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This Day in Labor History: July 19, 1972

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On July 19, 1972, the AFL-CIO announced its decision not to endorse George McGovern for president. This astounding decision helped doom the already floundering McGovern campaign, helping to guarantee another victory for Richard Nixon. It also placed a permanent divide between non-labor progressives in the Democratic Party and the labor movement, one that still has not been fully bridged today. The story is actually more complicated than is usually stated, because in fact a lot of unions strongly supported McGovern.

For George Meany, George McGovern and his supporters were offensive on a number of levels. First, McGovern represented the Democratic Party in revolt, the hippies who protested inside the disastrous ’68 Chicago DNC. In the aftermath, with rules changes to the Democratic Party structure to make it more democratic, the power of the AFL-CIO leadership within the Party was challenged, even as there was room for more rank and file participation. But worse for Meany, McGovern didn’t support the Vietnam War. George Meany was a cold warrior’s cold warrior. He used his power as head of the federation to undermine socialism around the world and promote CIA activities, including, at the beginning of his tenure as AFL chief, supporting the overthrow of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Meany thought the Vietnam War was a righteous war. And that would make him hate McGovern.

george-meany-4

There was another issue at play–the endless rivalry between Meany and the old CIO unions. Walter Reuther was dead by this time, but Meany and Reuther hated each other and what each stood for. Meany was highly concerned that the new social liberalism of the Democratic Party grassroots would empower the Reutherites both in the labor movement and in society as a whole. So undermining the social democratic unions in a new grassroots oriented Democratic Party was also on his mind.

George McGovern had a reasonably strong background in labor. He wrote his first book on the Colorado coal wars that culminated in the Ludlow Massacre. But McGovern’s record was not perfect, and that included on some of the most important labor legislation of his term. First, while in Congress, he voted for the Landrum-Griffin Act. Second, in 1966, he voted against the repeal of Section 14(b) the Taft-Hartley Act. The latter especially is pretty bad. That’s the provision that allows states to enact right to work legislation. Yet in the end, COPE, which was the AFL-CIO political arm, noted that McGovern voted with labor 93.5% of the time, about the same as Ed Muskie, if less than Hubert Humphrey, who was an outstanding supporter of unions. In any case, it wasn’t a record that should have lead to the AFL-CIO ditching him once he had won the domination. One can argue, as Jefferson Cowie has in Staying Alive, that the vote to overturn 14(b) would have hurt him in South Dakota where such a vote would have no support. Possibly, although I think Cowie, is excusing McGovern’s vote here to make a point against Meany. But, to his credit, McGovern openly said that if elected, he would fight to overturn 14(b). And as Cowie also points out, Meany’s good friend Lyndon Johnson had voted for Taft-Hartley in the first place so this was all a frame job against McGovern, a fair enough charge. And in any case, McGovern’s labor record was a hell of a lot better than Richard Nixon’s.

So Meany went to work on the AFL-CIO to not endorse McGovern. That wasn’t all that hard, really. First, Meany himself supported Nixon. Second, a lot of the building trades also supported Nixon. That didn’t mean that the federation was going to endorse Nixon; far from it. But it did mean neutrality, which was a huge and very public blow to McGovern. At the AFL-CIO convention a week before the announcement, Meany worked openly to achieve this result. Even before it was made official on July 19, the newspapers were filled with articles that this was going to happen. And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.

Interestingly, McGovern’s second choice for the vice-presidential candidate, after Ted Kennedy, was United Auto Workers president Leonard Woodcock. By this time, the UAW had withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taken out by Reuther in 1968 over Vietnam and a variety of other policies. So it’s far from clear that had Woodcock accepted whether this would have done anything more than infuriate Meany. But while Woodcock was interested, there was a lot of feeling within the UAW that this was inappropriate for a union head and he declined.

There was significant discontent within the labor movement over Meany’s tactics. A lot of unions, especially the industrial unions, were furious with him over it. They thought McGovern would be great and fully supported him. The United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, AFSCME, and a lot of less powerful unions like the International Woodworkers of America fought hard for McGovern. Thirty-three unions, representing a majority of unionized workers in the United States, ultimately officially endorsed McGovern.

McGovern also visited that site of 1972 rebellion against both corporations and staid union leaders, Lordstown, Ohio, where his genial rebellion was received very positively with the young rank and file UAW members rebelling against the boredom of their jobs and what they saw as staid union leadership. But it was all too little by far and of course McGovern was crushed that fall.

Unfortunately, this complexity within the labor movement over the McGovern decision gets lost in a general narrative that between Meany’s support for Vietnam, his hatred of McGovern, and a couple of isolated incidents where “hardhats beat hippies,” labor cannot be trusted by other progressives. It’s a cherry picking narrative that is really problematic and needs severe revision. Those incidents are true enough and George Meany was terrible, not only for what he did to McGovern, but to the labor movement as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that labor itself can’t be trusted because of some actions over 40 years ago. Rather, it means that organized labor has had some terrible leadership over the years, but that the union movement has always included some forward-thinking people who have done a great deal of good for social and economic justice everywhere. And that’s should be a lot more important today that George Meany’s call in the presidential election of 1972.

This is the 152nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Well look, progressives see labor unions as a mixed bag. Which is the correct view. There are plenty of what the Wobblies called “pork choppers,” you know, the union bosses with silk suits and pinky rings and chauffeured cadillacs; straight up corruption, e.g. Teamsters; and pervasive racism in the building trades, just for starters. And there are also progressive union leaders. Back when I was a community organizer IBEW and the Sheet Metal Workers, e.g., were universally regarded as good guys. The fact is, there is no such thing as a “labor movement” in the U.S. any more, you just have to take ’em as you find ’em.

    • dilan

      Well, there is a basic case for labor solidarity and I have some respect for it. There are great benefits to liberal causes to be gained from standing with unions.

      Having said that, I do agree with a fair amount of what you say. Certainly as a public policy matter, I view unions much more as a correct PROCEDURE than an institution whose substantive decisions must always be defended. Sometimes unions are wrong about things. They aren’t actually supposed to be right about everything– they are supposed to represent the interests of their workers. Sometimes the interest of workers in a particular trade is not the public interest (see, e.g, police unions). Sometimes the interest of workers in a particular trade is highly exclusionary (see Hollywood unions). Sometimes unions will make decisions that make short term sense but backfire in the long term (some pensions). And of course, unions have all the same agency problems that any organization does, which is how many trades got all mobbed up for a time.

      But to me, judging unions for what they do is kind of the wrong metric. Collective bargaining is both a basic right and a functional counterweight to corporate power. Workers should have that right even if the contractual terms they negotiate are terms I think are a bad idea or contrary to good public policy. The reason liberals should support unions is because every employee who has ever been underpaid or suffered bad working conditions or had a grievance should have the right to join with other workers and demand a better deal. That’s something we should stand for, even if specific unions do specific problematic things.

      • King Goat

        Well said. A union is like a lawyer or an agent, it represents the worker/client/principal. Sometimes it’s called in to represent the indefensible, but the right to have it and call it in is something everyone should support.

      • NewishLawyer

        I think framing it as labor solidarity is interesting because I wonder if part of the problem is that America has weird issues about class as we saw in the Loomis post from yesterday.

        I think Americans tend to frame class as being less about income and more about aesthetics, recreation, geographical living preferences, etc. Anything but income and how one makes a living probably.

        Adjunct professors will always be seen as being middle-class or upper-class even if they don’t make a lot of money and many are on public assistance.

        How do we differentiate between someone working as a paralegal or food server if that person is arts-educated and wants to be an actor, director, dancer, writer vs. someone who got a paralegal certificate via a vocational school or someone who just works as a server?

        • Hogan

          How do we differentiate between someone working as a paralegal or food server if that person is arts-educated and wants to be an actor, director, dancer, writer vs. someone who got a paralegal certificate via a vocational school or someone who just works as a server?

          We call the first group “bohemians.” (Harrington’s The Other America has a chapter on what he calls “voluntary poverty.”)

        • Karen24

          There is a lot to the idea that we assign class based on consumer tastes in this country, especially among white people. Thus, Phillips Andover and Yale alum George W Bush could be Bubba and Obama, a mixed race child of a single mother, raised by her middle class parents, is a member of The Cultural Elite. In Europe, the upper classes would scold Obama for getting above himself and Bush for slumming.

        • LeeEsq

          I would agree and disagree with this. In the United States, class correlated with wealth much more that it did in Europe traditionally. Sure people of a certain income were supposed to cultivate certain tastes and affects but class was mainly about how much wealth you had. The idea of genteel poverty was never American. It was only recently that class and culture became conflated in the Untied States but income still controls a lot more than it does in Europe.

          • Manny Kant

            In Britain, certainly, class difference is encoded in the way people talk, which is very different from here.

      • Brien Jackson

        “They aren’t actually supposed to be right about everything– they are supposed to represent the interests of their workers.”

        Could we please drop this pointless phrase already? As you can spin anything as “representing the interests of their workers,” it has absolutely no substantive meaning at all.

        • Marek

          Please elaborate on your statement. A lot of intelligent people have written and litigated over this concept (at least) since the NLRA was passed, so I’m interested in knowing what your take is (or why everyone else is so stupid).

      • Brett

        Agreed, with one reservation. If we’re going to make the “counterweight” comparison, then should unions be subject to anti-trust litigation if a single union becomes super-dominant in a particular sector of the economy? Would you break up the UAW into smaller unions back in the 1950s and 1960s? Is it a violation of a worker’s right to union membership if you do that?

        • LosGatosCA

          Nice abstract argument. We should entertain that as soon as total Union membership approaches 70% of the workforce.

          Current Union participation is around 11%

          http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm

          So it’s not an immediate problem.

        • Marek

          My understanding is that antitrust law applies to businesses, not non-profits like unions. You might as well ask if the Sierra Club should be broken up if too many environmentalists belong to it.

          Also, membership in organizations is generally a First Amendment right (with certain notable exceptions).

    • But don’t you see the inherent problems with how you frame this? How do you know the Teamsters are corrupt today? How do you know that the building trades are racist? If so, which ones?

      Again, these are 1970s stereotypes about unions that progressives still trot out today. And it’s a terrible place to start conversations about the relationships between labor and other progressives. Even your own later sentence undermines your earlier one since you say the Sheet Metal Workers were good.

      • The only reason the Teamsters are less corrupt today is because they operated under federal oversight for 25 years, until last January. And most people are agnostic about how clean they really are. As for the building trades, if you really don’t know that building trades locals are nests of cronyism, nepotism and racism, you are in the wrong business.

        • Karen24

          From 2005 through 2012 I did construction-related law. The people I dealt with then were the worst racists and sexists — especially sexists!! — I have ever met. I was almost happy about the recession since it meant most of those assholes were out of a job.

        • Alan Tomlinson

          “The only reason the Teamsters are less corrupt today is because they operated under federal oversight for 25 years, until last January.” Do you have any evidence for that assertion? Correlation I will grant you, exclusive causality is another matter.

          I agree completely that the Teamsters were profoundly corrupt for a long time, and I agree that federal oversight was a boon to rooting out corruption. I am simply unsure that other factors didn’t also play a significant part. The Teamsters I knew were all profoundly aware of the corruption and despised it, they just didn’t know how to end it. I suspect, although I have done no research, that federal oversight allowed previously repressed voices to be heard.

          As for cronyism, nepotism, and racism, in what way is that anything other than a reflection of society at large? It’s perhaps more visible; but the way you describe it comes across to me(perhaps my perception is the only thing “wrong” here) as though these unions should be condemned and sanctioned. My experience has been that people generally respond more openly to respect and suggestion than to scorn and demands.

          Cheers,

          Alan Tomlinson

          • Davis X. Machina

            “Cronyism” is solidarity seen from the outside…

          • Marek

            Harrumph. Just like in standardized tests, the answer that contains the word “only” is always wrong.

        • joel hanes

          anecdote

          A very good friend started as a union plumber’s apprentice in the 1970’s, worked up through journeyman and mastership, bossed the union plumbing during construction on a major resort hotel, then was facilities manager at that resort hotel for a decade.

          He despises the construction trades union management he’s known, and insists that a corrupt elite got rich and lazy on the dues of the rank and file, and that a sclerotic, ineffective bureaucracy returned little value to the members — bad enough to make him permanently angry.

          To sum up: his union experience did not inculcate solidarity.

    • Linnaeus

      You could say that many, if not most, progressive groups, institutions, etc. are mixed bags, because as Alan Tomlinson points out, they’re products of the society in which they’re situated. So while it’s necessary to be critical of labor unions when they have problems, it’s also important to remember that on the whole, they perform an important and generally progressive function. I agree with dilan that labor solidarity and workplace rights are progressive principles that are worth fighting for and maintaining, however imperfect the instruments we use to do so are.

    • Brien Jackson

      I don’t understand this as a structural criticism at all. There are corrupt individuals in basically any large institution, as well as people with repugnant personal views at any given level. This has nothing to do, per se, with the nature of the institution itself.

  • dilan

    I love that photo. George Meany has one of the great names in US history, too. Perfectly descriptive

    • Karen24

      A description of the real Meany would be rejected even by conservative movie producers as entirely too cardboard evil. He’s one of the few people in recent history that I can honestly say has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

      • That’s a little overstated. He had a lot of problems, god knows, and I’m no fan, but he was genuinely committed to the economic growth of the American working class.

        • Murc

          He had a lot of problems, god knows, and I’m no fan, but he was genuinely committed to the economic growth of the American working class.

          He was committed to the economic growth of the parts of the American working class that were straight, male, and white.

          Those are very different things.

        • Karen24

          I’m not sure that’s accurate. He was willing to abandon the interests of the working class any time those interests conflicted with his own cultural preferences, usually leaving the entire class worse off than if he had been less blinkered. His support of the Vietnam War alone shows that he cared less about the actual working class than he did about his own prejudices.

        • LosGatosCA

          George Meany just seemed to be a caricature of an out of touch crony leader, easily manipulated by his economic enemies kind of twit.

          Nixon? come on. No one who gave two shits about the middle class could entertain Nixon as the answer to any domestic economic issue of consequence to them.

          ETA: I see now this has been accurately covered below.

        • cpinva

          meany was a scumbag, committed solely to what was good for George Meany. if it happened to benefit someone else, well, that was nice, but certainly not planned. he was pretty much wrong about everything, and the unions were worse off for his existence.

  • Morse Code for J

    What individual progressive voters feel is one thing. But I would hope the people who actually run campaigns see through that narrative, since labor donates a lot of bodies and a couple hundred million dollars every election cycle, overwhelmingly to Democrats of every ideological stripe.

  • joe from Lowell

    How was Nixon on labor issues?

    • Mostly bad, but he really wanted to peel the white working class away from the Democrats so he could often give sops to conservative leaning unions in order to help accomplish that. Which worked for him.

      • joe from Lowell

        Did labor issues not make it into the category of “domestic priorities of the Democratic Congress that Nixon went along with in order to shore up support for Vietnam,” like the environmental legislation he acceded to?

        • I don’t think so really because there wasn’t much in the way of bipartisan labor legislation passing. Labor could be a wedge for Nixon and he used it as such, i.e. the Philadelphia Plan, where he pushed through a plan to desegregate the building trades that he hoped would a) in the short term, actually attract building trades voters to him because he could blame it on the courts and b) undermine unions in the long run by attracting African-American votes to some Republican positions.

          • jamesepowell

            The degree to which the Johnson-Nixon years were transitional in American politics – and everything else – cannot be overstated. It was the second Civil War and from Reagan to now has been the second Reconstruction – with Obama working very hard to move us all into the next era.

            In the long run, it didn’t matter what Nixon thought or did about unions. The various currents that eventually (all but) destroyed the union movement in America were already underway.

            • Lee Rudolph

              with Obama working very hard to move us all into the next era.

              Viz., the second Gilded Age?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        Nixon also embraced (and helped create) the cultural image of the “hard hat,” the white, working-class man — usually a construction worker or factory worker — who supposedly felt that America was being destroyed by people of color, hippies, and those opposed to the war in the Vietnam. The hard hat as symbol of Nixon’s “silent majority” largely came into being as a result of the so-called “Hard Hat Riot” of May 8, 1970, when members of the construction trades, organized by the AFL-CIO, attacked young people in lower Manhattan who were protesting the recent Kent State shootings. The nearly simultaneous release of the surprise hit movie Joe, in which Peter Boyle played a racist, murderous hard hat who managed to disgust some audiences and rally others, helped seal the deal. And, in 1972, Nixon ran this ad.

        • Bruce Vail

          Yes, and Nixon rewarded the Hard Hat vote by appointing Peter Brennan to be Secy of Labor in 1973. Brennan was the organizer of the Hard Hat Riot and a long-time official of the NYC Building Trades.

          Sort of interesting that a Republican was okay with appointing a union official to the top spot at DOL but no Democratic president has been willing to do likewise.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks

            It’s the Nixon-to-China principle, if you see what I mean. I Republican can more easily get away with this.

            • Bruce Vail

              I do see what you mean.

              Sort of like Obama appointing Pritzker as Secy of Commerce. No Republican would dare make a similar appointment of a billionaire crony with no qualifications other than partisan fund-raising skill. People might object!

    • Bruce Vail

      Nixon made a concerted effort to split the labor movement by appealing to certain unions over others.

      He was able to buy the friendship of the Teamsters by pardoning Hoffa.

      He invited some of the unions to the party on the Alaska pipeline, muting any opposition from USWA or the building trades.

      His championing of the Merchant Marine of 1970 made him a fan of the shipbuilding and maritime workers.

      These projects were managed by the notorious Chuck Colson.

      • LosGatosCA

        Nixon didn’t invent wedge politics but he certainly perfected it.

    • cpinva

      “How was Nixon on labor issues?”

      think “wage freeze”, which was supposed to be half of the “wage & price freeze” domestic economic policy. by a strange set of (I am certain unintended) coincidences, the “wage freeze” part was the only one consistently implemented. go figure.

      oh, let’s not forget the DEA and the war on (some people, using some) drugs. were it not for those two things, lots more people would have qualified for membership in those unions, instead of a jail cell and ruined life, for simple possession.

      so, that’s how Nixon was, on labor issues.

  • Jordan

    And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.

    How much of this was Meany strong-arming people or whatever, and how much of it was most of the elites at top of labor at the time just agreeing with that position?

    (Serious question, I’m ignorant about this and would like to know more).

    • IM

      That is my question, too: At 27:3, it can’t have been just Meany.

      • Jordan

        You’d guess so. And the answer kinda is going to reflect to what extent this was on Meany, and to what extent there were real problems with the large majority of the leadership of the various unions on this.

    • I really don’t know.

      • Jordan

        Huh, oh well. Thanks for answering.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Honey: I hear Leonard Woodcock shows great sensitivity to the plight of the working class.
    Duke: ALL labor leaders show great sensitivity to the working class. That’s how they avoid belonging to it.

    • Murc

      I’ve never understood why this is regarded as some sort of trenchant insight. You know who else weren’t working class? FDR and LBJ. And you’d have trouble naming two people who did more for said working class.

      • CrunchyFrog

        I just was reminded of the joke at the time when I read Woodcock’s name in the article. Keep in mind the author’s tone was more in line with Honey than Duke – Duke was a caricature. Also keep in mind that a big part of the perceived problem with unions was the grift and embezzlement by the bosses.

      • somethingblue

        Obviously nobody’s working class by the time they get elected president, but apart from maybe Truman, is there a modern president whose early life was less privileged than LBJ?

        • Bruce Vail

          Nixon didn’t came from the privileged class, at least as this term is understood on this blog. And he definitely was full of class resentment; So much so that the struggled throughout his life to rise “above” his humble beginnings.

        • IM

          Reagan?

        • EliHawk

          Carter, too? Really, other than Kennedy and the Bushes, the rest of the post-WWII Presidents all had lower to middle class upbringings.

    • wjts

      “HE DOESN’T KNOW YET HE’S BEING REPLACED BY LEONARD WOODCOCK!”

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Was Meany’s rise to power aided by the red scare of the late ’40s and early ’50s? If so, would that be one of the more lasting accomplishments of the 2nd red scare — to drive genuine socialists out of union leadership and saddle them with reflexive anit-communists like Meany?

  • creature

    My father, a UAW member, and not a very politically oriented man- hated Meany. I remember going to union meetings with him and hearing Meany vilified by the union officers, and the sense that leaving the AFL-CIO was the ‘right thing’ to do. Later on, I was a UAW member (also a Ford employee, same plant as my father) and I had met guys from the Lordstown GM plant who had been a part of that grassroots revolt. Their solidarity and sense of purpose influenced my later tenure as a URW local president. The AFL-CIO COPE attracted me to political involvement and activism. This was mid-to-late 70’s, I was in the UAW in ’71, prior to my conscription into the Army in ’72. BTW, the Teamsters- at least in northern Ohio, were crooked, and damned proud of it, at that time. I doubt any of the old-line mobster crowd is still in the Teamsters, at this point in time. Thanks for the article, Erik. It brought back good memories of my early labor-rights ‘indoctrination’, from my mother’s parents stories of early URW organising in the ’30’s, and my father’s experiences in the UAW.

  • LeeEsq

    Would it make sense to split labor unions between ideological unions and non-ideological unions. My knowledge of the American labor movement is far from perfect but it always seemed that sum like the IWW had a larger ideological goal, promoting socialism in one way or another, and other labor unions had more immediate and practical goals like getting better wages and shorter working hours for their members. Most American labor unions in the mid-20th century seemed rather non-ideological in their orientation.

    • I don’t think the IWW is really relevant in any way after 1920. So I don’t think the divide is helpful. It might be that if you started getting into UE you might find usefulness here, but even UE was heavily focused on its members needs, even if ideology played a much larger role than in most unions.

      • Bruce Vail

        IWW was always an outlier in American labor, even at its moments of greatest popularity and influence. As you’ve pointed out many times, it was never able to establish lasting organizational structures or collective bargaining agreements.

        Academics, romantics and newspapermen love the IWW, or the idea of the IWW. It’s a sideshow to the story of American labor.

  • Bruce Vail

    What’s missing in this blog is the inclusion of Nixon/Colson in the 1972 mix. These weren’t passive actors, and may even be more important than McGovern in some ways.

  • witlesschum

    Meany’s photo would do pretty well at illustrating everything sort of anti-what we think of as the 60s, culturally.

    Even as a far-lefty who would have cultural disagreements with lots of the stereotypically Midwestern union guys I’m familar with, I don’t let the sins of the union movement or union members trouble me for a minute. They’re massively dwarfed by the sins of the people who employ them and, even more, by the people who don’t employ them. Politics isn’t about loving your allies any more than it’s about hating your enemies, though those can both be a nice bonus.

  • Bruce Vail

    Happen to see parts of ‘The Candidate” (1970) on teevee the other day.

    One of the villians is the Teamster guy, who is standing in for labor generally. Hero/beauty queen Robert Redford tells him off in one of the big scenes.

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