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Hackneyed Anti-Union Historical References

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Dylan Matthews responded on Twitter to my brief criticism of his column on Thursday , leading to a good debate that eventually included Mike Konczal, Jamelle Bouie, David Roberts, Ned Resnikoff, and other smart people. Matthews admitted that he could see a scenario where there was no minimum wage at all, which I disagree with strongly. He claims to be for reducing inequality (which I believe does support) but shows no understanding about the importance of giving workers dignity and power to control their own lives. When I challenged Matthews’ claim that AEI economists had the interest of working-class people in mind (and I do not believe they do care about working-class people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be working for the American Enterprise Institute) by saying that if these were such good ideas, maybe actual working-class organizations like labor unions would support them, Matthews responded unfortunately, tweeting:

This is the anti-union equivalent of saying that we can’t take Democrats seriously on civil rights today because Robert Byrd was a Klan member in 1946. Who cares what George Meany’s foreign policy was in 1972? What on earth does that have to do with anything in 2013? But you hear this all the time. Meany’s support of Vietnam and hatred of McGovern remains a bog-standard anti-union argument from center-left people who are not comfortable with unions. At least mentioning Teamsters corruption and Jimmy Hoffa is so past its sell-by date that it’s not respectable to trot that one out anymore. But outside of saying that maybe we shouldn’t care all that much what AFL-CIO executives think about foreign policy, I can’t see what AFL leadership’s position on Cold War foreign policy 41 years after it happened matters one iota to the present and I certainly can’t understand what possible relevance it has to any economic debate today. Not only was that decision extremely controversial within the AFL-CIO, leading to many internationals openly bucking Meany, but the American labor movement also had a lot of other priorities in the 1960s and 1970s that are well worth taking seriously. Maybe Matthews could have mentioned union support for the Humphrey-Hawkins bill of 1978 that could have guaranteed full employment. Or the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Or increases in the minimum wage. Oh right, he doesn’t really support that one.

As regards Nixon’s health plan, while it might sound good compared what came after, it was hardly considered some great progressive bill in 1974. Unions believed it could be better. Ted Kennedy did not support it either. Nixon wanted to end Medicaid and replace it with significant employee contributions to health plans that did not exist in 1974. The plan as a whole was not terrible, but taking Nixon seriously as a progressive president domestically only makes sense if we complete ignore both the congressional and social movement context of the period. On all progressive domestic programs, Nixon signed what he had to and weakened legislation when he could in order to mitigate opposition to what he really cared about–fighting communists and cracking down on hippies. Nixon was moved very little by actually providing quality health care to average Americans, although his plan, if enacted, might have created real improvements. With hindsight, labor maybe should have supported it, but that was far from clear at the time.

I told Matthews that he needed to read less conservative economists and more labor history. The more I think about it, the more I believe he to delve much deeper into twentieth century American history. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. In general, we should all read more history, but for an important writer to not have the contextual historical background to make arguments that pull from the past to discuss legislation or ideas in the present is a problem. In any case, it’d be nice if liberal-centrist columnists who don’t much value unions at least updated their arguments to include some events that took place after I was born nearly 40 years ago.

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