long ago, but I’d like to try and avoid it.

It might be more useful to remember the context in which Sweeney was elected, Nelson and I wrote our letter, and the Joseph S. Murphy Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center came up with the idea of publishing a journal. Was the tide running in or out on our cherished hopes for reform and rebirth?

The Second Gilded Age

By the mid-1990s, the notion that the country was experiencing a second Gilded Age had become a journalistic commonplace. Tycoons were lionized, and business as the essential business of America — to coin or paraphrase something President Calvin Coolidge penned back in the Jazz Age — had once again become an article of faith. We were a country of “winners” and “losers” and proud of it.

Galloping rates of income and wealth inequality weren’t invisible so much as they were duly recorded in government reports and news stories and then ignored. The nation’s social conscience was at a low ebb.

This social unconsciousness infected both political parties. Under Bill Clinton, neoliberalism had replaced New Deal liberalism, becoming a bipartisan persuasion. Acquiescence to this state of affairs could be detected everywhere, including in the labor movement, which had been on the defensive for years.

Neoliberalism was, of course, more than an ideology; it was also a material assault. It deindustrialized the nation while empowering the financial sector. It gutted whole regions and ways of life. It transgressed, undermined, and even retrofitted legal protections to serve the corporation. The heartland of twentieth-century trade unionism, where a mobilized industrial working class had once wielded real power, grew anemic. These became lands of dispossession, with unions just barely clinging to life.

The new economic order opened up fresh territory for predatory exploitation. These were zones of precarious labor, vulnerable, unmonitored — essentially defenseless and fatally fragmented.

The labor force itself changed color and gender and immigration status. These were workers with little or no experience with a labor movement, which in turn had done its own part to keep them outside the perimeter of the protected.

Financial domination of the country’s economy also penetrated markets and work sites abroad. Jobs migrated to the Global South and elsewhere. With that, the tensile strength of the American labor movement grew weaker, its institutions easier and easier to intimidate.

All of this and more conspired against achieving the hopes invested in the Sweeney election and in the founding of a journal like New Labor Forum.

Today we are accustomed to thinking of the organized labor movement as perilously close to extinction. Even twenty years ago it was on everybody’s mind. But there is a telling difference in kind between being endangered and being nearly extinct. In 1997 it was still possible to imagine the institutionalized trade union movement as a vehicle of social transformation. How ambitious!

But what were those ambitions more precisely?

Mass organizing of the unorganized probably topped the agenda. Instead of focusing on salvaging what was fast disappearing, unions would venture where they had either long since ceased going or never gone at all. In the process, it would add muscle to defending what they still had.

In turn that would mean venturing into newer sectors and regions of the economy. Some were not so much new as new to trade unionism, like the service industries. Others represented innovations in the technical division of labor, like telecommunications, and some had long been terra incognito except for a few redoubts here and there, like the South.

Victories in mass organizing could and would, by virtue of sheer numbers, stop neoliberal anti-unionism in its tracks. So it was foretold.

The labor movement couldn’t hope for such triumphs without challenging and overturning longstanding racial, ethnic, and gender barriers and hierarchies both at the leadership level and further down the ranks; after all, the new labor force, and in particular, growing percentages of the unionized workforce, were people of color and women. This anticipated breakthrough could be internally lifesaving.

It might also build connections to the outside world. Alliances with people-of-color, immigrant, and women’s organizations might now become more than mere pious wishes. This was the long-sought-after holy grail: a trade union movement transformed into a social movement.

People, in and outside of the labor movement, who sensed these possibilities could reasonably look forward to a time when the “labor question,” newly enriched by its imbrication with other movements for social justice, could interrogate and stand up to the second Gilded Age as it once had the first.

These desires and expectations, at least the primary ones, gave rise first of all to a little organization I was briefly involved with — Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), which sponsored a widely reported teach-in with the new labor movement at Columbia University. Soon after — and this is perhaps the only lasting legacy of SAWSJ — came New Labor Forum, which I’m both happy and chagrined to report lasted a lot longer than SAWSJ.

With some simplification, you could say that SAWSJ operated from the outside in and New Labor Forum from the inside out. SAWSJ attempted to create the kind of satellite organizations of intellectuals and artists that had orbited around and in support of the labor movement in the 1930s and ’40s. In contrast, NLF, because of its extensive ties to the existing trade union world, emphasized those behaviors and policies that might help reorient the labor movement in the direction Sweeney’s election promised.

But that was by no means the sole subject of its attention in those opening years. Indeed, the journal hoped to reach a much broader audience not only outside the trade union movement but even outside the narrow precincts where labor-left intellectuals typically gathered. Detectable here too was a harkening back to the labor movement’s golden era during the New Deal.

For both SAWSJ and NLF, these hopes were simultaneously grand and circumscribed by a horizon established long ago. The next twenty years would turn out to be a long course in lost illusions.

From New Deal to Third Way

Perhaps the most painful and poignant realization was that the trade union movement could not bear the load. It was inherently incapable, all by itself, of functioning as the vessel of broader social transformation.

Here the past haunted and disabled the present. The CIO in its heyday was the de facto model for the future, a view that overlooked the political atmosphere of the 1930s that had allowed an insurgent labor movement to perform great feats outside of its accustomed zone of activity.

Specifically, the Democratic Party of Clinton was worlds removed from the party of Roosevelt. The New Deal party was in a molten state, open to all sorts of social pressures from the outside, even from the invisibles of the industrial heartland. The party of the Democratic Leadership Council had long since closed itself off to such pressures. It had become a fixed entity, frozen in place by the new political economy of finance-driven deindustrialization and casual labor.

Unlike elsewhere in the West, the American labor movement had never — with some momentary exceptions — given birth to a political correlate that could articulate broader anticapitalist ambitions. The party of the New Deal had been a substitute for that, albeit a malformed one full of contradictions. In any event, by 1995 it was dead, and that death had removed the vital understructure that had helped transform a trade union movement into a social movement.

But both the labor cadre and the flotsam and jetsam of a dissociated left — of which I consider myself a typical piece of flotsam — had, reluctantly or not, become enmeshed in the politics of the lesser evil, notwithstanding airy propositions about third parties, labor parties, and socialist parties that got floated now and then. This entrapment was not so much morally corrupt in its origins (though it could be) but mainly a form of resignation and acquiescence.

It was also a failure of imagination, to not acknowledge that the New Deal was over, not to be resurrected but transcended. Easy for me to levy that indictment, but name someone who escapes it. The New Deal exists to this day in some sense as the velvet prison of thwarted desire.

Inside that prison salutary memories of a muscular and masculine labor movement lived on even as the labor force, both unionized and unorganized showed a different profile. I don’t mean that the established labor leadership was chauvinist or nativist or merely locked into perpetuating its own kind. That’s a fairly standard accusation and contains more than a grain of truth. Instead, I’m thinking of the labor movement’s aesthetics.

What I mean is its form, crafted to coincide with the architecture of industrial capitalism. However much the new postindustrial economy decentered labor, the model of the factory and the form of labor organization that had been congruent with that massing of workers continued to prevail as a model. It was inherently masculine insofar as the romance of labor had, in the main, endowed the movement with a mighty bicep congruent with the gargantuan machinery, the fiery furnaces, and all-sided heavy-lifting amid which industrial work was embedded.

This memorialized labor movement was becoming an anachronism, a form whose content was withering away when measured against the emerging world of flexible, fragmented, subcontracted, temporary, free-agent work characteristic of new economic order. That was more than a disillusioning experience; it was a puzzle with no obvious solution. It left both labor organizers and their fellow travelers among the intellectual flotsam and jetsam at sea.

Aggravating this sense of disorientation was the experience of political abandonment, which the new labor leadership probably felt most acutely. The movement’s political practice had for a long time consisted of shoring up relations with a ghost — namely, the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which by the mid-1990s could not even pass muster as a saving remnant.

Still, what else to do? Lacking confidence — and for good reason — that the labor movement could rely on its own dwindling resources to rebirth itself, leaders sent lifelines out to the party elite and invested herculean efforts and precious resources on its behalf. Not much came back, and it was bitter to realize how little a once mighty institution mattered to a party the labor movement once considered its own. What to do preoccupied many, filled the pages of the New Labor Forum, and unsettled those hopes of a new day.

Black and White Unite

What about that most elusive, tormenting, and vital aspiration of all aspirations — black and white unite and fight — that the Sweeney victory seemed positioned to realize?

One tried and true way of answering this question is to point to the racial prejudices that had for generations pockmarked the labor movement and still did. A slightly subtler version of this critique held that labor leaders and white radicals tended to subordinate or even efface the needs and demands of their black coalition partners. This observation is chronic because it’s true, but it’s worth considering the dilemma from another angle as well.

On the one hand, a growing proportion of the active labor movement consisted of African Americans and other people of color. Sweeney’s own union was a case in point. Moreover, these segments of the labor movement tended to display a fighting spirit and a greater openness to calls for social justice. Here the “labor question” might still be addressed head on.

But this was not so much the case elsewhere in the black community. There, a newly risen black middle class, empowered by civil rights legislation and the war on poverty, dominated African-American organizational and political life alongside the black clergy.

In these circles, the “labor question” appeared lower on the agenda, if at all. (There were important exceptions, as for example the NAACP under Julian Bond, who warmly welcomed the emergence of SAWSJ).

Suspicions about the real intentions of the new and still disproportionately white labor leadership were certainly reasonable. But the African-American political class and the array of civil rights and community organizations could use this distrust as an excuse to avoid matters that might spill over into class conflict.

This is not to accuse these circles of political cowardice but rather of adopting a position and pursuing objectives that ran at right angles to the “labor question” — which is to say in the direction of furthering the cause of individual as opposed to collective rights and powers.

The dream of building coalitions between a revitalized labor movement — cleansed at least partially of its greatest sin — and the world of civil rights and black liberation fighters was further curtailed from the outset by a kind of historical disinterest on the part of the latter.

The consequences ran deeper than that. They were evident in the recent electoral cycle. While segments of the white working class oscillated between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, all but the youngest African Americans lined up behind Hillary Clinton, especially in the South.

This happened despite the fact that the Democratic Party had done little to improve and much to further the deterioration of everyday life for black Americans. Here that same entrenched black political class, conditioned by the experience of the last half-century, paid dividends for the Clintons.

This history also hurt the Sanders campaign’s ability to achieve some of the same heightened expectations for social justice aroused twenty years earlier. Some blame him for neglecting distinctly black needs and desires. This is clearly true to some extent, but how much so is debatable.

More important, however, the labor and allied political activists who participated in and celebrated the 1995 palace upheaval rarely deal with the capturing of the black vote by political elites who do not have their best interests at heart.

This truism is largely verboten territory. The established black political class would surely resist it. Further, to confront it would spoil the romantic illusion of a homogeneous and progressive-minded black America that has inherently virtuous political instincts.

Race guilt feeds this fear of offense in some measure, but the labor movement also fears forfeiting relations with the African American organizational milieu even though its leaders remain by and large uninterested in cultivating coalitions with the labor movement.

So long as most black voters can reliably be counted on to invest their fate in the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party — tutored in that preference by their own religious and political leadership class — the prospects for a cross-race labor and left alliance will remain distant.

Of course, a majority of the labor movement also climbed aboard the Clinton train as it headed for the cliff. However, there was and is a substantial and growing Sanders wing of the labor movement. This remarkable development has unleashed a force that is exercising significant power in a party once again in at least a semi-molten state. Something like that hasn’t even been dreamed of since the days of Bayard Rustin.

If the same organized divisions were to appear within the realm of African American politics, the I-have-a-dream moment of 1995 might have real legs. At the very least, we in the labor movement must attend to the internal social and political divisions within the African American and immigrant communities if we want to escape the prison of consoling delusions.

Salvage Time

Tragic beyond measure was how the labor movement hemorrhaged at its core, even before Sweeney stepped on stage. Its position as the collective bargaining agent of a largely white, industrial working class had been deteriorating for decades. Whatever responsibility the labor leadership bore for this fatal turn of events, is, in my mind, overshadowed by the nearly irresistible tides of deindustrialization and the fundamental shift in the balance of class power since the 1970s.

What could be counted on, until recently at least, was a certain political loyalty among workers to the remains of New Deal liberalism, at least during biannual electoral cycles. This was emphatically the case among the organized white working class, increasingly less so among the de-organized or the never organized.

That is no longer the case; among the most stunning results of the 2016 election was the fact that in strategic precincts throughout the industrial core more white workers voted for Obama — and did so twice — than pulled the lever for Clinton. One could be justified in seeing this as frightening or promising or both. No matter what, it represented the heavy price of abandonment. In these territories of dispossession, the politics of broad-brush resentment and revenge festered; so too did the politics of identity — particularly white identity. Trump harvested those social emotions.

That these same quarters expressed sympathy for Sanders suggests that they might have been pulled in a different direction had the labor movement managed to cultivate its roots in these devastated regions. In any event, the hopes of 1995 went there to die.

Is this salvage time? In the face of what’s befallen the country, hunkering down, holding on to what still exists by way of combat organizations, probing deeper into the whys and wherefores of what has transpired may well be the order of the day.

But events are outpacing anyone’s imagination, so the answer is profoundly unclear. What seems most forbidding now may suddenly rotate 180 degrees. Hopefully left movements won’t squander these opportunities as they did twenty years ago.