A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics and Labor

A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics and Labor

by Nelson Lichtenstein

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For more than thirty years Nelson Lichtenstein has deployed his scholarship—on labor, politics, and social thought—to chart the history and prospects of a progressive America. A Contest of Ideas collects and updates many of Lichtenstein's most provocative and controversial essays and reviews.
 These incisive writings link the fate of the labor movement to the transformations in the shape of world capitalism, to the rise of the civil rights movement, and to the activists and intellectuals who have played such important roles. Tracing broad patterns of political thought, Lichtenstein offers important perspectives on the relationship of labor and the state, the tensions that sometimes exist between a culture of rights and the idea of solidarity, and the rise of conservatism in politics, law, and intellectual life. The volume closes with portraits of five activist intellectuals whose work has been vital to the conflicts that engage the labor movement, public policy, and political culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079405
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/30/2012
Series: Working Class in American History Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Nelson Lichtenstein is MacArthur Foundation Professor in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. His books include Wal-Mart and World Capitalism: A Political Economy for Our Times and Walter Reuther: the Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.

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A Contest of Ideas

Capital, Politics, and Labor

By Nelson Lichtenstein


Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-03785-6


Writing and Rewriting Labor's Narrative

In the years after 1970 my New Left generation inaugurated a remarkable probe into the character, meaning, and history of the working class and its institutions. Two events in particular seemed to crystallize my decision to write a history of unionism and the state during the 1940s. The first came on the evening of September 14, 1970, when a few dozen Berkeley students drove down to Fremont's sprawling General Motors assembly complex to support rank-and-file workers when the United Automobile Workers (UAW) struck the company at midnight. Hundreds jumped the gun and rushed out of the factory a couple of hours early. These youthful, boisterous, night-shift workers happily waved our hand-painted signs—"GM: Mark of Exploitation"—took over the union hall, and cheered militant speeches, both anti-company and critical of top UAW leaders. It was the beginning of the first coordinated, nationwide stoppage at GM since the winter of 1945-1946. We didn't know it at the time, but the 1970 GM strike, which would continue for ten weeks, came right in the midst of the last great wave of twentieth-century industrial conflict in the United States.

While all of this was going on, the Berkeley branch of the International Socialists, a Trotskyist formation of New Left sensibility and "third camp" (i.e., anti-Stalinist and anticapitalist) politics, was in the midst of furious debate. Along with others radicalized on the campuses and in the anti-Vietnam War movement, a "turn toward the working class" had begun to propel thousands of student radicals into the nation's factories, warehouses, hospitals, and offices. From Berkeley, friends and comrades took off for Detroit auto plants, Chicago steel mills, Cleveland trucking companies, and all sorts of industrial jobs throughout the Bay Area.

But what were they to do when they got there? If these "industrializers" began to work their way up through the trade union apparatus, they would be helping to build an institution that seemed positively anathema to many of us. The AFL-CIO remained a firm backer of the war in Vietnam; moreover, even the more progressive unions, like the UAW and the Packinghouse Workers, appeared so strapped by bureaucracy, law, contracts, and political allegiances that they hardly seemed an appropriate vehicle to advance the class struggle. C. Wright Mills, Stanley Aronowitz, Harvey Swados, C.L.R. James, and other radicals had taught us that the growth of the union bureaucracy and the government's intrusive labor relations apparatus had robbed labor of its radical heritage. By incorporating the trade unions into the structures of the American state, or at least the twoparty system, these institutions were thought to resemble those of Stalinist or fascist regimes, where statist unions and labor fronts had been foisted upon the working class.

Thus, in the debates that animated my generation of Berkeley students, older activists, like Hal Draper and Stan Weir, made much of labor's experience during the World War II mobilization era. Then the unions had offered the state and enforced upon their members a "no-strike pledge," even as wildcat strikes (i.e., those unauthorized by higher officials), union factionalism, and labor party agitation energized many of the rank-and-filers who had built the industrial unions during the great strikes that electrified the nation between 1934 and 1941. A new generation of working-class radicals, it was therefore believed, must keep a wary eye on the union leadership and build their own independent caucuses within the labor movement. Indeed, I was beginning my research as a wave of spirited strikes, many of them wildcat, shattered the industrial relations routine in Detroit auto factories, Midwest trucking barns, big-city post offices, and throughout California agriculture. Between 1967 and 1973 the size and number of strikes reached levels not seen since the immediate post-World War II years.

This was the perspective put forth in my 1974 University of California dissertation, published in 1982 as Labor's War at Home: The CIO in World War II. The book was skeptical about the staying power of New Deal liberalism; saw the warfare state as a repressive institution; criticized Congress of Industrial Organization leaders, both "conservative" (i.e., social democratic) and Communist; and celebrated the World War II wildcat strike movement in the auto, rubber, and shipbuilding industries. It saw that the emergence of a stolid, bureaucratically insular postwar labor movement was a product not of some inherent "job-conscious" parochialism within the union rank and file, nor of McCarthyite repression after the war, but of the bargain struck between the government and cooperative, patriotic union leaders during World War II itself. This kind of argument was anathema to the then dominant set of industrial relations scholars, many themselves trained while serving with the War Labor Board and other labor relations agencies of the wartime era. These influential scholars—some of whom, like John Dunlop, Clark Kerr, Archibald Cox, George Shultz, and James MacGregor Burns, had achieved high-visibility posts in government and the academy—saw labor's World War II experience as a gloriously successful one: the unions had matured by demonstrating their patriotism, doubling their membership, and stabilizing their relationship with employers and the state.

To their way of thinking, labor history really had come to an end near 1941, if not before; what followed was "industrial relations" a policy-oriented research enterprise that sought to fine-tune a depoliticized system of labor-management accommodation and conflict. Their enormous influence blocked efforts to reconfigure a twentieth-century history of class relations. Indeed the most influential labor historians of the 1970s, Herbert Gutman, David Montgomery, and E. P. Thompson, were all students of society and ideology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. David Brody had written a pioneering social history of the 1919 steel strike, but in the 1970s there were still few conceptual tools at hand by which to examine a history of the working class or its institutions during the mid-twentieth-century decades. The "state" had not yet been "brought back in," to use a phrase coined by Theda Skocpol and her associates; nor had historians begun to deconstruct the twentieth-century working class into those categories, including race, gender, skill, and mentalité, that have subsequently proven so illuminating. During the early 1970s the left, even the academic left, still imagined an undifferentiated rank and file, which was itself the ideological product of a bipolar discourse that dichotomized a powerful set of labor leaders and a bureaucratically repressed or misled mass union membership. Thus, there were more studies written on the Knights of Labor in that decade than on the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). For labor historians it seemed a lot easier to find a usable past in the conflicts that divided a late nineteenth-century mill town than among those contractual disputes and internal union fights that structured the production regime in a Detroit factory circa 1945.

Things are different today. Decades of union decline and labor-liberal defeat have transformed the questions historians choose to ask about the trajectory of organized labor during the New Deal and World War II years. Contemporary labor and social historians write more about the CIO than the Knights, or even the radical Industrial Workers of the World. In the early twenty-first century, when the proportion of all union workers hovers just above 12 percent, organized labor's incorporation into a claustrophobic state apparatus seems far less an issue than survival of those same unions, not to mention the revival of a socially conscious, New Deal impulse within the body politic. The postwar fate of New Deal liberalism has become a highly contentious issue, so an increasingly rich historiography on the "New Deal order" now stands embedded within a reconsideration of the postwar transformation of U.S. capitalism itself. We are becoming as interested in the ideas and institutions of those who fought against labor and the New Deal—the corporations, the various layers of the middle class, the anti-New Deal politicians of the South and West, the traditionalist conservatives within the working class itself—as we are determined to dissect the contradictions inherent in mid-twentieth-century labor liberalism and the Rooseveltian state.

In this reevaluation the line that once divided the Depression decade from that of the war and the era of postwar politics now appears increasingly fractured. In part this stems from our understanding that the working class of the 1930s was hardly as radical as once conceived, or rather, that its presumptive militancy cannot be divorced from the state structures and institutions that are dialectically complicit in that advanced level of working-class mobilization. The nature of "militancy" and "conservatism" within the working class has become hugely problematic as questions of ethnicity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and regionalism have moved to the fore. Thus the warfare state did not instantly make irrelevant the politics, the social ideologies, or the ethnocultural matrix that had structured class relations during the heyday of the New Deal itself. Continuity, not abrupt change, characterizes the political culture of the late 1930s and early 1940s. As I often tell my classes, December 7, 1941, is the most overrated day in U.S. history.

Thus, historians now see that the political economy of World War II is part of a larger New Deal order that stretched from the early 1930s to the 1970s. This was an era characterized by Democratic Party dominance, Keynesian statecraft, and a trade union movement whose power and presence was too often taken for granted, not the least by historians of "state development" Industry-wide unions sustained both the dominance of the Democratic Party and a quasi-corporatist system of labor-management relations whose impact, far transcending the realm of firm-centered collective bargaining, framed much of the polity's consensus on taxes, social provision, and industry regulation. And, finally, the system of production, distribution, and social expectations that characterized both union strength and business enterprise was uniquely stable, resting on both a well-protected continental market and a technologically and ideologically dominant mass-production model.

In this context the economic power wielded by American trade unions was by its very nature political, for the New Deal had thoroughly politicized all relations among the union movement, the business community, and the state. The New Deal provided a set of semipermanent political structures in which key issues of vital concern to the trade union movement might be accommodated. The National Labor Relations Board established the legal basis of union power and a mechanism for its state sanction; New Deal regulatory bodies stabilized competition in key industries like trucking, coal, air transport, banking, and utilities; and the National War Labor Board provided a tripartite institution that set national wage policy and contributed to the rapid wartime growth of the new trade unions. Corporatism of this sort called for government agencies, composed of capital, labor, and public representatives, to substitute bureaucratic initiative and national economic planning for the chaos and inequities of the market. The successive reappearance of such tripartite governing arrangements during the mid-twentieth century seemed to signal that in the future as in the past the fortunes of organized labor would be determined as much by a process of politicized bargaining in Washington as by the give-and-take of contractual collective bargaining.

This was neither "free collective bargaining" nor the kind of syndicalism that, during the era of the Great War, had informed phrases like "social reconstruction," "industrial democracy" and "workers' control." To ensure industrial peace during World War II, the state sustained a coercive labor relations apparatus that policed not only recalcitrant corporations but also radical shop stewards, uncooperative unions, and striking workers. A generation ago the repressive character of this regime drew much attention. Thus Martin Glaberman celebrated the unstructured spontaneity by which new industrial migrants threw off the contract shackles and Wagner Act procedures forged by the New Deal state. George Lipsitz searched for the link that would unite in song and struggle many of those same working-class rebels, especially those white Appalachians and African Americans who were once thought marginal to the New Deal universe. And I condemned as a disastrous bargain the no-strike pledge that virtually all union leaders offered the nation. They won "union security" and a rising membership but advanced the union movement's internal bureaucratic deformities as well as its marriage to the Democratic Party and the warfare state.

But in the early years of the twenty-first century, the potential payoff from the corporatist bargain of the World War II era looks much better than it did a half century before. Resistance to union organizing declined dramatically during the war as the union movement nearly doubled in size. In the South the work of the War Labor Board (WLB), not to mention the Fair Employment Practices Commission, generated something close to a social revolution. As Michelle Brattain, Daniel Clark, Michael Honey, and Robert Korstad have demonstrated, the WLB orders that mandated union recognition and collective bargaining opened up the organizational and ideological space that enabled workers, both black and white, to liberate themselves from three generations of paternalism and repression. In his study of Winston-Salem tobacco workers, Korstad rightly calls this the "Daybreak of Freedom." Meanwhile, in the North the WLB socialized much of the labor movement's prewar agenda, thus making union security, grievance arbitration, seniority, vacation pay, sick leave, and night-shift supplements standard entitlements mandated for an increasingly large section of the working class. The government's World War II-era Little Steel wage formula, although bitterly resisted by the more highly paid and better-organized sections of the working class, had enough loopholes and special dispensations to enable low-paid workers in labor-short industries to bring their wages closer to the national average. Thus black wages rose twice as fast as white, and weekly earnings in cotton textiles and in retail trade increased about 50 percent faster than in high-wage industries like steel and auto. By the onset of postwar reconversion, WLB wage policy was explicitly egalitarian. "It is not desirable to increase hourly earnings in each industry in accordance with the rise of productivity in that industry," declared a July 1945 memorandum. "The proper goal of policy is to increase hourly earnings generally in proportion to the average increase of productivity in the economy as a whole."


Excerpted from A Contest of Ideas by Nelson Lichtenstein. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

I Shaping Myself, Shaping History 13

1 Writing and Rewriting Labor's Narrative 15

2 Supply-Chain Tourist; or, How Globalization Has Transformed the Labor Question 29

3 Historians as Public Intellectuals 38

II Capital, Labor, and the State 45

4 Tribunes of the Shareholder Class 47

5 "The Man in the Middle": A Social History of Automobile Industry Foremen 56

6 From Corporatism to Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era 79

7 Communism On the Shop Floor and Off 100

III The Rights Revolution 107

8 Opportunities Found/and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement 109

9 The Lost Promise of the Long Civil Rights Movement 129

10 A New Era of Global Human Rights: Good for the Trade Unions? 144

IV The Specter on the Right 155

11 The United States in the Great Depression: Was the Fascist Door Open? 157

12 Market Triumphalism and the Wishful Liberals 167

13 Did 1968 Change History? 185

14 Bashing Public Employees and Their Unions 197

V Intellectuals and their Ideas 207

15 C. Wright Mills 209

16 Harvey Swados 222

17 B. J. Widick 230

18 Jay Lovestone 235

19 Herbert Hill 242

20 Do Graduate Students Work? 249

21 Why American Unions Need Intellectuals 254

Notes 261

Index 305

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