Home / General / Jimmy Carter and Organized Labor’s Decline

Jimmy Carter and Organized Labor’s Decline


Historian Jefferson Cowie tells the following story in his outstanding book on the decline of labor and the transformation of the white working class, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. In 1979, a reporter asked International Association of Machinists president Wimpy Winpisinger a question about Jimmy Carter. Winpisinger was among the most progressive labor leaders of the decade, trying to shake organized labor out of its bureaucratic complacent doldrums.

Q: Is there any way the President can redeem himself in your eyes?
WW: Yes, there one way he can do it.
Q: What’s that?
WW: Die.

Winpisinger went on:

I don’t wish that upon him, but that’s the only goddamn way I know he can.

In another interview, Winpisinger called Carter, “The best Republican president since Herbert Hoover.”

I share this exchange because it gets at a question plaguing labor historians and labor activists for a long time–when and why did things turn bad for organized labor? Was it Taft-Hartley? The CIO kicking the communists out of the unions? The so-called “grand bargain” between labor and management that defanged shopfloor activism? The Border Industrialization Project and outsourcing industrial labor to Latin America and Asia? The rise of the conservative movement? The air traffic controllers strike?

The answer is in part all of these things and I’m not sure how useful it is to try and pin the problem on one primary issue. But I do think it is worth taking a quick look at Jimmy Carter’s relationship with organized labor.

As Winpisinger expressed, organized labor came to hate Carter. After placing a tremendous amount of hope in Carter after his election, the labor movement received almost nothing in return. As Cowie points out, Carter was the first president to treat labor as a constituency in the Democrats’ bag which he could ignore. Carter spent no political capital promoting the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill, which in its original form would have provided a federal guarantee of employment and even allow a person to sue the federal government if they did not receive work (although this provision was quickly dropped). Hubert Humphrey hoped this would seal his legacy. Augustus Hawkins was a leader in the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus, representing a district in Los Angeles. Carter’s own economists tanked the bill and what passed was a pathetic remnant that did absolutely nothing to guarantee employment. Carter’s embracing of conservative economics to fight inflation meant a bill with nothing behind it.

Unions deserved plenty of blame for this failure too–their inability to mobilize their members was costing them in all sorts of ways and they did no real grassroots work to get people out to rallies in support of Humphrey-Hawkins. Similarly, the rank and file failed to respond to the 1977 attempt for labor law reform. This bill would have done little to create real reform since the AFL-CIO quickly read the tea leaves and saw the dreams of repealing Taft-Hartley and getting card check were not going to pass. That said the minor bill that was proposed spawned voicerfious opposition from conservatives, who already smelled union blood in the water. Then Carter decided to prioritize the Panama Canal treaty over labor law reform and by the time the Canal treaty passed, labor could not rally enough votes for another controversial bill. Carter did virtually nothing as this bill died. Labor completely gave up on Carter and many unions supported Ted Kennedy’s failed primary challenge to Carter in 1980.

I mention this because of an interesting debate around Joseph McCartin’s book on the air traffic controllers strike of 1981, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. Big title, great book. McCartin goes into great depth about the PATCO culture, why air traffic controllers saw the need to unionize, and how they made a huge mistake by taking a go-it-alone attitude, which alienated them from the pilots union, not to mention the general public they inconvenienced. PATCO actually endorsed Reagan because its leaders hated Carter so much for the aggressive stance it took against the union’s demands for higher pay and more staffing.

But did the strike change America, as McCartin claims? I wonder. It could be a Dred Scott moment, which placed the issue into stark contrasts but didn’t really change the future. In other words, would the union movement be any better off today if Reagan had not crushed PATCO in 1981? Certainly the number of strikes declined rapidly after 1981 and business owners were emboldened to hire union-busting firms more than before. But they were already hiring union-busting firms, union numbers were already in decline before 1981, and as the Carter stories show, the Democratic Party was already marginalizing labor’s power.

There was a forum in Labor on McCartin’s book that you can access here. Jack Metzgar, author of the superb memoir/history of the 1959 Steel Strike Striking Steel takes up this question:

Here is my counterfactual question: If PATCO had accepted the Reagan administration’s “final offer” (which included most of what the union had been fighting for, including some valuable precedents for federal workers generally) and there had been no strike, what would have changed? Would strikes be a vital part of labor relations today? Would Phelps-Dodge, Greyhound, Danley Machine here in Chicago, and all the other successful strikebreaking efforts in the 1980s not have happened? Would the situation of private-sector unions be any different today? Posed that way, I think the answer is obviously “no.”

What happened in the private sector would have happened exactly the same way it has happened with or without PATCO. Most of McCartin’s evidence to the contrary comes from various statements by labor leaders, political journalists, and a few labor historians about the symbolic importance of President Reagan breaking that strike. There is no evidence of Phelps- Dodge or other corporate executives saying how important this presidential precedent was to them, opening their eyes to possibilities that had never occurred to them before. This is likely because the PATCO defeat provided absolutely no practical mechanisms for breaking strikes in the private sector (let alone for using “the strike as a management weapon,” as Tom Balanoff described it at the time). Unlike with PATCO, strikes in the private sector were legal, and workers had a right to return to work and other legal protections that PATCO workers did not have. Strikebreaking in the private sector had to devise a sophisticated array of tactics and strategies to trick workers into striking and then to first artfully dodge the law and eventually use it against the strikers. McCartin says Reagan’s breaking of PATCO “legitimized” strikebreaking, but I doubt the pioneering strikebreaking executives in the private economy needed that public relations gloss anywhere near as much as they needed the practical mechanisms. My impression is that these mechanisms were being developed in the 1970s, initially by union-avoidance firms, often in the health-care industry, after workers had successfully organized into a union. Indeed, McCartin cites some of the evidence for this.

Metzgar gets a bit personal in the rest of critique and I think treats McCartin unfairly. McCartin took exception to some of this, as he should have. But I also tend to think Metzgar is mostly right on the issue. The PATCO strike is important for what is represents. But if PATCO wins that strike, is anything fundamental different today? Who can tell, but I am skeptical. The structure to destroy organized labor was already in place. Reagan gave it official government approval, but the tacit government approval to dismiss labor that characterized Carter’s strategy was enough when combined with the unionbusting tactics private industry had already started to embrace.

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  • Carter wasn’t anywhere near as liberal as conservatives want to make him out to be.

    Deregulation of the airlines and trucking industry happened during the Carter administration, for one example.

    It’s just that for Reagan to be the “Most awesome President evah!” Carter has to be painted as being somewhere to the left of Fidel Castro.

    • DocAmazing

      He and Zbigniew Brzezinski also got the (ultimately al-Qaeda) ball rolling in Afghanistan, too.

      Carter is arguably the best ex-president we’ve ever had, though.

      • The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as well as the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia were the two issues on which the whole world except the Warsaw Pact and India voted against the USSR in the UN on a regular basis. On almost every other regional issue including Palestine, South Africa, Namibia, etc. the non-aligned countries and Soviet bloc voted against the US. The years 1978-1979 really did see a Soviet bloc overreach which caused a strong reaction not only from Carter (grain embargo, Olympics boycott, etc.), but also Europe (Thatcher, Kohl, and Mitterrand) and most of the Third World. India was just about the only state outside the Soviet bloc to vote with the USSR and Vietnam on issues relating to Afghanistan and Kampuchea in the UN General Assembly.

        • John

          The Kampuchea thing seems like a black mark – whatever else you can say about the Vietnamese invasion, at least it ended the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.

          • The UN is composed of states not people. Leaders in the Third World were far more concerned with state sovereignty in the 70s and 80s than they were with issues of human rights or genocide. The exception to this rule were colonial states including settler colonies like South Africa and Israel. The idea that a powerful regional state like Vietnam could with superpower backing invade and occupy a neighboring country was very unpopular among Third World governments. The ASEAN countries backed by the US, UK, and China all were strongly opposed to the extension of Vietnamese control over Cambodia. They were supported in the UN by almost every state outside of the Soviet bloc and India. DK kept the UN GA seat rather than it being given to the PRK during the 1980s.

            • John

              Sure, but supporting the Khmer Rouge on any grounds is ultimately pretty indefensible.

              • Maybe, but since when did the Chinese Communist Party, the Thai military and the US CIA become paragons of morality? There were reasons why these and other powers opposed Vietnamese hegemony in Cambodia even if they are universally rejected today. Even ultra liberal Democrats like Johnson and Obama have backed some pretty awful movements and governments abroad.

    • Davis X. Machina

      He’s not anywhere as liberal as liberals want him to be, either. Carter was given to me when I asked recently for the last non-triangulating Democratic president….

      I suppose that’s true in a literal sense., insofar as Carter didn’t triangulate, being neoliberal to the core….

      • For a lot of conservatives, liberal=weak. Carter looked weak in 1979-1980 when he couldn’t do anything with Congress, the economy was cratering, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the hostages were kept in Tehran. In fact, Carter was weak. So, for conservatives, Cater=weak=liberal.

      • John

        Do any liberals who actually remember the Carter presidency feel that way? I feel like the idea of Carter as a true liberal is an artifact of people in my generation who came to political awareness during the Clinton triangulation years and only really knew Carter as the guy who lost to Reagan and then went on to build houses for poor people. Liberals who actually lived through the Carter years are generally more clear-eyed. My parents were so fed up with Carter that they refused to vote for him in 80 – they supported Kennedy in the primaries, and then my mom voted for Anderson and my dad for environmentalist Barry Commoner in the general election.

        • Anonymous

          I agree with every word of this. This revisit of his actual presidency is really eye opening to me re how little I know about the presidency of my childhood.

          • Anna in PDX

            Whoops, that was me

        • Yes, Carter started almost everything that Reagan finished. Arms build up, appointing Volcker, etc.

          Carter, IIRC, alienated almost every Democratic constituency, including all the Western senators/congress critters by vetoing typical pork barrel water projects.

          I distinctly remember that Kennedy was a terrible candidate in the primaries (Mudd(led) interview anyone?) but Carter also exposed his irritating personality during the primaries then again in the general. He was the perfect small minded foil to a ‘don’t sweat the details’ optimistic personality like Reagan.

          Anyway, the Democrats had a pre-convention motion to free all the delegates from their primary commitments because the severity of the disaffection with Carter was so deep. It failed, but the fact that it came to a vote was a tell on how the electorate felt toward Carter.

          If the Democrats at that time had put forward a credible 3rd option (not Kennedy, not Carter) it might have passed. But Kennedy as the only alternative was not very attractive either.

          One reason I’m optimistic the George W Bush’s reputation will never be rehabilitated is that the perception of Carter as weak and feckless was in concrete even before the 1980 Democratic Convention and it’s never been revised in any meaningful way since. Bush was permanently deemed a hack after Katrina (with the financial collapse to come) and it won’t ever change.

          • The arms build up by Carter was provoked by the Soviets introducing new missile systems into Europe, invading Afghanistan, and backing martial law in Poland as an alternative to military intervention. Their allies in Cuba and Vietnam did not help matters with their own interventions in Angola and Ethiopia (Cuba) and Cambodia (Vietnam). The detente of the Nixon and Ford administrations could simply not be maintained in the face of what appeared to be very belligerent behavior by the Soviet Union and its allies. Viewed from what was known then not what is known now it is difficult to see any US president from one of the two mainstream parties acting much differently in this regard.

    • heckblazer

      IIRC Ted Kennedy and Ralph Nader among others supported airline deregulation on the grounds that regulatory capture of the CAA by the airlines hurt the interests of the general public.

      • Deregulation had a bit of a different meaning in the 1970’s.

  • Karen

    It’s important to remember how very unpopular labor unions had become with the non-union population. I remember my parents talking happily about how the morons holding the auto industry hostage deserved to lose there jobs, and that unions were all controlled by the mob. One reason Carter won the South was that many voters down here believed he’d stand up to the Labor thugs.

    I’m obviously not an expert on this, but wouldn’t a good candidate for The Day Labor Died be when George Meany refused to endorse George McGovern? Meany decided to Screw the Hippies, and ended up losing pretty much everything.

    • Yes, Meany’s refusal to endorse McGovern definitely should be on the list.

      • McGovern’s entire campaign should be added to the list. Fact is, McGovern got the nomination with no support from labor. I’m reading various stuff this weekend about the South between FDR and LBJ, and I came across a story about the 1944 VP ;pick. FDR wanted Jimmy Byrnes, of SC, who was a former Senator, SCOTUS justice and during WWII ran the Office of Economic Stabilization. Byrnes wasn’t the worst segregationist around, but was pretty bad. FDR was ditching Henry Wallace, and it came down to Truman and Byrnes. Just before the convention Byrnes was told by some FDR allies running the convention that FDR had settled on him. But then a few days later they came back and said “we forgot one thing: the president said clear it with Sidney,” as in Sydney Hillman. Hillman said no way, so it was Truman.

        By 1975, labor was too fractured, too compromised, and frankly, mostly too politically stupid to be able to exert that kind of power. But one union did endorse Carter, and very early: the UAW. They did it for the promise that he would make passing health care his highest priority. That obviously didn’t turn out too great.

        • Karen

          Thank God for Sydney Hillman. Truman had some serious flaws — See “National Security Act” as a start — but given the two choices, Sidney definitely made the correct one.

          • John

            Well, given that the Convention almost went for Henry Wallace anyway, despite Roosevelt wanting to dump him, it’s quite possible that a serious push for Byrnes would have alienated enough liberals to give Wallace the nomination anyway. President Henry Wallace is, to say the least, an interesting counter-factual.

      • George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa – between the both of them are responsible for at least 50% of the diminishment of labor power as the enablers of the Republican/corporate union smashers.

        In fact, I’d say Meany was the Roger Smith of labor. You could call Hoffa the Bernie Madoff, betraying the trust of his members interests. Hard to think of having two worse people leading unions at a pivotal turning point in their history.

        Then add in McGovern being successfully framed as the pacifist candidate with Eagleton providing confirmation that the Democratic party consisted of hippies, pacifists, and crazies and it’s like a perfect storm.

        If Nixon hadn’t been such an insecure person, the date of union decline would not be marked from 1980, but from 1968 as an elected Reagan in 1976 would have accelerated the trends 4 years sooner and without the Watergate detour. Just MHO.

    • Sly

      It was just a general, drawn out decline that came out in large part because Labor became a victim of its own successes. “Unions were necessary at one time, but why do we need them now?” became a kind of recurring question within industrial America beginning in the immediate Post-War period, and its still heard today, even from nominally liberal people. That organized labor was taken for granted by many of its own beneficiaries created the space for its gradual alienation from the political sphere.

      And this was in the industrial North, Midwest, and West. The South never asked that question because organized labor was unwelcome from the start; the the economic culture of the region is one of no-wage agriculture giving way to low-wage agriculture, and from there to low-wage industrialism, and every step of the way depended upon the laboring class being as atomized as possible.

      • Ed

        That organized labor was taken for granted by many of its own beneficiaries created the space for its gradual alienation from the political sphere.

        Surprising how many people, especially alleged liberals, don’t get that the unions set the standards for pay and benefits in many areas, and they get those benefits without a union to prevent them from getting heretical thoughts about unionizing.

  • JoyfulA

    From my vantage point of living in a working-class neighborhood at the time, I think it was at some point in the 1970s, when blacks and then women became real people and real workers, just like white men. White union members fought like hell to keep the rest of us out of the high-paying jobs.

    The YWCA started programs for women to qualify for the good jobs in the trades and widely publicized them. There were ugly incidents when blacks or women were hired in “their” jobs, and they were reported in the newspapers and on TV.

    My formative view of unions thus was Other, an other that opposed and rejected me and mine.

    • Data Tutashkhia

      Hi JoyfulA,
      could you clarify, please: were the unions fighting to prevent women and non-whites from joining, or were they fighting to deny good jobs to women and non-white union members?

      Or was it, perhaps, something else, like fighting scabbery (if that’s the word)?

      Was that a policy of the union as an institution, or merely attitudes of individual members?

      And, if possible, could you link to a page with some relevant factual info, please.


      • Murc

        were the unions fighting to prevent women and non-whites from joining, or were they fighting to deny good jobs to women and non-white union members?

        I’m not JoyfulA, but the answer here, shamefully, was usually “both.”

        A lot of unions were founded on explicitly white working-class lines, emphasis on the “white.” There were plenty of unions who didn’t want non-white, non-male members period, and and also didn’t want those non-whites and non-males to have jobs that could otherwise be done by men. It was okay for a woman to be a nurse or a teacher; that was women’s work. It wasn’t okay for them to be a machinist; a woman doing that job would be seen to be “stealing” it from a man who needed to “support his family.”

        Or was it, perhaps, something else, like fighting scabbery (if that’s the word)?

        It was actually kind of a double-edged sword. If you weren’t in a union, you’d be offered jobs at less-than-union rates by less-than-savory employers. Which, of course, got you branded as a scab. I’ll say that, speaking only for myself, I have a fair amount of loathing for scabs, but ONLY if the union is open and welcoming to all comers.

        (We’re using a fairly loose definition for scab here; usually it just means “someone who works when a strike is going on.”)

        Was that a policy of the union as an institution, or merely attitudes of individual members?


        • Data Tutashkhia

          If you weren’t in a union, you’d be offered jobs at less-than-union rates by less-than-savory employers. Which, of course, got you branded as a scab.

          That, I suspect, might be the core issue here. But it’s not “branded as a scab”, it’s just being a scab. Yes, a scab is often a desperate person, but so what. In this case a union has to fight to survive, not because of some nefarious motives. It’s not fair either way, but hey, such is life.

          • Hogan

            Well, the obvious solution would be to join the union instead of scabbing. But the union won’t let you join, or if it lets you join it always puts you at the back of the line at the hiring hall. That’s not fighting to survive; it’s fighting to stay white.

            • Data Tutashkhia

              There could be very good reasons not to expand a union. There could be good reasons not to accept new members without some specific skills.

              If you want to prove your thesis, you have to either find an actual written policy, or a proven pattern of prioritizing white males with the same set of skills.

              Like I said, I would love to see some research on this.

              • Hogan

                Apparently it’s never a good time to expand the building trade unions, because they’ve been doing this for decades. And it’s not a question of pre-existing skills; those unions all have apprenticeships, which is where you learn those skills.

                • Karen

                  Here’sone classic example.

                • PSP

                  If you had a job where you were probably going to be unemployed for several months every year, and completely unemployed every time the building industry slowed, you wouldn’t be eager to add competition for jobs either.

                • Hogan

                  Which is why the building trade unions have the same number of members they had fifty years ago.

                • Yes, the working class’s racist, old boys club.

                  Unfortunately, having less money does not ensure people will be less racist, sexist, or less bigoted in any way.

              • JoyfulA

                It starts with the apprentice programs in the trade unions. You don’t get in if you’re not wanted. In the 1970s, apprentices started in high school: mornings in academics in their regular high schools and afternoons in their apprentice training program. You don’t get in this space-limited program without a sponsor.

                And I think apprentice programs are important and necessary. The people really learn how to do a good job. Compare union-built buildings in the North and similar buildings in the South. A true (union) mason can construct a perfect wall with no spoilage in a matter of hours; a jack of all trades or self-styled mason can’t do that.

          • JoyfulA

            In a city trade union, there were no such things as scabs. Or maybe a one-day painting job for one non-union painter. Any bigger job would be shut down.

            We hired a union mason to rebuild a cinderblock wall. To avoid the scary roofers’ union, we hired police who had a side roofing business.

        • Ed

          It was okay for a woman to be a nurse or a teacher; that was women’s work. It wasn’t okay for them to be a machinist; a woman doing that job would be seen to be “stealing” it from a man who needed to “support his family.”

          Sexism, yes, but not an entirely unreasonable fear.

          • Still, completely unjustified from a moral perspective.

          • Origami Isopod

            Single women never, ever have families to support, right? And jobs “belong” to the men, all of them.

            • Data Tutashkhia

              This whole line of comments amounts to making up some ‘belief’, and then getting righteously outraged and denouncing it.

      • Hogan

        Here, for example:

        One important community of workers was largely absent from this movement even at its height. While it reached out to unskilled immigrant women as well as men, Chicago’s labor movement largely excluded or segregated African Americans. There were important exceptions, as in the garment and meatpacking industries, but on the eve of World War I, more than a third of the CFL’s constituent unions excluded blacks entirely or segregated them into Jim Crow locals. Many other unions practiced more subtle forms of discrimination. The cynicism among black workers that grew from such experiences created a serious problem once the massive migration of the war years and the 1920s created a large black labor force in meatpacking, steel, and elsewhere. The ultimate destruction of promising organizations in basic industry during the 1919–1922 era can be explained largely in terms of postwar unemployment and another aggressive open-shop campaign, but the unions’ unsuccessful efforts to integrate the black migrants helps to account for the relative weakness of Chicago unions during the 1920s and the early Depression years. Industrial organization emerged in meatpacking, steel, agricultural machinery manufacturing, and elsewhere only in the late 1930s and during World War II, when the new CIO unions stressed civil rights in strenuous organizing campaigns among African Americans, Mexicans, and other minority workers. In turn, these workers provided some of the strongest bases of support for the new industrial unions. Yet some building trade unions continued to discriminate long after the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s and were forced to integrate only through federal government pressure and protests from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and other local groups.

        And here.

        And here.

        • Data Tutashkhia

          Well, your quote says that it was mostly over by the late 1930s.

          Your second link is a book, and the last one… Well, I can believe pretty much anything about NYC, but those were very small organizations, and selected based on the number of complaints. And then it seems to be based mostly on statistical analysis. It doesn’t strike me as an indictment of union racism.

          I think, as JoyfulA said below, nepotism is probably a very big factor.

          • Hogan

            Nepotism is one of the drivers of institutional racism. It’s a specific form of exclusion.

            • Data Tutashkhia

              Nah, nepotism doesn’t seem to have anything to do with racism. If may have similar effects, because of the prevailing conditions, but that’s coincidental.

              • John

                I think the point is that “racism” can mean a system of institutionalized inequality, not just personal bigotry.

                • Data Tutashkhia

                  Why would ‘racism’ mean a ‘system of institutionalized inequality’? Any system institutionalizes inequality. That’s why you need a system: to institutionalize inequality.

                  You know, like this, from Rousseau:

                  The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.

            • You’re being trolled.

              • Sorry – I read below that s/he said thanks. My bad.

      • JoyfulA

        What Murc said. And about machinists, both my mother and my father’s mother were machinists during World War II. (That’s how my parents met!) At the end of the war, they were both laid off these good-paying jobs and relegated to the low-paying garment factories. I have no idea whether these machinist jobs were union. Some garment factory jobs were union. My mother’s mother was at times an ILGWU member, I know; she said because some factories were union, all factories in town treated employees the same. (Keep in mind that in that time and place, garment factories worked on contracts with manufacturers; when a contract was complete, a factory often shut down until the owner procured another contract. The garment workers were employed by a variety of factories over a career, just by the nature of the business.)

        My husband was a teacher in the 1970s, first in the burbs as an NEA member. He railed against the NEA as not a real union because it didn’t stick up for its members when they were unjustly maltreated and with no due process whatsoever fired (the case of a black man so treated stuck in his craw to the point he tried to initiate a strike). Then he got a job in an AFT district and was satisfied. Mostly. But I never saw him express any solidarity with the trade unions.

        Another point about the trade unions and the outsiders: The trade unions seemed to be dynastic, in the sense that apprentices were likely to be sons or other relatives of members.

        And I have no documentation of any sort. This is oral history, me, rambling on about what I remember.

        • Data Tutashkhia


          • JoyfulA

            You’re welcome! Please ask more questions and give me an excuse to dredge up memories and babble on.

        • I think a lot of what you’re describing has mostly been gone for the last 20 years or so. Most large units of government have minority preferences on public bids, so an employer/union that’s all white is often at a disadvantage or even disqualified from that project.

          Also, while I won’t dismiss racism as a huge part of the insularity you describe, it was also about family and neighborhood bonds; you can think of it as clan over Klan. For a union that ran a hiring hall–not entirely but mostly the building trades, and mostly the AFL unions vs those from the CIO–apprenticeships and hiring was a way to take care of one’s family.

          Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. There’s a union local I did some work with back when I was still doing Michigan/Detroit area politics. It had about 300 members, and it’s employer, wanting to diversify the workforce, leaned hard on the local to diversify. At this point well over a majority of the 300 members were related through about three or four extended families. But they started to diversify. Within a few years about 50 of the 300 or so members were African-American. And those 50 or so African-Americans were almost all related to one of the other African-Americans in that local.

          Obviously the effect of “clan hiring,” even if not racist and malevolent in intent, was racist in effect. But the bonds often weren’t about race or ethnicity as much as they were about closer connections between the members, in particular family and neighborhood.

  • Scott Lemieux

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the nostalgia for the Democratic Party of the 70s is absolutely bizarre to me.

    • Murc

      You think it’s weird to be nostalgic for a time when “the government should provide and guarantee full employment” had a muscular constituency within the Democratic Party and had to be taken seriously as a policy position?

      I can be nostalgic for that part without also being nostalgic for the huge numbers of unreconstructed racists still in the ranks, for it ultimately turning its back on labor, for the conservative goons already beginning to seize control of the party from within, etc.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Again, the Democrats of this period controlled Congress and the White House for 4 years. What happened? That constituency apparently wasn’t very muscular.

        • Murc

          Again, the Democrats of this period controlled Congress and the White House for 4 years. What happened?

          Er… the same thing that happened when the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House for two years and couldn’t card check legislation passed? Sometimes you fail?

          Just because your constituency is potent enough to be taken seriously doesn’t mean it will get its way. I think very few people here would dispute the fact that there’s a muscular constituency within the Republican Party for gutting Social Security, but when GWB tried to do that he didn’t get a lot of traction.

          Politics is incremental, is it not? First you need to get your ideas to the point where they won’t be laughed out of the room. Then you need to establish and build a constituency for them, that constituency needs to sell itself to the public and to elite opinion-makers, build up political clout and make allies and form coalitions with others, place its advocates into power (or at least strongarm people into signing on for nakedly self-interested reasons), and finally you preform the heavy lift of getting your preferred policies put into place.

          Sometimes you get knocked backwards DOWN that path. In 2004 the anti-gay crowd was at the “getting its preferred policies put into place” level all across the country. It’s still a powerful constituency, but it is growing LESS powerful by the day and it’s constituency is shrinking and it’s losing the public.

          Many economic positions that were taken seriously in the sixties and seventies have been pushed all the way back to “you will be laughed out of the room” stage. I am sort of nostalgic for times when they WEREN’T, even if they weren’t all the way up to “they could actually be implemented as policy”. Because sliding down the ladder means you have to climb back up again.

          • Scott Lemieux

            the same thing that happened when the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House for two years and couldn’t card check legislation passed?

            Except, of course, that – despite a new routine supermajority requirement in the Senate — the party we have now was able to get major legislation passed, including the PPACA and the repeal of DADT. In easier circumstances the allegedly better Democratic Party passed nothing of remotely similar consequence.

            • Murc

              In easier circumstances the allegedly better Democratic Party passed nothing of remotely similar consequence.

              Thank you for misrepresenting my position, Scott. I take it that you missed it when I said this:

              I can be nostalgic for that part without also being nostalgic for the huge numbers of unreconstructed racists still in the ranks, for it ultimately turning its back on labor, for the conservative goons already beginning to seize control of the party from within, etc.

              And you also apparently missed the part where I go on at length about how many positions that were once taken seriously are now not, and it was that in specific that I was nostalgic for. Instead you set up a strawman of “Murc thinks the entire Democratic Party in the 70s was better than the one we have now in every way” and knock it down.

              • Scott Lemieux

                I don’t see what the strawman is. If we’re comparing the left wing of the respective Democratic Party, I think the current one is more progressive. If we’re comparing the party as a whole, the current one is more progressive. Your implication is that at least one (and really both) of these premises must be false, and I see no evidence for that.

                • djw

                  I think he must mean this, which is presumably meant to be interpreted narrowly:

                  “the government should provide and guarantee full employment” had a muscular constituency within the Democratic Party

                  But, if the claim is that this view had a greater constituency within the party then than it does now, show me something. This claim badly needs some evidence. What did they do to further that goal? Even if it’s just true as a matter of political attitudes among elected democrats, if it didn’t result in something tangible I don’t really see why I should care much.

                • Oh, it was more liberal back then because Howard Metzenbaum would introduce bills and amendments for the AFL-CIO. Nobody would do that now, especially not a dude from Ohio…oh, wait…

                • Murc

                  If we’re comparing the left wing of the respective Democratic Party, I think the current one is more progressive

                  How are we defining progressive here? If you mean the Democratic Party as a whole is more progressive than once it was, I concur, but with the HUGE caveat that that’s because it’s moved far to the left on social policy. If we’re talking economic policy, there are many areas in which the modern Democratic Party is further to the right than it previously was. I mean, fuck, much of Bill Clinton’s political career was based on wrenching it to the right.

                  Even if it’s just true as a matter of political attitudes among elected democrats, if it didn’t result in something tangible I don’t really see why I should care much.

                  … political attitudes among elected officials are a necessary precursor to getting shit passed.

                • I think you can take the position that the 1970’s Democratic Party was very slightly, on balance, more progressive and that the Republican Party was absolutely more progressive than today’s respective parties.


                  1. The Church committee didn’t get repeated over modern CIA abuses
                  2. Michael Blumenthal was more liberal than Geithner/Summers
                  3. Vance more liberal than Hillary
                  4. The Democratic Party ensured Ford could not go back into Vietnam, they never thought twice about defunding Bush in Iraq.
                  5. Phil Hart was more liberal than DiFi (just to pick two senators randomly from union states)
                  6. Never heard Carter talk about serious efforts toward balancing the budget during his term while unemployment was not as high as under Obama
                  7. Price controls were acceptable to the country, Dems and Reps alike

                  The 1970’s Dems were less pragmatic and didn’t realize that their era of dominance was ending. Watergate let them indulge in denial for 1 more midterm then 1 more national election.

                  I think the modern Republican party is not making the same mistake those Democrats made. They are clearly aware of their precarious position, from state government up to the national government and across to the Supreme Court and they are trying to roll back or just gum up the works to the greatest extent possible to make Democrats have to re-win all the ground they won in the 1930-80 period in the longest possible timeframe, if they can.

                  Current era Democrats do not have the courage or moxie to confront a president like Nixon or investigate the CIA, neither did 1970’s era Democrats they have the worldview that would have tolerated no serious Wall Street investigations or prosecutions.

                  Kennedy could have had universal healthcare with Nixon, but didn’t take it because he was more ambitious (too bad).

                  Value wise, 1970’s Democrats were legacies from the New Deal. Current Democrats are to their right economically and with an unhealthy respect for all authority (monetary, legal, security, etc.).

            • The nature of the majorities/supermajorities changed dramatically between the 70s and now.

              And again, there’s a big difference between the president wanting to get this done, and the president trying to kill it without appearing to.

            • Djur

              If we’re talking solely about ’76-’80, no, nothing as big as the PPACA was passed. The Department of Education was established, the National Energy Act was passed, a few other things. But this was still in the wake of a very powerful, activist Democratic Congress up until ’74 or so.

              Congress got a lot done in ’70-’74, although a lot of it ended up being substantially weakened by Reagan. And part of the reason ’76-’80 was fairly uneventful was because Carter and the Congress didn’t work well together.

              • Which is reason 10 or so why Carter was on balance good for neither the country nor the party.

          • Very true.

        • DocAmazing

          Or it was repeatedly outmaneuvered, as has been the case of late.

        • jefft452

          “That constituency apparently wasn’t very muscular”
          It’s nonexistent now, hence the nostalgia

          • Precisely. At the time, the right to a job was a major position with political strength behind it that had to be debated. Now, it’s completely outside the Overton Window.

            • I wonder how many people realize the term “overton window” is named for a rightwinger at the Mackinac Institute who used it to describe pushing rhetoric such that people will eventually embrace privatization of Social Security. Obviously that effort was a huge failure–and don’t anyone come back with a dumb retort that tweaking the COLA forumla is akin to turning the country in to one giant 401K casino–and one that was essentially dishonest propaganda. It’s also a concept that, afaik, has zero empirical research to back it up.

              Please don’t take it personally, you just caught me on a verbose and pique-ish day, but that term annoys me as much as hearing Paul Ryan extolled as a great intellectual.

              • I hate the source, but it’s a useful term.

                • But I’m not sure it is. The premise is essentially that if you’re disciplined with rhetoric, you can move the public to any position, even if it’s wrong or unpopular or requires the public to deny reality to believe a lie. At best that’s simplistic, and likely it’s quite wrong.

                • Ok, is there a better term that refers to “the range of possibilities acceptable for debate within polite society”?

                • Best I can come up with is “the range of possibilities acceptable for debate within polite society.” It seems to work.

                  Feel free to use it yourself. ;-)

                • Every time someone says, “They moved the goalposts'” they should pay a royalty to Overton.

                  Personally, I’d like to see a pay per view debate from Hell between Overton and Alinsky.

                • Sure, OK, let’s give credit for the term “Overton Window” being invented so that ten years earlier people could start using the term “moving the goalposts.”

                  I guess if we keep saying that causality works backwards that would be a case of Overton Window.

                • LosGatosCA

                  Then have every one who says Overton Window pay a royalty to the coiner of ‘moving the goal posts’ I don’t really care.

                  The point is that goal posts, windows, or even bully pulpit are all the same objective – try to control the discussion to put your preferred position in it’s most favorable position possible rather than passively accept current circumstances as beyond any control.

                  The third caveman into the discussion invented them all spontaneously 30 seconds after the other two ignored his suggestion for lunch.

        • Humphrey-Hawkins had enough of a constituency that it had to be passed in some form, enough of a constituency that it was written into the Democratic Party platform in 1976 and used as a cudgel against Ford.

          There was division within Congress between the Teddy Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party and the Rust Belters on one side and the proto-New Democrats and Southerners on the other, but it wasn’t really that strong to begin with – hence the bill actually passing. The main issue was that Carter fucked up the Project for Better Jobs and Income and pissed off a lot of important stakeholders, and that delayed the negotiations over Humphrey-Hawkins for eighteen months, which Carter’s folks then tried to torpedo. By that point, unemployment had dropped from about 8% to a bit below 6% while inflation spiked from 5% to 9% – which dramatically changed the politics of the bill.

          There were many screwups in the 70s that Congress can take full responsibility for – the labor bill, tax reform, health care, etc. This isn’t one of them.

    • Ronan

      The nostalgia for post war social democracy in general is bizzare

      • Anonymous


    • Not if you’re a Lewis Powell Republican.

  • jkay

    But, HTF was that atall CARTER’s fault anymore than a failure to do socialized medicine was Obama’s fault? Who knew he legislated?

    Though I admit to loving Carter for giving us real beer and freeing flight from the expensive aristocracy it HAD been. :-)

    Why should ANYBODY expect worship and passage of whatever THEY want, no matter how cool they are? No matter if they’re union or corporate.

    • Carter:
      A. Screwed up the Project for Better Jobs and Income, a presidential initiative, which poisoned the well.
      B. let his staff try to gut the bill behind closed doors.
      C. Delayed the bill by 18 months.

      Take your pick.

      • jkay

        But, I’m still waiting for when Carter was a legislator during that period. Especially since given what I’ve heard about him and Congress, him being against the bill would’ve been the best help. Like the Republicans being AGAINST conservative RomneyCare.

        • That mischaracterizes the nature of the dysfunction between Carter and Congress: in this case, this wasn’t an administration priority that Congress hated, but rather a bill with solid if not overwhelming support in the Democratic Caucus that Carter hated.

          Presidents can’t legislate by their own, but they can stop stuff if they want to.

  • Yeah. Carter’s folks did some real dirt on the Humphrey-Hawkins Act: the same people negotiating with the Billy’s sponsors on behalf of the administration were also goings around and briefing senators about how to dismantle the bill, and working on a legal strategy for how to ignore the statute completely.

    However, as I write about in my dissertation, there was a complex situation within the Carter Administration, where singificant factions of the Federal government were allies or at least sympathizers – the Labor Department, Mondale, etc. – fighting with the Treasury, CEA, and OMB. The collapse of Carter’s Project for Better Jobs and Incme is key in understanding the internal dynamics here.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned here is the impact of macroeconomic policy on American unions: at the end of the day, a huge amount of union losses came not with employers breaking union contracts and trying to break the union, but rather with huge shrinkages in heavily unionized industries. Which is why we have to, absolutely have to, keep in mind the role of trade policy and monetary policy in the decline of American unions. As Judith Stein’s work (both Running Steel and From Factories to Finance) shows, it was deliberate U.S policy to throw industry under the bus to the extent that our Cold War allies needed access to American markets. This became an even bigger problem when Carter hit on a strategy of encouraging cheaper imports as an anti-inflation strategy.

    Monetary policy is also key – Volcker’s turn towards monetarism was a double-whammy, causing a massive recession that hit unionized sectors especially hard, but also by massively increasing interest rates, Volcker caused the dollar to spike, which torpedoed U.S manufacturing by slapping the equivalent of a 20% tariff on American goods. And the policy of a high dollar continued through the Reagan years.

    We remember PATCO, but the dollar was probably more important for explaining what happened to labor.

    • Murc

      Why the hell is Steve not making labor and economics related guest posts here?

      • JoyfulA

        Or telling us where we can buy a copy of his dissertation.

        • Well, I need to finish it first – which will happen soon.

          And then I need to find a publisher.

          • Bill Murray

            well if you finish it from a US school, we can always get it through Dissertation Express for $39

      • Steve would love to. It may have to wait for Steve to finish his dissertation.

    • Yes, hearty yes, to the role of macroeconomics and monetary policy, to which I’l add the overlapping issue of globalization. In the 1970’s US manufacturers generally treated their production workforce like drones, and they rebelled by monkeywrenching, doing drugs, doing shoddy work and just generally doing a lot of the same things most of us would do if we hated our jobs, saw no way out and were treated like shit. At the same time that monetary policy was sucking foreign goods in to the US, US manufacturers realized that the Japanese and Germans were kicking our butts in quality. But rather than fully embrace investing more in their workforce, a lot of manufacturers moved production out of the US where they had a more compliant workforce that was also a lot cheaper. Add in the escape from regulations, including environmental laws, and that’s another kick in the teeth for American workers.

      Oh, while we’re listing problems with labor, I think this is more a 1980’s development, but the refinement and spread of union-busting lawyering made organizing much harder. Labor wasn’t doing much organizing in the 1970’s or even the 1980’s for the most part, but by the 90s emphasis on organizing the impediments were far worse than they’d been a few decades earlier.

      • I don’t know about organizing, but there was a huge upswing in labor militancy in the 70s, as Cowie’s book details.

        • You mean like the RUM’s in the auto plants? They didn’t go anywhere other than to scare the shit out of a lot of discontented workers who didn’t want to bring down the capitalist system. And yes, there were wildcat strikes, but those mostly served to weaken labor, or were expressions of the weakness of the leadership.

        • Inflation had a lot to do with it and of course the increased militancy of management in blaming inflation on labor.

          Getting all those consumers to buy in to the idea that strikers were directly responsible for prices going up, instead of Arthur Burns printing money to boost Nixon’s 1972 re-election chances being the cause for unions having to strike to maintain their purchasing power.

          In the grand scheme, Arthur Burns putting unions on the spot to try and maintain members purchasing power may have been a master stroke. Plus, Carter then had to appoint Volcker to wring out the inflation expectations. Democratic constituencies got the shaft coming and going thanks to Burns and Nixon.

          Nixon never has gotten the true level of contempt he deserves for his economic policies. Get on a plane to China – foreign policy wiz. Fuck up the US economy to the point it doesn’t reach 1000 on the Dow for 15 years after LBJ and unemployment doesn’t get under 5% again for 25 years, but that’s OK.

          It always been unfair that Carter paid the price for the Nixon economic mismanagement.

          One thing we can be grateful for is that Kerry lost in 2004 and the 2007/8 economic crash fell on the right head.

          • The RUM’s were before inflation took off.

  • One of the Blue

    Personally I think Taft-Hartley set the stage, and after that it was a death of a thousand cuts, based on the list Erik provided + Meany/McGovern and maybe a few other things.

    But re the role of PATCO in changing the tone, two things:

    I was organizing in the late ’80’s and had PATCO thrown in my face a lot by workers who did not want to support the union.

    Yellow Dog Contract by Ross Thomas discusses a plot by various business interests to provoke a massive public employees strike in the mid-seventies designed to discredit organized labor in much the same way that Reagan actually did with much more slick methodology in 1981.

    Worth noting also,Reagan was a long-time union activist and leader before he went over to the dark side, and so knew labor’s vulnerabilities in a way few other conservative hacks did.

    So yes, I think his tactics had some effect in speeding the process, and scaring people out of striking.

    • JoyfulA

      I love Ross Thomas’s books—which are crime fiction of one sort or another—and recommend all of them to everybody.

      I need to see if I have Yellow Dog Contract and, if not, order it immediately.

      • Hogan

        Thomas is wonderful. He’s like Donald Westlake with CIA sources.

        • JoyfulA

          The plot didn’t seem familiar so I ordered it. My husband’s birthday present to me, although he doesn’t know it yet.

  • jeer9

    Is this the same great progressive Wimpy Winpisinger who helped the FBI during the McCarthy era, assisted on raids at and fingered “Communist infiltrators” in IAM shops? Is this the same guy who in 1976 warned about the “motley crew of small splinter groups” spawned by the New Left that were still trying to “infiltrate a few union halls” and make a “nuisance of themselves?” He’d be a reliable critic of Carter.

    Of course, it was under Winpisinger’s leadership that the UAW supported during Carter’s term a campaign-financing measure which allowed the political parties to spend limitless amounts of money for “party-strengthening activities” and “get-out-the-vote” drives in presidential elections. Funds might come from any source whatever, from sources forbidden since 1907 – union treasuries, meaning the workers’ dues; corporate treasuries, meaning the stockholders’ money; as well as the deep pockets of “fat cat” donors – no need even for a PAC. That the creation of PACs exploded after this should not be surprising.

    This deeply conservative Democratic congress also undermined Carter’s attempts to reform and make more progressive our tax laws by eradicating the $750 individual tax exemption which benefited only the affluent and replacing it with a $240 credit for every household. The original bill intended to rein in the capital gains giveaways which at the time solely enhanced the rich as well. Instead, the bill that passed by a margin of 362 to 49 gave the lion’s share of a $16 billion tax reduction to the wealthiest 5 percent of the country, now referred to as “the middle class.”

    It was an almost total defeat for President Carter. The tax bill provided the 37,000 richest households with a capital gains tax reduction of $25,000 a year, a gross dispensation of privilege now described as “increased incentives for risk-taking and job-creation.” (Things haven’t changed much.) The Democrats had at long last given up their efforts to “redistribute the wealth” and mitigate the gross unfairness of the tax system. This same Democratic congress defeated a consumer agency protection bill, a hospital cost containment bill, a crude oil tax, and genuine election reform.

    Liberal Democrats tirelessly belabor Carter for his fiscal conservatism but seem to fall mute when it is pointed out that “conservative” Democrats killed off much of his progressive legislation. “Even Nixon had his partisans here,” an anonymous House Democrat once remarked, “but you never hear anyone say, ‘Let’s do it for Jimmy.’

    Sort of sad to see Loomis pin the blame on Carter rather than the party.

    • …it was under Winpisinger’s leadership that the UAW supported…

      At least one and maybe both parts of that is wrong.

      And I’m not following the whole PAC thing. One thing I do know is that there was plenty of soft money flowing around prior to Carter’s presidency. And PAC’s arose as a result of anti-union legislation during WWII and made worse in Taft-Hartley. But prior to that, union treasury money, at least in the 30’s and early 40’s, could be used legally for campaign contributions.

    • James E. Powell

      Considering the economic and social turmoil of the era, it’s a pretty simplistic to use concepts like blame to explain what happened.

      Those were my young & idealistic days in politics and I recall them with the perverse clarity of nostalgia.

      I sometimes wonder about those who attacked Carter from the left, Winpisinger certainly but most notably Kennedy. Did they not see that the whole country was making a massive move toward what we now call the right? Did they not appreciate the powerful reactions ignited by civil rights, the women’s movement, the US defeat in Viet Nam? Did they not expect that the corporate ruling class would use those reactions to build a coalition to roll back the progressive gains of the middle years of the 20th century?

      Attacks on the Carter administration are neither new nor clever. The anti-Carter rants started before he was inaugurated. How often does anyone analyze the decisions of the Democratic establishment in Washington and in the several states? What, exactly, did Ted Kennedy think would happen?

      • Davis X. Machina

        My recollection is that people counted seats after the ’74 Congressional elections, and thought the millennium had come. That it might be a post-Watergate epiphenonomenon didn’t even register.

        Not a lot of big-picture thinking. Not a lot of attention paid to North-South Dem/GOP re-alignment, Reagan’s ’76 near-miss, or other trends that seem obvious in retrospect.

        • Or the fact that Carter/Ford was so close.

  • Joe B

    I think the 1978 national coal strike was a pretty significant moment in the decline of organized labor. It doesn’t get written about much these days, but it was, in lots of ways, as big a deal as the PATCO strike in 1981.

    The union miners won a big pay rise, but made concessions on lots of issues that began the chipping away of the benefits they had built up in the early ’70s. The contract they won didn’t settle the ineffective grievance procedures that were a big cause of wildcat strikes in the years running up to the national strike, so lots of miners weren’t at all happy with the final contract. But the rank and file’s rejection of UMWA President Arnold Miller’s first tentative agreement in ’78 left coal operators with the impression that they couldn’t deal with a union where power lay with the locals and members. The coal operators had been organized into a collective association to deal with the UMWA since the mid-1940s, but they wanted a strong leader like John L. Lewis who could prevent wildcat strikes. So Miller’s failure to keep the rank and file in line was the moment where they decided to break the UMWA-BCOA bargaining structure down. By the time the next national contract negotiations came around the AT Massey company (later Massey Energy) were insisting that all of its mines were individual companies who would only negotiate separate deals with the union. At the same time, most operators were moving equipment and production to pit-mines in the West, where the UMWA had no power base. I think the 1978 strike was the first time more coal was mined in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah than in Appalachia. So the union-busting and subsequent loss of benefits, pensions, healthcare, and especially workplace safety in coal mining began at this point, and arguably coal led the way for every other big industry in America.

  • Joseph Slater

    Good post, Erik. Of course, this one event did not Completely Change Everything, and McCartin should be forgiven in the sense of Hofstadter’s “every good thesis deserves an overstatement” (or something close to that. McCartin does make some interesting points about how this event helped to freeze out Republicans who were more sympathetic to labor (or less unsympathetic) in the future Republican party. Maybe that would have happened too, as the parties became more unified around ideology (or at least the Republicans did). But it’s still a very good and thought-provoking book.

  • Mike Schilling

    The problem was definitely the CIO getting rid of the Communists in 1947. It’s not as if the CPUSA had proven since at least 1939 that their priorities were that day’s version of Soviet policy first and everything else last.

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