Labor’s unhappy marriage to the Democrats

September 17, 2008

After eight long years of George W. Bush, millions of people are counting the days to the inauguration of a Democratic president. But would a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic Congress deliver on the promise of change that so many people want to see?

Lance Selfa is a columnist and editorial board member of the International Socialist Review. His new book, The Democrats: A Critical History, documents how, time after time, the party that claims to represent ordinary people has betrayed their aspirations of ordinary people while pursuing an agenda favorable to big business.

In this excerpt from the book, Lance examines the era when Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party cemented its alliance with organized labor--with unions as the junior partner.

THE GREAT Depression marked the greatest crisis U.S. capitalism had faced since the Civil War. Political and business leaders worried that the country was ripe for upheaval--perhaps even for revolution. "I say to you, gentlemen, advisedly, that if something is not done and starvation is going to continue, the doors to revolt in this country are going to be thrown open," an American Federation of Labor (AFL) official told Congress in 1932. Powerful movements of industrial workers grew up over the next few years, culminating in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935 and a massive strike wave in 1936 and 1937.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not taken office in 1933 with the intention of championing workers' rights or of creating a welfare state. For much of his campaign against President Herbert Hoover, he attacked Hoover for "reckless" spending and pledged to balance the budget by cutting federal spending by 25 percent. The 1932 Democratic platform affirmed the call for a balanced budget, a 25 percent cut in the federal spending, and a call for the states to follow suit. In words familiar to free-market capitalists, it also called for "the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest." What is perhaps more amazing is the fact that the platform said nothing about labor issues and did not even include the word "union."

By encouraging business collusion through the National Recovery Act (NRA), Roosevelt's first tentative steps toward addressing the crisis in the economy bore a number of similarities to initiatives the discredited Hoover administration had taken. Historians John Braeman, Robert H. Bremner, and David Brody argue that the idea of a sharp break in the attitude to business between the Hoover administration and the Roosevelt administration is "exaggerated" because the "shift was not from laissez-faire to a managed economy, but rather from one attempt at management, that through informal business-government cooperation, to another more formal and coercive attempt."

But circumstances forced Roosevelt's hand. As discussed in chapter 2, the inclusion of Clause 7a in the NRA had the unintended consequence (at least from the government's point of view) of spurring an explosion of union organizing. "There was a virtual uprising of workers for union membership" the American Federation of Labor executive council reported to the AFL's 1934 convention. "[W]orkers held mass meetings and sent word they wanted to be organized." Unions organized hundreds of locals within weeks. Existing unions tripled, quadrupled, or quintupled in size. New unions seemed be created overnight. Between 1933 and 1937, the number of workers who were union members jumped from 2.7 million to more than 7 million. Driving these numbers upward was a quantitative and qualitative leap in the class struggle, as the number of strikes--a large number of them demanding union recognition against employers who refused to follow Clause 7a's recognition of collective bargaining--jumped from 1,856 in 1934 to a peak of 4,740 in 1937, with the number of strikers involved leaping from 1.12 million to 1.86 million in the same period. Many of these strikes, especially the three 1934 general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis, took on a near-insurrectionary character. Between 1934 and 1936, 88 workers were killed on the picket line.

Roosevelt responded to the pressure of the rising class struggle by legalizing collective bargaining rights for workers who were using the strike weapon to demand them. But he didn't do so enthusiastically. Liberal Democratic Senator Robert Wagner introduced what became the National Labor Relations Act in 1934. The bill aimed to create a permanent labor relations machinery that would make union recognition and labor relations a matter regulated by the government instead of one fought out on the shop floor between workers and bosses. Industry opposition to the bill made FDR withhold his support, causing Wagner's bill to stall in Congress. But the 1934 strike wave "confirmed Senator Wagner in his conviction that the nation needed a new labor policy." Wagner reintroduced the bill, which won overwhelming support in Congress in 1935. David M. Kennedy describes Roosevelt's reaction to the Wagner Act:

Roosevelt only belatedly threw his support behind it in 1935, and then largely because he saw it as a way to increase workers' consuming power, as well as a means to suppress the repeated labor disturbances that, as the act claimed, were "burdening and obstructing commerce." Small wonder, then, that the administration found itself bamboozled and irritated by the labor eruptions of Roosevelt's first term and that it moved only hesitantly and ineffectively to channel the accelerating momentum of labor militancy.

To be sure, the Roosevelt administration often found itself at odds with the rabidly anti-union corporate class during this tumultuous period. These New Deal haters rallied around the American Liberty League, founded in 1934 to organize capitalists against the New Deal. The League was the brainchild of conservative Democrats, including Al Smith and John W. Davis (the 1928 and 1924 Democratic candidates for president, respectively) and John Jacob Raskob (insurance mogul and former Democratic National Committee member), before it inducted Republican capitalists like the DuPonts. The Liberty League, "devoted to defeating Roosevelt, trade unions, liberal Democrats in Congress, 'communism' and assorted social welfare causes" backed Republican Alf Landon for president in 1936. In the heat of the 1936 campaign, Liberty League spokesperson Jouett Shouse charged "the New Deal represents the attempt in America to set up a totalitarian government, one which recognizes no sphere of individual or business life as immune from governmental authority and which submerges the welfare of the individual to that of the government."

BUT HOWEVER much animosity corporate leaders expressed against Roosevelt, his pro–working-class legislation served a larger purpose in salvaging the capitalist system during this enormous crisis by ensuring that the system would not be forced to concede more than was absolutely necessary to contain the class struggle. A remade Democratic Party was the vehicle Roosevelt used to absorb the rising labor movement within the confines of the existing political establishment. Socialist Dan Labotz explained FDR's calculations:

Roosevelt realized that if he was to succeed in reforming and reconstructing American capitalism, he would have to broaden the social base of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party that had elected him in 1932 had been based on the corrupt political machines of big cities like Chicago and New York, on the white votes of the Solid South, on the American Federation of Labor, and on financiers like Bernard Baruch who reportedly "owned" 60 congressmen whose campaigns he had financed. That base was simply too narrow to deal with the upheavals in the industrial cities of the Great Lakes region and among the farmers of the Midwest.

By supporting the creation of Social Security and of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, Roosevelt laid the groundwork for capturing the labor movement vote for the Democrats in the 1936 election and beyond. Roosevelt's legacy has meant that many generations later, millions of working Americans still regard the Democrats as the party that speaks to working-class interests. Ever since the Great Depression, organized labor has provided crucial financial and organizational support for Democratic candidates, however little labor receives in return.

Roosevelt's capture of the labor movement wasn't a one-way proposition. He had willing collaborators among labor leaders whose vision for organized labor offered them a "seat at the table" alongside the nation's policymakers. Even before the formation of the CIO, Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers was "a labor statesman in waiting, waiting for a movement to represent and a regime to accept that representation," according to his biographer. This observation doesn't take away from the initiative and courage that top CIO leaders like Hillman and John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) exhibited when launching the CIO. But it does make clear what they, or at least what New Deal loyalists like Hillman, ultimately wanted from the industrial union movement. Rather than seeing it as a means by which workers could organize an independent voice to win their demands, they saw it as a means to give labor leverage in the halls of power.

The leadership of the CIO was "connected by a thousand threads to a newly emergent managerial and political elite, an elite which in collaboration with the CIO would foster a permanent change not only in the national political economy but in the internal political chemistry of the Democratic Party and in the prevailing politics of production in basic industry," commented labor historian Stephen Fraser. It wasn't long before these leaders' commitment to remain credible in the halls of power rendered them opponents to rank-and-file initiatives. Roosevelt shrewdly used his power to cement the loyalty of the trade union officialdom to the New Deal and to the Democratic Party. Mine workers' leader Lewis, who later broke with Roosevelt, complained about the difficulty of organizing a labor-based opposition to the administration:

[FDR] has been carefully selecting my key lieutenants and appointing them to honorary posts in various of his multitudinous, grandiose commissions. He has his lackeys fawning upon and wining and dining many of my people...In a quiet, confidential way he approaches one of my lieutenants, weans his loyalty away, overpowers him with the dazzling glory of the White House, and appoints him to a federal post under such circumstances that his prime loyalty shall be to the President and only a secondary, residual one to the working-class movement from which he came...

RANK-AND-file union activists--especially those on the front lines of the class struggle--were far less loyal to the Democrats or even to Roosevelt. By 1933, pressure began to mount among unionists for the creation of labor's own party to end unions' collaboration with both Democrats and Republicans. Calls for a labor party reflected a newly confident working class's desire to fight on its own. But they also reflected a response to the strikebreaking tactics that unionists had faced under even the most liberal, pro–New Deal Democratic Party state and local governments. In 1935 alone, 20 states' militias, the majority of them called up under Democratic governors, were turned against strikers in 73 disputes.

There is no question that the creation of a mass labor or social-democratic party would have marked a great step forward for the American working class--toward political action independent of the capitalist parties. Several state-level labor federations experimented with support for "farmer-labor" parties in this period. In Washington and Oregon, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, modeled on a similar organization in Canada that was the organizing center for what eventually became the New Democratic Party, won state and congressional seats in this period. In Minnesota the Farmer-Labor Party won the governorship and five House seats. In Wisconsin the Progressive Party, with the backing of the Socialist Party, played a significant role in politics in that state. And 21 percent of those questioned in a 1937 Gallup poll agreed that a labor party should be formed. This pro-labor-party sentiment threatened Roosevelt's plan to incorporate the labor movement into the New Deal coalition by channeling class struggle into the New Deal labor-relations machinery.

CIO leaders Lewis and Hillman made a priority of garnering CIO support for Roosevelt in the 1936 election. But in order to do so, CIO leaders had to squelch pro-labor-party sentiment among CIO members. This meant sabotaging unionists' own initiatives independent of the Democrats. When the newly formed United Auto Workers voted in 1936 to support the creation of a national farmer-labor-party, CIO leaders threatened to remove funding for organizing the rest of the auto industry if the UAW didn't rescind the vote and back Roosevelt. The delegates capitulated at this crucial turning point. Sharon Smith notes:

CIO leaders faced a serious dilemma: having promised to deliver union support for Roosevelt, they now faced the possibility of a mutiny within the ranks of one of the fastest-growing unions in a key industry. That the UAW delegates had already voted, however, did not stop CIO leaders from taking quick action to ensure the union's support for Roosevelt.

In places where strong-arm tactics like these didn't work, CIO leaders used more devious methods to win workers' votes for Roosevelt. In New York Hillman backed the formation of the "American Labor Party" to provide a more palatable ballot line for socialists in New York labor circles, who voted for this "labor" party--that in fact channeled votes to Roosevelt. In 1936 the CIO created Labor's Nonpartisan League (LNPL), which worked to provide FDR with money and votes for the 1936 election.

Union leaders thus plowed the CIO's resources into Roosevelt's and other New Deal Democrats' re-election campaigns, solidifying the alliance between labor and the Democrats. Though there were subsequent demands for the formation of a labor party, the 1936 election and its immediate aftermath represented a watershed for Roosevelt--squandering the tremendous opportunity for political independence from capitalist politicians that existed for the labor movement.

In forming CIO-PAC (Political Action Committee) in 1943, the CIO ratified its refusal to form a labor party. CIO-PAC functioned as one of many competing interest groups within the Democratic Party in pledging money to Democratic candidates. One historian explained the political rationale behind CIO-PAC: "In launching the new Political Action Committee, the CIO leadership specifically rejected any 'ultraliberal party in the name of the working man.' Instead, they sought to discipline the unruly left wing by channeling its energy into a firmly controlled political action group that could function safely within the two-party system."

The CIO's hybrid nature as both a trade union organizing center and a recruiting sergeant for the New Deal Democratic coalition limited its historic potential. Socialist historian Art Preis summed up the CIO's legacy this way:

The history of the CIO was to constantly appear as an admixture of two elements. On the one hand, mass organization of the industrial workers was to lead to titanic strike battles, most often initiated by the militant ranks despite the leadership. On the other, the workers were to be cheated of many gains they might have won because of the intervention of the government, which had the backing of the CIO leadership themselves. Unwilling to "embarrass" the Democratic administration...the CIO leaders kept one arm of the CIO--its political arm--tied behind its back.

Thus the Depression-era labor movement failed to achieve some important goals. First, the U.S. labor movement, unlike those in other industrial countries, did not develop its own political party, however radical its members were on the industrial front. Second, it failed to organize large sections of the working class in the South and the West, which remained conservative, anti-union strongholds. Both of these shortcomings had damaging, long-term impacts on the labor movement. And both of them are directly attributable to CIO leaders' failure to break with the Democratic Party at this critical juncture in U.S. history.

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