We need public histories of organized labor
25 January 2013 – Richard Anderson
Two thousand and twelve was another wrenching year for American workers and labor unions. The time seems right for public historians to recover organized labor’s past and to place that history at the center of our current public policy debates. What kind of year was it for workers? The economic “recovery” has been tepid, and corporate profits are recovering much faster than wages. Unemployment hovers just under 8%. Workers who kept their jobs are logging more hours and performing more tasks for the same pay. How did unions fare in 2012? The mostly successful strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the highly publicized Thanksgiving actions against Wal-Mart were encouraging. Still, following legislative attacks on public-sector unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, and a similar campaign of vilification by my governor in New Jersey, anti-union “right-to-work” laws were enacted in Indiana and Michigan. There was heavy symbolism in Michigan–so long portrayed as the cradle of organized labor and the epicenter of the once-mighty United Auto Workers–embracing the union-busting mechanisms provided for by the 1947 Taft-Harley Act.
As the reference to Taft-Hartley suggests, current anti-union animus is nothing new. Historians continue to debate how much power unions truly possessed during labor’s “golden age” in the 1950s. Still, today’s unions operate in very different circumstances than their predecessors. During the heyday of postwar collective bargaining, many unions negotiated generous contracts with cost-of-living adjustments, overtime provisions, and paid vacations. This system of labor relations was part of larger New Deal political order that served as the governing orthodoxy of the United States between roughly the 1930s and late 1970s. The New Deal order was propelled by a private manufacturing economy stimulated by tremendous levels of public spending.
High wages and stable employment provided workers with the purchasing power necessary to consume at a high level. The federal government provided unions with some degree of legal protection, to which corporations acquiesced within limits, in exchange for stable production. Millions of Americans–particularly women and minorities–were excluded from this system. Historian Jack Metzger acknowledges the pitfalls of idealizing this era in Striking Steel, his memoir about growing up in a steelworker’s household. Yet Metzger gets to the heart of the matter by noting that “[w]hat was better then was the direction we were going.”
The New Deal order died ignominiously during in the 1970s for reasons too complex to discuss here. Today the structures of our economy and the values embedded in our system of labor relations are fundamentally different. We now have a postindustrial service/knowledge economy in which high finance is king and workers enjoy few benefits and little job security. Overall union membership rates have plummeted from a high of 35% in the mid-1950s to 12% in 2010. Yet politicians talk as if a few tweaks to the system could return us the age of postwar prosperity. President Obama told last summer’s Democratic convention that “[o]urs is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known, the values my grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton’s army, the values that drove my grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone.” But the president’s soaring rhetoric belies the fact that the economic structures that undergirded the Greatest Generation no longer exist. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was more clear-eyed when he noted in reference to Michigan’s right-to-work law that the postwar era of union strength was “not a norm but a historical anomaly.” He’s right. The New Deal order was, in the words Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore–two historians sympathetic to the labor movement–a “long exception” in American political culture. Unlike Krauthammer, however, I lament the waning of labor union strength and do not think it was inevitable. Politicians, policymakers, business leaders, even union leaders themselves made decisions that decimated American manufacturing and fatally constrained the ability of organized labor to mount an effective response.
Public historians should address this state of affairs. The struggles of workers in 2012 present public historians with an opportunity to narrate the trajectory of organized labor during the second-half of the twentieth century, linking labor’s past to the present material concerns of ordinary Americans. We should start from the premise that the contemporary degradation of workers and labor unions is part of a broader history of political economy in the United States.
I know, I know. Political economy–which examines the impact of economics on a society’s politics, social structure, and ideology–sounds hopelessly abstract and academic-ish. But it highlights issues like deindustrialization and the growth of the retail sector that are central to understanding current policy debates. The weakening of New Deal-era legal protections for workers is anything but abstract and academic to the employees attempting to organize Wal-Mart, the embodiment of postindustrial service employment.
How can we produce public histories of the labor movement that address important questions of political economy? Op-eds, blog posts, and academic texts are good formats for explaining capital flight, industrial policy, and tariffs, but they don’t allow for the kind of interactive experience that would connect today’s economically squeezed workers to the history of the New Deal order. I don’t want to suggest that no labor historians and public historians are thinking along these lines. The September 2009 edition of the journal International Labor and Working-Class History was devoted to public history. One of the essays is co-authored by UMass-Boston professor of history James Green, whose work exemplifies the possibilities of wedding labor- and public history. Last June the Alberta Labour History Institute held what looks to have been an exciting conference on public history and Canadian labor. And speaking of Canada, the upcoming NCPH conference in Ottawa will feature a walking tour of the city’s labor history.
I have more thoughts about walking tours, traveling exhibits, and heritage tourism, but I’ll save them for my next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts or learn about examples of public history that addresses the labor movement and/or the New Deal order.
~ Richard Anderson is a doctoral student in twentieth-century American history at Princeton University