September 2, 1996
On the day set aside to celebrate the working men and women of America, NewsHour historians consider where the labor movement has been and where it is going.
MARGARET WARNER: For that long view of the labor movement's evolution and its involvement in politics we turn to a group of NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin, author and journalist Haynes Johnson, and William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard. Welcome, all of you. Haynes, was it a lot easier, was it really a lot easier to organize back in labor's heyday, and, if so, why?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Of course. Because the country is so different today from then. It's a different world entirely. Then you didn't have wages or crisis...
MARGARET WARNER: And what do you mean by then?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Back in the 30s. Let's take 60 years.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The New Deal, the modern era, Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Depression. I mean, the whole labor movement came of age then when you had the passage of the Warner Act, which gave the right to collective bargaining. They didn't have it before that. It was labor's Bill of Rights. The wages and hours, guarantees, and contracts, didn't have it then, a six day week, they were fighting for a six-day week. I mean, basic, fundamental--then it was working conditions, child labor, all of these things that were happening, and it was easier to motivate people then. They were in need. The safety net didn't exist -- it was being erected then. So you had all these different things, so you had a motivation to go to a union. They could go out with their songs and their chants and all the fiery rhetoric, and people say, yeah, that's going to make a difference in my life tangibly, in my pocket book, in the way I live, and the, the benefits I'm going to get also were health care benefits, pension benefits, all these things were bargained for, for the workers. Those were part of the union.
MARGARET WARNER: All these things we take for granted today.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. That is for granted today. They've been eroded but they, they went -- they came into being then. That was the base upon which labor began to move forward, and it did, until fairly recently.
|Labor during World War II|
MARGARET WARNER: And Doris, then World War II also gave a huge boost to the organizing drive, didn't it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, that's right. Well, what Franklin Roosevelt was able to do was to legitimize the labor movement. He made them feel that he was on their side, so that first during the Depression, when it took an enormous courage on the part of people to join unions because the reprisals were so great in the factories, they were willing to join those unions. And then during World War II, what he did was to go on the side of labor. Business said we have to produce for the war, we can't pay overtime, we can't keep these wages up, we're going to be able to keep the labor conditions that you've forced on us through the unions in the 30s, and Roosevelt said, no way, if we're going to have a free country, we've got to have a productive labor force that's free and happy. That's the way we'll win the war. And as a result, union membership went up during the war by about 5 million, but then the irony that happened is that as the labor movement reached the peak of its power in some ways in the 1960s, when Meany was running into the White House, et cetera, it was beginning to decline even then as industries moved their factories overseas for south and south of the border and then to Chile and then to Southeast Asia, and then the labor movement made a terrible mistake. Meany thought he had enough people, the AFL-CIO head, Meany, he thought, well, we've got 35 percent of the labor force organized, that's enough. He stopped organizing. So now what we're seeing, I think.
MARGARET WARNER: And when was that? When was that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: That was really in the 60s. He was fat and happy as the labor movement seemed to be, and they thought they had gotten about the amount of people that they needed. What's so extraordinary about what's happening now is the labor movement went into a decline, it went into a decline under Ronald Reagan, who heard it's caused by doing just the opposite of FDR. And what we're seeing now is the unions are trying to organize new groups of people, public sector people, poor, service sector people, custodial people, and I think if it gives it a new burst of energy, it's going to be very important for this country's history.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, what's your sense of the growth from its heyday to this time of waning that Doris just described?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, it's gone through, you know, a real transmogrification. In the 1930s, you saw not only the Depression but also a period in which they were really, as Haynes has mentioned, attacking this basic agenda, and they were also in league with the President of the United States and the Democratic Party. And it was a slightly strange alliance because in public someone like Franklin Roosevelt, as much as, as Doris said, as much as he was glad to get the help in labor and in some cases do what labor wanted to do, he was a little bit shy about it because he didn't want to seem the captive of the unions. And there's one story that sort of conveys it. In the 1936 campaign, John L. Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations came to the Oval Office with a check for $250,000 made out to the Roosevelt campaign and a photographer, and Roosevelt said, thank you so much, John, but I don't want the check and keep a photographer away from here, I'll just call on you if any little need arises during the campaign.
As a result, Roosevelt drained the Treasury of Lewis of about half a million dollars and also there was not an incriminating picture of Roosevelt taking the check from the union boss. This is something he was very sensitive to. Then you get later in the century, the 1960s, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson felt that it was okay to be seen by the side of what might have been cast as labor bosses. Then you get up to the 1980s, 1984. Walter Mondale in ‘84 was endorsed at the beginning of the primaries by the AFL-CIO. They had never done that before. And in a way, that was an albatross because Mondale was seen by some as the candidate of the special interests. So this alliance that's been very helpful in many cases, but in some cases rather ambiguous.
|Candidates accepting union support|
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, because I want to Bill. But are you saying there's always been a correlation then between organizing ability and strength and political clout?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It's helped a lot. And you've seen it in a way in the degree to which Presidents and presidential candidates are willing to welcome the help of labor. By the late 1940s, Harry Truman was glad to get labor's help openly. Bill Clinton in 1992 was a little bit different from that. He was glad to get the help, but at the same time he was from a right-to-work state, and he tended to suggest that while he did want to do some of the things that unions wanted to do, on the other hand, he was in favor of NAFTA, which was a very bad word.
MARGARET WARNER: Bill, how has the Republican Party over the decades dealt with this alliance between, between labor and the Democrats?
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: Well, Republicans have always been basically the party of business, including small business, and pretty hostile to unions. They've had an easier time politically with that hostility in the last 20 years for a couple of reasons. Labor first focused on organizing the private sector. Until the early 1960s, 95 percent of labor union members in the United States were in the private sector. When you had fights between working men and big, rich corporate fat cats, public sympathy was with working men and the Democratic Party was the dominant party, and labor did pretty well. In the 60s, as has been mentioned, the efforts in the private sector started to stall out, labor turned its focus to organizing the public sector, and did pretty well there for a while. More than 40 percent of labor members in the U.S. today are public sector employees. The trouble with that is when you fight the public sector, when you demand wages or benefits or easier working conditions, ultimately you're fighting the taxpayers. The taxpayers are the employers. So suddenly the taxpayers, the public, are not a third party looking on and judging a fight between working men and corporations, suddenly the taxpayers are being asked to pay for services that often they think they're not getting a terribly good performance for. It's now that in the 80s especially Reagan was able to take on the labor unions, because he could be a defender of the taxpayers against labor, not a defender of big business against labor.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, it's a classic example of what Bill is talking about. Calvin Coolidge in 1919 in Boston, there was a strike of the police there, and he --he broke them. He said there's no right to strike against the public interest. And the same thing Ronald Reagan did, as you remember, in 1981, he -- the air traffic controllers struck, he shut them down. He -- there's no right to shut down the United States Government. That --
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: But the other interesting moment occurred in 1972, when George Meany was so upset with the new politics that McGovern represented, and he wasn't invited to the convention. He was considered the old boss type, and so as a result, they did not endorse in that year, which was a big blow to the Democrats. And Nixon for a little while, until they got mad at him, was their friend.
MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, Michael, it's true, isn't it, that the Democratic Party labor relationship has had a lot of stresses and strains?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.
|FDR and the labor movement|
MARGARET WARNER: Going back even to the Civil Rights era.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And long before, and not only Roosevelt's shyness about this. It goes back really, I think, to some extent to the fact that Roosevelt was very vulnerable to this kind of criticism of being in the sway of labor bosses, and that has penetrated this. Even in 1944, just before Roosevelt died when he was running for his fourth term, there a suggestion at the Chicago convention that when the name of Harry Truman was surfaced for Vice President that someone had said the name should be cleared with Sidney Hillman of the CIO and one of the great slogans of that campaign was “Clear it with Sidney.” The story, as it turns out, was a lot more complicated than that, but what the can't -- the can't that developed was that the Democratic Party had to clear everything that was done with Sidney, and so the result was that you saw this very uneasy alliance where the Democratic Party and labor are working together during the next couple of decades on things of common interest, such as health care and the Truman administration and also more basic needs of labor, but in a way what happens is that by the 80s and 90s, the labor unions are a victim of their own success. They've accomplished their basic agenda. Some of the things that are more advanced, such as NAFTA, are extremely divisive, and it's very hard to hold together an enormous general mass movement such as the AFL-CIO for things that are a little bit more controversial, so the result is that for Democratic politicians particularly, labor's blessing is a much more mixed one than it might have been twenty or thirty years ago.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And not only their own success but also something else we ought talk about honestly, corruption, I mean labor corruption, organized crime infiltrated, took over many unions, and so the picture was spread of the labor bosses as surfaced in our conversation, so the public impression of labor was not favorable, and then you had what Doris talked about, these aging labor leaders. I mean, George Meany had been around since the 1920s, and the heads of all the unions were old men and trying to leave young people in a changing America, so that was part of the beginning of many factors that led to the decline, but that--those were some of the most important ones.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Yet the only thing I would add is that it's important to remember whatever the faults of the labor union, whatever the uneasy alliance that Michael mentioned, nonetheless, some of the greatest moments in our history occurred when labor and government were able to be partners -- the Great Middle Class that was created after World War II was partly labor's triumph; the Great Society legislation in the 1960s. Labor was critical in the coalition to create Medicare, aid to education, the Civil Rights bills, et cetera. In fact, on the AFL building in Washington, on the eighth floor, they have a whole series of pens from Lyndon Johnson's legislation that they were key to.
MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead, Bill.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Well I mean, the trouble is today, at least in public perception, just as often labor unions are the NEA -- they get impossible --
MARGARET WARNER: The teachers union.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Yeah. The teachers union --which had the largest group of -- the largest union in America, had the largest group of delegates at the Democratic convention, and which in public perception -- I think there's some basis in reality -- spends an awful lot of time making it very hard to fire even the most incompetent public schoolteachers in America, so from being, you know, the champions of the working men against big corporations, unions to some degree have gone in public perception to being defenders of entrenched interests against efforts to modernize, privatize, reinvent government, that what people have said is absolutely right. And Bill Clinton, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, never uttered the word labor or union. He endorsed a few measures that labor supports, increased flex time, expanded health insurance portability and the like, but he always did so in the context of helping America's families. The old rhetoric of Roosevelt and Truman and Johnson and Humphrey standing with labor, of standing with working men and women, was almost entirely gone, and I really doubt that we'll see it come back in the near future.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, that's why this election is so important for organized labor. They have been declining not only in the steam of the public but also in real numbers. I mean, dramatically falling -- one out of five workers -- fewer than one out of five workers today is in the union.
|The changing labor movement|
MARGARET WARNER: And in private industries even fewer than that.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure, and that's increasing more and more, as Doris said, as companies downsize, as they take -- get taken over by conglomerates, they move offshore, the whole nature of the work place is changing so what labor is trying to do now is resurrect the clout it used to have. And she's right about by the way labor without labor, there would not have been the social progressive legislation. They were in fact the heart and soul of the Democratic Party until very recently and Bill's point about not mentioning them at all in an acceptance speech by the President may win a second term for the first time since Roosevelt tells you something.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Power also is the appearance of power and in 1993, labor opposed NAFTA in a very big way. They lost. If they can be seen to have done a lot to help reelect Bill Clinton in 1996, that could help them as well.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: But more important than reelecting Clinton is electing a Democratic Congress. That's where labor has put its chips. If they succeed, they have a chance to come back but if they fail, I think the message is maybe their day has come and gone.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. We'll have to leave it there. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.