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Labor and Progressives


Ned Resnikoff really gets after Jessica Flanigan for misunderstanding the relationship between the labor movement and Progressives of the early 20th century.


Internal to progressivism there is a tension between its historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots and its avowed concern for the worst off. In practice, it looks like direct governmental intervention and union support no longer works to the benefit of society’s worst off. Progressive opposition to policies like voucher programs are a great example of this tension, as is the current health care mess and the regressive social security system. In a lot of cases, market solutions do a better job of furthering progressive aims than the state run policies that progressives favor, and even the worst off value economic liberty.

Resnikoff specifically points out that “progressivism,” whether big P or little p does not have such a tight history with the labor movement.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with the above passage (at least from a labor perspective) is its blithe reference to progressivism’s “historical pro-union roots.” Yes, the interests of early 20th century progressives and organized labor did often align, but there were also serious philosophical clashes between the two parties. In particular, the progressives had a technocratic rationalist streak that led to some rather authoritarian views on the proper role of labor in society. Some of the era’s most prominent progressives even endorsed Frederick Taylor’s systematic assault on workers’ control over their own labor. From David Montgomery’s classic Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles:

“Thus Taylor roundly denied even “the high class mechanic” could “ever thoroughly understand the science of doing his work,” and pasted the contemptuous label of “soldiering” over all craft rules, formal and informal alike. Progressive intellectuals seconded his arguments. Louis Brandeis hailed scientific management for “reliev[ing] labor of responsibilities not its own.” And John R. Commons considered it “immoral to hold up to this miscellaneous labor, as a class, the hope that it can ever manage industry.”

To build on this, while Progressives are popularly associated with not being anti-labor, this mostly rests on Theodore Roosevelt not calling out the military to crush the 1902 anthracite coal strike, instead forcing the coal magnates into arbitration. And that was a big victory for the United Mine Workers. But the overall attitude of Progressives to labor was mixed (in fact, it is very difficult to generalize about Progressives since it was not really a movement but a series of movements that often disagreed with one another), with many leading Progressives being OK with a labor union so long as it acted in a responsible way. By responsible, this usually meant an aversion to striking, moderate demands, and the open shop.

Notably, the most important muckraking article on labor unions is Ray Stannard Baker’s “The Right to Work” which focused not on the oppression workers faced, but on how mean labor unions and 90% of their members were to the 10% who scabbed. The upshot of Baker’s article was both that modern unionism was becoming corrupt and that eastern Europeans and the Irish were oppressing the rights of good Anglo-Saxon workers who eschewed unionism.

So Ned is right that the relationship between big P Progressivism and the labor movement was fraught with tension, and while certainly this would change during the New Deal, by the 1960s and 1970s, those tensions were again huge and would break much of the cord between the two, probably most notably with rare but well-publicized hard hats beating hippies during the Vietnam War and the AFL-CIO’s refusal to endorse George McGovern in 1972.

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