The Magazine

Which Side Are They On?

American labor unions and how they got that way.

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


Which Side Are They On?

Labor unions in the United States were not always tied to the Democratic party and to a leftist ideological agenda. Once upon a time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) stood at odds with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); the former resisted statist labor law changes and leftist union policies beginning in the 1930s and the latter supported them.

The AFL and the CIO united in 1955, but two decades before, William Green, president of the older AFL movement, denounced the CIO in terms familiar to present-day tea party critics of the Obama administration. On September 7, 1937, as reported in the Washington Post, Green assailed CIO leader John L. Lewis for “subordinating the welfare of workers to personal political ambitions .  .  . and encouraging communistic support.” Green warned that CIO ambitions could “pave the way to a fascist dictatorship.”

The AFL’s Green, who generally supported the New Deal but criticized Franklin Roosevelt’s diplomatic recognition of Soviet Russia, pledged that his labor organizers “are not seeking political preferment. They are not moved by a consuming ambition to establish themselves as political dictators.” In today’s era of “card check” unionism, when rank-and-file union members have almost no voice, the message seems uncannily relevant: “Shall we be ruled from the bottom up or from the top down, by an individual who is governed only by a consuming ambition?”

Criticism of governmental unionism in the late 1930s was not limited to William Green. The CIO unions were frequently imposed in the workplace by orders from the National Labor Relations Board (which included numerous prominent Communists) in disregard of worker preferences for the AFL. The CIO unions were also replete with Communist officials. Labor militants who were anti-Stalinist kept their unions in the AFL. 

The anti-Communist unionists included, in the New York garment industry, immigrant Jewish social democrats who had fought the czars and the Bolsheviks in Russia, and Italian-American leftists who were the most serious enemies of Mussolini. The Communists and their enthusiasts in the media relentlessly attacked Green and the AFL unions as enemies of the “progressive” agenda.

The anti-Soviet labor leaders gained credibility after the Stalin-Hitler pact of August 1939, which was soon consummated with the Russo-German partition of Poland. Green intensified his campaign against totalitarian influences in the U.S. government. The Washington Post reported on October 5, 1939, a month after Germany’s invasion of its eastern neighbor, and almost three weeks after Stalin joined in, that Green had demonstrated his mettle by cautioning that “Stalin’s agents and followers occupied ‘high and influential’ places in American government, schools, and labor organizations.” 

But after the Second World War, proponents of big government and top-down rule regained their influence over labor. By the end of the 20th century, although industrial unions were in drastic decline, their officials chafed at, and ignored, legal reforms intended to restore the rights of union members over issues like the partisan political use of their dues. In its 1988 Beck decision, the Supreme Court found against the Communications Workers of America. The court held that individual union members could opt out of paying that component of union dues disbursed for political and lobbying purposes. But the rule established in CWA v. Beck is routinely flouted.

Card check—a substitute for using the secret ballot when deciding union representation—is the latest big labor demand. It may fail, but statist unionists have more weapons in their -arsenal. The National Mediation Board (NMB), another New Deal institution, which administers labor relations in the rail and airline industries, now includes former union officials as two of its three members: Harry Hoglander from the Air Line Pilots Association and Linda Puchala, a veteran of the Association of Flight Attendants.

The politicization of labor was significantly boosted when the center of gravity for the unions shifted from industry to the public sector. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, labor accounted for six of the top ten political contributors in America from 1989 to 2009, half of them in the public sector and all channeling funds to the Democrats.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers