This is the grave of Peter Brennan.
Born in New York in 1918, Brennan grew up without his father, who died in the 1919 flu epidemic. It was a working class family; his father was an ironworker. But Brennan would become a labor leader of the new kind in the mid-twentieth century, the guy with the college degree and only tenuous connections to the hard labor of the workers he represented. In Brennan’s case, he went to City College and got a business degree. He also worked as a painter to put himself through college and joined Painters Local 1456. That was about the only period where he would do blue collar labor, but Brennan made a life of representing a particular kind of worker in a particular kind of way.
Brennan enlisted in the Navy in World War II and was a chief petty officer on a submarine in the Pacific. Shortly after he returned from the war, Local 1456 elected him as its business manager and from there it was a rapid rise up the ranks of leadership in the building trades. In 1951, he was named director of the New York Building Trades Council’s Maintenance Division. He continued to rise and became president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York in 1957. This meant Brennan headed the entire powerful building trades in the nation’s largest city. This was a big deal. He was still a young man and was one of the nation’s most powerful labor leaders. Each individual building trade wasn’t necessarily that strong. Some, particularly the Carpenters, were very large, but even they didn’t really compare to the United Auto Workers or United Steelworkers. But taken together, the trades had tremendous power. Although completely consumed by infighting between the trades over such questions as who is the lead union on a given project (this is still a big issue in the trades today), they all mostly held a pretty consistent world view. That was one of relative political conservatism outside of working class issues (which could work in either party at this time), a staunch belief in their ideas of solidarity around the culture of their given jobs, and their methods of bringing workers into the union. This was the apprenticeship model, which is also still around today. Someone gets inducted into this work with a very long apprenticeship until reaching a given point in which they will become a journeyman (or some such version of this) that is a full-fledged member of the union. For our purposes, we don’t need to explore every aspect of the building trades’ culture, but we do need the outlines to understand what is to come.
Brennan became VP of the state AFL-CIO. The trades in New York City had 250,000 members and they could provide very real political support. They tended to be close to local Republicans and national Democrats. Nelson Rockefeller and the trades had very good relationships. The trades also came out in huge numbers for Democratic presidential candidates through the 60s. They weren’t voting for Richard Nixon in 1960 or 1968.
However, things became to change. The catalyst was affirmative action. The critical point from the perspective of the trades is that these jobs were passed down between families. It was expected that your son would join you and if the son didn’t want to join that kind of work, there were nephews, sons of friends, etc. The bigger point is that this was quite white work. It wasn’t exclusively white. The amount of New York built by the Mohawks, who established a strong base in the construction industry as a way to escape the poverty of their lands in upstate New York, has been well-documented by historians. But still, this was mostly white.
Then John Lindsay became mayor in 1965. Lindsay was in so far over his head. He was a Republican but by this point, we were starting to enter the great reshaping of American partisan politics and so the party label wasn’t so important really. Lindsay was the kind of politician that today usually exists in wealthy Democratic areas–the reformer who thinks of himself as above real politics and who wants to “reform” the corruptness of the place or system. This is not a universal kind of Democratic politics today by any means, but it is one that has strong roots in well-educated white wealthy communities, such as Providence’s East Side around Brown University, as an example. Well, for Lindsay, some of the corrupt special interests were unions. Mike Quill of the Transport Union Workers of America beat him like a rented mule immediately after he took office, but that wasn’t enough for Lindsay. One of the other things that touches home with this kind of politician is the idea of fairness. This is not a bad thing, by and large. It’s the old Progressive Era model of the rich person adjudicating what is fair or not for everyone else. But of course this leads to political problems because the people you are affecting don’t want what you are offering if it affects them negatively and they get more than a little resentful about the matter.
Well, this is what happened when Lindsay pushed for affirmative action. This is very much to Lindsay’s credit, but this cut straight against everything the building trades held dear. It wasn’t only about racism–though to be clear, it was very much about racism. It was about racism PLUS a long-established model of protecting the interests of your family. And as we’ve seen on this site with upper middle class white liberals being confronted about the choices they make for their children’s education, nothing will cause whites to go more ballistic than being asked to give up the advantages their children have for some larger principle. The building trades going crazy over being forced to integrate was the working class version of Maddie and Connor’s schooling.
Brennan fought like hell to stop Lindsay’s affirmative action orders for the trades. Then the Nixon administration intervened. In one of the most cynical and most politically brilliant moves ever pulled off in American politics, Nixon and his Secretary of Labor George Shultz managed to force the desegregation of the Philadelphia trades through the Philadelphia Plan, while also getting the trades to blame it on the Democrats even though it was a Republican policy since all the Black workers were going to vote for Democrats, most of the support for these policies came from Democrats, and Nixon officials could say it was the courts that forced them into such an action. Thus Nixon managed to gain support among the white working class through desegregating the trades.
Now, Brennan worked closely with AFL-CIO head George Meany to fight the Philadelphia Plan, but there wasn’t support in Congress to overturn it. So they had to live with it. But by this time, there was so much about modern life Brennan and his men hated. What they really hated was the hippies. Antiwar protestors were the proclaimed enemy of working class men like Brennan. So when a bunch of antiwar protestors decided to have a rally after the Kent State shootings on Wall Street, Brennan organized any tradesperson who wanted to go to have fun beating the shit out of the hippies.
Around noon, about 200 construction workers attacked the protestors from all four directions. There was a police presence but it was thin and the police didn’t try very hard anyway. The construction workers, carrying American flags and patriotic slogans, singled out the men with the longest hair and beat them. They began tearing up nearby buildings as well as the attacks verged nearly out of control. One of the first things the construction workers did was to raise the flags back to full mast, a direct rebuke to Lindsay, who many saw as unmanly and cowardly for kowtowing to antiwar protestors and hippies. About 70 people were sent to the hospital, mostly students but including 4 policemen. Brennan claimed it was a spontaneous demonstration by workers sick of hippies desecrating the American flag. This was an obvious lie.
Throughout the rest of May, building trades workers continued to rally. On May 20, the rallies became officially sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, with 100,000 people festooned with flags and signs reading “God Bless the Establishment” and “We Support Nixon and Agnew.” Construction workers in St. Louis held similar rallies. Very quickly, the hippies began distrusting labor unions as part of the corrupted establishment. In the 1971 hippie dystopian film Punishment Park, about a world where the hippies are rounded up, tried in kangaroo courts, and then given the option of fleeing from the army for their freedom in the eponymous park, one of the key figures on the courts is a unionist, masking his evil in vague language of workers’ interests but in fact just being a tool of the man. Such images of labor unions became all too common on the American left, sometimes not without reason, as we see in this post.
The Hard Hat Riots played an outsized role in American history for the next half-century. A whole generation of ex-hippies held it against all of organized labor, saying it was not to be trusted. This wasn’t entirely inaccurate. However…..
It’s important that we today push back against “labor” being pro-Vietnam. Polls showed that manual laborers were more opposed to the war than the college-educated. These were not public sector unionists or industrial unionists or even all building trades unionists. This was a small sector of labor. Moreover, what galled many of the working-class people at the protest was not the lack of support for the war itself, but rather the privilege of the anti-war protestors who were using college deferments to avoid the war while they sent their sons and themselves to Vietnam. There were lots of tensions at work here, but they were more complex than presented at the time. And they are basically irrelevant today. People talking about this today with any relevance to the present might as well pull any event from the American movement 53 years ago. It would be relevant if American labor unionists began beating Occupy protestors or environmentalists rallying against Keystone. But even if such a horrible thing happened, it would be one very labor union acting very badly, not all of organized labor. We need to recognize this and place it in context of who is the problem here. In 1970, it was the New York building trades and their ambitious hippie-hating leader, not the United Auto Workers or United Steel Workers of America.
Well, Brennan got the big payoff from Nixon for this. Nixon gave him the Secretary of Labor job in 1973. He pretty much told Brennan that he had to be completely 100% loyal to whatever Nixon wanted (wonder where I’ve heard that before) but that otherwise, he could staff the department with whoever he wanted. Oh and he also had to call the dogs off of investigating the Teamsters’ mob ties, since they supported Nixon. Brennan was great with that. Even before this, Brennan led the charge in 1972 to get workers to support Nixon, working closely with Chuck Colson in order to pull this off. What a great guy to work with. Brennan got a bunch of labor leaders to have a private dinner with Nixon on Labor Day to solidify this. With George McGovern running as the Democrat, it worked, as the AFL leadership despised McGovern.
Brennan didn’t even really get anything in return for all of this. Nixon suspended the Davis-Bacon Act in 1971, which mandates prevailing wages for the trades, as part of his wage control package. Brennan became a huge hack for Nixon and Republican policies, including really downplaying his previous support for a drastically higher minimum wage. In fact, George Meany stopped talking to Brennan, he was so disgusted. Gee, I guess this is what happens when unions support Republicans.
Anyway, Gerald Ford forced Brennan out after he took office and Brennan just went back to the New York building trades, which he controlled until 1992. Shockingly, he still sucked on affirmative action issues and up until the end, did as little as possible for Black and Latino workers, even as they were becoming more dominant on the worksites. He said he couldn’t; his members after all were racist. OK then.
Brennan died in 1996, of lymphatic cancer. He was 78 years old.
Peter Brennan is buried in Saint Charles Cemetery, East Farmingdale, New York.
If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of Labor, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Hodgson, who was Nixon’s 2nd Secretary of Labor, after Shultz and before Brennan, is in Hollywood Hills, California and John Dunlop, who Ford hired to replace Brennan, is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.