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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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