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The CIO, Race, and Liberalism

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Yeselson has an excellent long-form review of two new books on the CIO, race, and New Deal liberalism that look flawed but necessary anyway. You will want to read the whole thing if you care about the issues of the working-class, race, and the government in these perilous times. Here’s the conclusion:

But this isn’t true. Unions and black workers are closer than they have ever been. And unions are, if anything, less ambivalent bulwarks against racism than they were in the immediate postwar period. The AFL-CIO and African-American organizations and politicians work together and, for better or for worse, agree on pretty much every policy issue. Even the building trades, pushed for years by the courts and civil rights activists, have responded by opening up their apprenticeship and training programs to women and minorities. Today, there is a higher percentage of black workers who are union members than there are white workers. Ask any organizer of any color and they will tell you that they stand a better chance of organizing non-white workers, blacks especially, than white workers. And the most successful labor campaign in recent years, the SEIU-led Fight for $15, seeks to organize fast-food workers who are disproportionately non-white. Like the CIO when seeking to organize the industrial sector during the thirties and forties, SEIU today has both pragmatic and ideological reasons to organize workers of color in the growing low-wage service sector. Similarly, service-sector unions have built powerful alliances in California and Nevada with Latinos. As for white unionized workers, despite all of the stories about how pissed off they are at neoliberal Democrats and how they were attracted to Donald Trump’s trade message, the fact remains that white men in unions have still voted for Democrats at a rate of about 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts. (This pattern likely did not hold this year. Exit polls from the 2016 election indicate that Clinton carried the union vote by 51–43, the lowest margin for a Democrat since 1984.)

So, while Schiller’s expertly depicted legal conflict seems ineluctable, in fact there is more solidarity between unions and African Americans today than there was a half century ago. He insists that the “weak and unstable foundation” of postwar liberalism provided little to “fleeing working-class whites in a time of economic crisis.” But how could a labor movement, grounded in industrial pluralism, win against management as its numbers declined? Conversely, how could this same declining movement succeed in petitioning the state for compensatory protections precisely at the moment when its political impact, along with its membership, grew smaller?

The dueling visions of the law—majoritarian, anti-statist industrial pluralism versus state-assisted redress of individual claims of racial discrimination—as Schiller demonstrates, generated a lot of conflict between unions and civil rights activists. But this conflict didn’t end the labor liberalism driven by the CIO and a few of the AFL unions. The collapse of employment in the key postwar industries and the subsequent decline in union membership is what badly wounded this iteration of labor liberalism. This undermined the Democratic Party’s desire to promulgate full employment and a redistributive economic policy, which meant that the party had an ascendant and growing African-American voting bloc, which simultaneously alarmed white workers at precisely the moment when their economic clout and the unions that provided it were waning.

So the new labor liberalism, built with the support of proportionally more non-white workers (and women), is more progressive than the old pre–civil rights era labor liberalism. If it achieves its powerful new vision, it will be a more humane, cosmopolitan, and egalitarian movement than its predecessor. But as of now, it is a significantly smaller movement and lacks economic and political leverage in key sectors of the political economy. The Fight for $15, however innovative and promising, doesn’t remotely compare to the great CIO victories of the late 1930s and ’40s in terms of its impact on workers, both white and non-white. The unique conditions that engendered labor’s massive growth during this period, barely commented upon by either author, does not necessarily provide a template for contemporary organizing.

As these two sharply argued books demonstrate, postwar liberalism hinged upon how and whether unions maximized and used their power. The books together form an odd complementarity: even as a powerful union movement promoted the cause of equality for African Americans (Schickler), union and civil rights activists began splitting apart from each other (Schiller). Meanwhile, modern conservatism merged its opposition to both worker empowerment and cosmopolitan racial equality, embodied in the figure of Barry Goldwater, the opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act who (as neither book notes) also despised and sought to curtail the embodiment of CIO power, Walter Reuther, and the flagship institution of American liberalism that he led, the UAW.

Today, multiracial political activism has returned to the left, but without the support of anything like the economically and politically weighty labor movement of the postwar era. The New Deal order cannot be resurrected. The working class is split along racial, regional, and cultural lines and, by most measures, a significant part of it (even slightly more non-white workers than expected) voted for an authoritarian, racist, misogynist grifter in the last election. Schickler, on the last page of his book, with more hope than evidence, asserts that demographic changes to a “majority-minority” population may in themselves put pressure on Democratic Party elites in the way that the labor and civil rights movements once did. More valuable is his concluding remark regarding the necessity for progressive groups to see themselves not as “isolated claimants on the party system but instead as part of a broader ideological coalition with common aims and shared enemies.” The only good news that resulted from this election is that the need for “shared enemies” has been filled.

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