Can Laws Spur Labor Militancy?
A New Look at the New Deal
[In Part One of this four part series of working papers on lessons from labor and politics in the 1930s, I showed why liberals are wrong to dismiss the importance of mass disruption and its central role in bringing about labor’s gains during the Depression. In this week’s post — on the impact of the early New Deal on labor insurgency — I push back against radical tendencies to downplay policy change and electoral politics. Eager to hear back your all’s thoughts on this — and please share the link widely!]
While liberals give excessive credit to Democratic politicians for union growth in the 1930s, leftists tend to bend the stick too far in the other direction. According to a common analysis — which, for lack of a better term, I’ll call movementism — labor’s gains during the Depression as well as changes in labor law were exclusively the product of militant disruption and organizing from below. Electoral politics, according to this account, should therefore be at most a secondary concern.
Movementism can be a useful corrective to organized labor’s current risk-aversion and its dependence on establishment Democrats — at least insofar as it leads to real work on the ground, not just sterile polemics. We do urgently need more bottom-up militancy today, especially as the Supreme Court and Republicans seek to deepen minority rule and roll back decades of gains for women, workers, Black people and other oppressed groups. A social explosion on the magnitude of the 1930s U.S. strike wave, or the 2019 uprising in Chile, is very likely a necessary component of any major progressive advance. That said, it is neither historically accurate nor strategically wise to downplay the importance of government-level politics.
Works that take a movementist approach to the lessons of the 1930s include Howard Zinn’s best-seller A People’s History of the United States and the voluminous writings of Charlie Post as well as associated revolutionary socialists. But the most influential account certainly comes from Michael Goldfield, a prominent political scientist and labor activist.
In Goldfield’s view, “it is only labor upheavals that have brought us the eight-hour day, the NLRA [the 1935 Wagner Act], and other benefits to workers.” Along these lines, he rejects the idea that New Deal labor policies were a major boost to trade union growth. Labor’s gains and legislative changes were won through struggles from below, which forced those in power to make concessions in the hopes of preserving order. Goldfield thus concludes that it is a mistake for unions today to dedicate “a major focus of resources” on either “organizing politically” in the electoral arena or trying to win “more favorable union legislation.”
Goldfield, Post, and others who share this analysis are right that insurgent militancy was a central driving force in the Great Depression. But movementists stretch this correct argument beyond what the historical record can justify. As I will show in this analysis of the impact of the early New Deal’s famous legal promise of union rights — Section 7(a), passed in 1933 — there is overwhelming evidence that policy changes did play a major role in encouraging strikes and battles for union recognition. The relationship between legislative change and bottom-up militancy was much more reciprocal than suggested by the widely accepted radical truism that, to quote Charlie Post, “labor-law reform in the United States has followed working-class upsurges, not preceded them.”
Though strict movementism is far less of a problem at the moment than organized labor’s conservatism and subordination to Democratic Party leaders, it can nevertheless hamper efforts to effectively tackle our deepening democratic, ecological, economic, and social crises. Discounting high politics gets history wrong and it draws the wrong strategic conclusions for organizers today.
The Birth of Section 7(a)
In June 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), a comprehensive and ambitious plan to extricate the U.S. from the depression by promoting industrial self-regulation. Companies in different economic sectors were directed to write and comply with new “codes of fair competition” meant to establish prices, wages, and production quotas. Under pressure from Senator Robert F. Wagner and union leaders, Section 7(a) was ultimately tacked on to the bill. This soon-to-be famous section declared, somewhat vaguely, that “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
Before we explore 7(a)’s impact, it’s necessary to briefly examine its genesis. Because even if there is overwhelming evidence that the NIRA did significantly inspire labor organizing, one way to rescue the overall movementist case would be to prove that bottom-up struggle was responsible for Section 7(a)’s passage. Indeed, Charlie Post has recently made this argument. But the available evidence overwhelmingly runs against assertions that 7(a) was a concession imposed upon scared elites aiming to defuse labor insurgency.
Even at the peak of its influence and momentum in the late 1930s, the U.S. labor movement was never sufficiently strong to muscle through legislation against a united state-employer opposition. And this was all the more true in the summer of 1933, a moment when union density had fallen to its lowest point since 1917. Mass unemployment generated by the Depression tended to make workers with jobs risk-averse — strikes in 1931 and 1932, though increasing modestly, were still overall low in number and were overwhelmingly defensive and economistic in nature. Figure 1 shows that the big take off in labor militancy took place in 1933, not before.
U.S. Workers Involved in Strikes, 1925-37
As such, Section 7(a), and the broader NIRA of which it was part, said nothing about strikes and established no administrative machinery to deal with them (a National Labor Board was only created later in 1933, in response to the new upsurge). One of the reasons for this policy omission, as a 1935 Brookings Institution report notes, was that the NIRA was written when “possibilities of acute industrial strife between labor and management seemed remote.”
Of course, one can point to some instances of workplace militancy preceding 7(a). But strikes, especially those for union recognition, really took off only after the NIRA was signed. The first half of the year witnessed significantly less strike action than the second half (Figure 2), contrary to Post’s entirely erroneous assertion that most strike activity in 1933 took place before the bill became law. The transformation of the content of these strikes, moreover, was even more pronounced, a crucial point that we will return to further below.
Workers Involved in Strikes, 1933
Why then was 7(a) passed? To summarize a complicated history, the unprecedented economic crisis created a unique opening for the new Democratic administration to attempt reformist initiatives. Partially this was because working people had voted for change in 1932, but more important was the fact that a divided and desperate capitalist class had turned to the federal government to intervene to rescue the economy as well as to provide a regulatory framework to rationalize competition. The NIRA was primarily an attempt to help business — but this unprecedented federal incursion into the economy, in turn, created a unique opening to promote labor rights.
State officials, for a mixture of motives, went along with New York Senator Robert F. Wagner’s insistence on including 7(a) in the otherwise business-friendly, business-dominated NIRA. Key politician motivations included their re-election chances, hopes to jumpstart industry through a boost to workers’ purchasing power, United Mine Worker (UMW) and American Federation of Labor (AFL) legislative lobbying, sincere pro-worker convictions, and/or a desire to head off social unrest. Internationally, the rise of fascism across Europe, and the existence of the Soviet Union, also played a role in scaring liberal elites, likely giving a further impetus to reform efforts.
In the early years of the Depression, there was a considerable outpouring of radical-led militancy from below. This came almost entirely from the unemployed movement, upon which Communists initially focused their efforts. But the fractured Left was overall still very weak and there’s no clear reason why state officials would attempt to placate disgruntled unemployed workers with a recognition of union rights for the employed. In fact, Roosevelt and Congress ended up including 7(a) in the otherwise business-dominated NIRA to head off a bill that would have particularly benefited those without jobs: Alabama Senator Hugo Black’s legislation, enthusiastically backed by moderate AFL leaders, to increase employment levels by mandating a 30-hour work week.
To the extent that there was identifiable pro-union pressure exerted on FDR and Congress at this time, it came from decidedly non-disruptive sources: United Mine Worker lobbying in Washington D.C. for Section 7(a), the legislative momentum gathering around the AFL-backed 30-hour bill, and an explicit ultimatum from Wagner — whose policy team wrote Section 7(a) — that he would only back the NIRA if 7(a) was included in it. Some Senate conservatives attempted to amend the section out of existence, but their efforts failed. Though a minority of businesses in hyper-competitive industries with relatively strong unions — e.g. mining, textile, and garment — saw 7(a) as a necessary mechanism through which organized workers could help standardize labor costs across a fractured industry, most capitalists went along somewhat grudgingly. Failing to foresee the depth of the upsurge that 7(a) would help inspire, these employers acquiesced to its inclusion without a strong fight since the benefits of the NIRA appeared to outweigh the costs: namely, the pro-business NRA would hopefully generate an economic recovery through industry codes they would get to determine, promising to eliminate unsustainably cutthroat business competition. Its labor provisions, in any case, could be likely interpreted in a toothless manner.
In short, the depression created a unique window for federal intervention into industry — a window seized by Wagner and union leaders to pass a labor law reform that would go on to play a far more important role than anticipated by employers. As a perceptive 1933 article in Fortune noted,
The National Recovery Act was designed to stimulate business and industry. There has been some skepticism as to its efficacy in that direction but none at all on the score of whether it has inspired American labor to a new militancy … the Federation [AFL] has shot up under NRA like a magic beanstalk.
Though sustained union growth in the period after June 1933 relied on labor combativeness, the fact remains that the origins of Section 7(a) lies more in electoral politics, the absence of unified or concerted capitalist opposition, and a unique political window generated by economic crisis.
The Mineworkers and 7(a)
Was New Deal labor legislation a major spur to labor organizing? Not according to Michael Goldfield, who argues that “virtually all other researchers have been wrong on the causal importance of Section 7(a).” Through an investigation of mineworkers in 1933, he seeks to disprove a historiographic consensus according to which the “massive organizing by U.S. industrial workers during the early 1930s—beginning in 1933 with the nation’s coal miners—was caused by, initiated by, facilitated, or at least stimulated by” Section 7(a). Not limiting his analytical takeaways to UMW history, Goldfield suggests that on a national level 7(a) “rather than acting as a stimulus, was more likely a roadblock to union organization” since it was a symbolic, unenforced statute that helped grow employer-sponsored company unions more than real, independent union organizations. It is simply a “myth,” he concludes, that legal changes can be “a primary causal mechanism in the growth of unionism.”
To his credit, Goldfield and his co-thinker Cody Melcher do provide compelling primary source evidence that mineworkers in many regions organized themselves not only before the passage of 7(a), but also before UMW leader John L. Lewis launched his big organizing drive on the eve of the June 1933 passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). This is a substantial historiographic contribution. And it helpfully corrects those accounts that take at face value the UMW’s official story of their union’s growth, which entirely credits John L. Lewis with creating and seizing the 7(a) opening.
That said, the extent to which FDR’s election in November 1932 — which raised the expectations of millions — may have contributed to this bottom-up unionization drive deserves to be more rigorously researched. And the major flaw in Goldfield’s argument is that it overgeneralizes from miners to the rest of the U.S. working class. We will explore this overgeneralization in detail below. First, however, it’s also worth briefly touching on the dynamics among mine workers themselves.
It turns out that there is a considerable amount of evidence that 7(a) boosted organizing for at least some miners. Goldfield approvingly cites James Pope’s groundbreaking research on how militant miners in Western Pennsylvania organized themselves ahead of 7(a)’s passage and ahead of the top UMW leaderships’ organizing drive. Yet Goldfield fails to acknowledge that Pope himself demonstrates through extensive documentation that large numbers of miners in “areas lacking strong traditions of collective action,” such as much of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, did give both 7(a) and Lewis “worshipful” credit for their newfound unionization successes. In such locales, Lewis’ famed initiative — for which he pledged the entire union treasury — to convince workers that “the President wants you to join the union” appears to have been highly impactful. Pope, for example, cites first-hand diaries from Quaker observers on the transformation engendered by the 7(a) in hitherto anti-union bastions in West Virginia and Kentucky: in these areas, they noted, the Act brought back “the morale of the workers” and made them “feel they have a channel of power.” Pope concludes that it was because of the regional unevenness of mineworker organizing prior to 7(a), and the resulting unevenness of worker consciousness after June 1933, that Lewis was able to marginalize his radical critics within the UMW.
Other primary and secondary sources also indicate that 7(a)’s impact was not entirely a myth even among mineworkers. For example, the coal employers’ trade magazine Coal Age in July 1933 reported that independent reports on the ground confirmed that the UMW in June had achieved “real gains” in nine states, unionizing new members while “citing the National Industrial Recovery Act as its authority.” Numerous well-documented studies of miners illustrate the impact of 7(a) on UMW organizing in various regions, including Windber, PA and Harlan County, KY. Robin D.G. Kelley’s classic study of Black Alabama communists, Hammer and Hoe, registers the same dynamic: “Alabama's languishing labor movement was given an unprecedented boost in 1933, when Congress passed the NIRA. … The resurgence of industrial labor organization was most apparent in the Alabama coal fields.” As workers surged into action following 7(a), he explains, the party in Alabama — and nationally — shifted from mobilizing the unemployed to workplace organizing. And whereas 7(a) boosted the UMW in Alabama, Katharine Dawson shows that in New Mexico it inadvertently helped the small Communist-led National Miners Union, which got invited by unorganized workers to represent them in McKinley County. Like so many other workers across the country, these miners were encouraged by 7(a) to push for collective bargaining.
Mineworker organizer John Brophy recalled in his memoir that the NIRA “transformed everything for the miners and their union.” Rather than dismissing this as simply a mis-recollection, as Goldfield and Melcher do, the available evidence suggests that 7(a) did have significant impact among various layers of mineworkers, though not to the degree claimed in official UMW histories.
As noted above, there’s a much deeper problem with Goldfield’s case: namely, he’s wrong to treat organizing dynamics among mineworkers as representative of the broader trends among the rest of the U.S. working class. The UMW was not only one of strongest unions in the country, it also faced among the least hostile employers, who in areas beyond West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky tended to more easily acquiesce to unionization due to the industry’s highly competitive and fractured political economy. So even had Goldfield more convincingly demonstrated 7(a)’s insignificance for mineworker organizing, his broader claims about the law wouldn’t necessarily be valid.
Section 7(a)’s National Impact
After June 1933, labor organizing took off in steel, auto, rubber and other deeply anti-union bastions of the economy. When it comes to 7(a)’s impact, Theda Skocpol is right to note that “even more important than the revival of older unions [like the UMW] was the organization of workers in the mass-production industries.” It was in these companies that employer intimidation was most intense and that 7(a) was most consequential in helping workers overcome their fear of reprisal.
Consider the assessment found in the excellent 1935 Socialist study Strikes Under the New Deal, a sharp polemic against FDR and the Democratic Party that had no reason to exaggerate the progressive bonafides of either. Citing union membership growth statistics after 7(a)’s passage, the authors conclude:
The enactment of the N.I.R.A. had helped to create, for the first time in many years, a favorable psychology for the growth of labor organizations. Many unions, among them those of the garment workers, the miners, and the hosiery workers, launched aggressive organizing campaigns, and recruits by the thousands poured into established unions or formed isolated federal locals in industries in which no national organization existed. In mass production industries, such as steel and automobiles, the growth in union strength was especially marked.
Goldfield blames a small group of historians for uncritically generating “the myth of 7(a),” but virtually every primary source on this topic that I’ve read argues that the NIRA was a major spur to worker mobilization. For FDR and most Democratic Party politicians in 1933, this was hardly an intended consequence — but its impact was nevertheless very real.
For example, as his state was engulfed by a lumber strike, Donald J. Sterling, managing editor of the Oregon Journal, sent a personal letter to the FDR administration to express his “wish that the ambiguous clause 7(a) never had been written, because it has been the cause of most of our difficulties.” Noting the limitations of the enforcement mechanisms of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) — the regulatory body established by the NIRA bill — a sociological study from 1935 reached the same conclusion: “There can be no doubt that the phrasing of Section 7 (a) raised the depressed spirits of certain groups and served as a temporary impetus to organization. Its psychological effect was much more significant than the actual protection against discrimination which it offered to the individual worker.” Independent Communist-led unions, though never becoming a mass force, also received a significant membership bump, doubling their members in the three months following 7(a)’s passage.
Quantitative evidence tells the same story. In a November 1933 survey of over 3,000 large companies, employers reported a 129 percent increase in union membership since the passage of the NIRA. Company unions also grew by 185 percent in this period, as many employers created employer sponsored associations to counter the threat posed by 7(a) and the new workers’ upsurge. It’s true, as Goldfield notes, that independent unions were outpaced by company unions until the latter was explicitly banned by the Wagner Act. Yet it does not logically follow, as he suggests, that 7(a) was overall a fetter on real unionization.
Even if we leave aside the growth of independent union organizing under the NRA, it should also be underlined that many company unions, particularly in steel, were eventually taken over by workers and transformed into the genuine article. As explained in the 1935 Socialist study cited above, the 185 percent growth in company unions was “quite likely” misleading, since “a large number of these workers were members of bona fide unions that were as yet too weak to compel collective bargaining.”
The point here is not that policy and governmental changes on their own spurred a labor upsurge. As I explained in detail in Part One of this series, such a contention ignores, among other things, the extent to which the openings created by 7(a) were bungled by moderate AFL officials. In contrast, those unions and radical organizers that went on to form the CIO were central to the big battles of 1933-34. Internal struggles and organizing initiatives from below did matter. The evidence is overwhelming, however, that Section 7(a) played a major role in boosting and shaping the era’s labor insurgencies.
Union Recognition Strikes
The NIRA’s impact on the quantity and content of strike activity was even more important than its role in facilitating official union recognition. Section 7(a) immediately became “the storm center of many strikes,” to quote a 1935 Brookings Institution report. By legitimizing the idea that workers could unionize, while failing to provide enforceable mechanisms to force employers to bargain, the newly formed NRA came to be known as the “National Run Around” due to the inefficacy of its administrative machinery. Workers soon turned to disruption to bring employers to the bargaining table and to compel hesitant NRA mediation agencies to side on their behalf.
As seen in Figure 3 the surge of striking workers in 1933 was the single largest yearly shift in strike activity in U.S. history, a 260 percent increase. Some of this can be explained by the improvement in economic conditions fueled by business hopes in the new administration; as unemployment lessened slightly, workers gained increased confidence. But month-by-month data show that the bulk of the fights for union recognition came after Section 7(a) was signed in June (Figure 5).
Yearly Shift in Workers Involved in Strikes, 1913-37
Even more importantly, 7(a) helped dramatically shift the content of these strikes’ goals from economic issues to union recognition. Historian Mike Davis is right to underline the importance and novelty of the fact that the labor upsurge begun in 1933 was “surprisingly non-economistic.” But he fails to note the role of Democratic-sponsored legislation in bringing this shift about.
When it comes to Section 7(a), as well as the New Deal’s other major pro-union reforms, labor’s marriage with the Democrats was not entirely barren. The strike data is clear. Figure 4 shows the unprecedented increase in union recognition strike activity, a rise that began in mid-1933 and that peaked in 1937. By placing union recognition at the center of their demands, workers thereby increased the pressure on Congress to pass the Wagner Act in 1935 and on the Supreme Court to uphold it two years later.
Workers Involved in Union Recognition Strikes, 1922-38
The shift in strike focus within 1933 itself was even more dramatic than the shift from 1932 to 1933. To estimate how workers’ strike demands shifted in the months directly following 7(a)’s passage, I compiled data from the monthly reports of the Division of Conciliation of the Department of Labor — which tracked the content of labor disputes under its jurisdiction — and combined these together with existing monthly data on total strikers. Figure 5 registers an astronomical shift.
Workers Involved in Union Recognition Strikes, 1933
If anything, this graph very likely underestimates the actual shift in 1933, since the Division only dealt with a subset of strikes, leaving mediation of many of the largest union recognition conflicts to the NRA’s newly formed National Labor Board. And the latter reported in late 1933 that a whopping 70 percent of the disputes it dealt with included union recognition demands.
In other words, union recognition strikes became central only after June 1933, once workers felt that they would have some governmental backup in their struggle with employers. Almost overnight, strike dynamics became politicized to an unprecedented degree. As one 1935 analysis of the NRA put it, “in the strikes which have been carried on, the question of endurance or of financial preparation for a long-draw-out contest between employers and workers has ceased to be as important as it once was. The more important question is how to stage a quick and dramatic demonstration of labor unrest, with a view to forcing the government into favorable action.”
The 1934 Strike Wave
The impact of 7(a) was no less pronounced in the strike wave of 1934. This holds true even in the Marxist-led mass work stoppages of factory workers in Toledo, longshoremen in San Francisco, and teamsters in Minneapolis. Movementist accounts correctly stress the importance of these pivotal battles, but they skip over the significant role 7(a) played in setting them into motion.
In Toledo, a strike participant remembered that “you didn’t hear much about [organizing], until President Roosevelt come out and give us the right to organize” in the summer of 1933. In San Francisco, one rank-and-filer similarly recalled that “we often expressed the desire that some day somehow we would be able to build an organization that would truly represent the workers … We didn't get off the ground on it, there was mostly discussion until after Section 7a was passed.”
Though a small group of Trotskyists began actively organizing coal yards prior to the summer of 1933, the overall dynamic was similar in Minneapolis. Teamster Local 574 in July 1933 launched its first major recruitment drive and abolished initiation fees “in order that all drivers may take advantage of the National Industrial Recovery Act.” The few months following 7(a), notes one historian, witnessed “such formerly moribund locals such as the General Drivers 574 multiplying its membership at least four times.” Even Farrell Dobbs’ orthodox Trotskyist participant account Teamster Rebellion acknowledges that 7(a) “helped along the process of unionization.” An April 1934 flier from Local 574, included in Dobbs’ book, thus invited workers to a “Monster Mass Meeting” to get organized, informing them that “under Section 7-A of the N.I.R.A. workers are not only guaranteed the right to organize, but are guaranteed the right to exercise this privilege without discrimination.”
From their beginning through their end, each of the radical-led 1934 mass strikes was deeply shaped by workers’ demands that employers respect, and that federal officials enforce, Section 7(a). During 1934, writes Steve Fraser, “strikes and union organizing were in effect attempts to implement purported presidential policy.” And as Nelson Lichtenstein notes, from 1933 through 1947 “the government played a decisive role in the outcome of the bargaining that took place between the parties in every crisis that put the relationship between workers and capitalists in the headlines.”
Given the state of most labor unions today, and the paralysis of the centrist establishment in the face of Republicans’ ruthless power grabs, electoralist moderation is at the moment certainly more of an obstacle than movementism. So leaving aside the intrinsic desirability of getting history right, what’s the point in spending so much time demonstrating the ways Section 7(a) helped spur labor organizing during the Depression?
The primary justification is that a birds-eye-view of U.S. history reveals how the absence of a mass working-class politics has long been, and continues to be, a central contributor to organized labor’s weakness, as well as radicals’ marginalization. As Barry Eidlin demonstrates in his comparison of U.S. and Canadian labor, what sets the U.S. working class apart is not that it has lacked bottom-up struggle, but rather that it has been unable to forge a transmission belt between shopfloor militancy and the political arena.
The United States’ institutional framework — rooted in this country’s white supremacist founding as a compromise with slave holders — is an exceptionally difficult nut for labor to crack. But labor has remarkably rarely even attempted to crack it.
Many activists today forget that downplaying politics was for many decades defining the principle of organized labor’s right wing. Under the reign of Samuel Gompers, the AFL from 1886 onwards had as little as possible to do with high politics. This remained the norm within labor all the way up through 1932. Though Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) syndicalists disagreed with Gompers on many things, they shared the early AFL’s negative stance on the state. So too did the early Communist movement, whose IWW-inspired labor traditions melded easily with Russia-imported Leninism. New Left Leninists in the 1960s-70s revived this tradition, which shared much in common with the era’s broader activist zeitgeist.
The U.S. labor movement from 1877 up through the 1970s was one of the most strike reliant in the advanced capitalist world, yet despite this relatively high level of militancy, our country’s union density, class consciousness, and welfare state robustness have trailed virtually everywhere else. By way of contrast, Swedish workers from the mid-1930s through 1979 achieved the greatest gains along all these criteria, yet their labor movement had one of the lowest strike rates in the Global North in this period. More strike activity does not necessarily translate into more union growth or more working-class power.
Strike upsurges, though essential, have never proved to be sufficient substitutes for the functions — ideological, organizational, electoral, legislative, and social — of mass Left parties. And though having Democrats in office did frequently make a real difference to organizing efforts in the 1930s, the Democratic Party even at the height of the New Deal never became an actual workers’ party. Pro-union Democratic politics is better than neoliberal centrism or Republicanism, but independent working-class politics is far better still.
Fortunately, movementism has somewhat diminished in influence since 2016 in the United States. Yet in both its looser (practical) and stronger (ideological) iterations, it remains a major current within U.S. radicalism. And faced with Bernie’s electoral losses, the Biden administration’s dramatic disappointments, the anti-democratic structures of the U.S. regime — including an emboldened Supreme Court — there is a real risk that it again could become the Left’s default strategic stance. Such a regression would cede a crucial arena of struggle at a pivotal moment for the fate of U.S. political democracy, rights for women and other oppressed groups, and the worldwide biosphere. High politics is too urgently important to leave to centrist Democrats and reactionary Republicans.
Figures such as Goldfield and Post suggest that unions and union members should not concern themselves too much with the question of who is in office — but the experience of the Great Depression hardly bears out this axiom. Ironically, movementism also tends in practice, if not rhetoric, to accommodate the politics of moderate union leaders, insofar as it fails to articulate a viable alternative path for what labor should immediately do in the political arena.
Among the key political tasks of our current moment, unions urgently need to start shifting some of their considerable political resources towards seriously organizing against Supreme Court attacks, primarying out corporate Democrats, running union candidates for offices, and teaming up with democratic socialists to build a broad “proto-party” of and for the multiracial working class. Marginalizing the Republican Party remains pivotal, but this cannot be realistically achieved without serious struggles, inside and outside of the state, to pass transformational policies benefiting working people. To succeed, such efforts need to inspire and organize workers disaffected with the status quo — a political task that neither Democratic leaders nor most unions have been adept at for decades.
The problem, contra Goldfield and Post, is not that unions today are deeply invested in the political arena, but that they are doing politics ineffectually — and not combining these efforts with militant, high-risk workplace struggle.
Taking electoral politics seriously does not require downplaying bottom-up movements. Though navigating how to combine the two can be a challenge, there is not a zero-sum relationship between promoting labor’s interests in government and on the shopfloor. The two can and should be mutually reinforcing. Case in point is the impact of Section 7(a) on a labor insurgency that, in turn, helped bring about the pro-union Wagner Act, which then helped millions of workers join unions. A similar if smaller-scale dynamic can be seen in the ways Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns have inspired many of today’s young workplace leaders from the 2018 teachers’ strike wave to Starbucks and Amazon. And in Chile the 2019 mass uprising led to the approval of a Constituent Assembly in 2020 and the election of a progressive president in 2021 — political developments that, to reach their promise, will need to find ways to lean on and further support bottom-up organizing, especially among a resurgent labor movement.
If history is any guide, achieving labor’s level of success during the Great Depression can’t be done through bottom-up insurgency alone. And hopes to advance further than our predecessors did in the 1930s are likely inextricable from efforts to build a mass political party capable of forging a majoritarian bloc for full political, social, and economic democracy. These organizing tasks will not be easy to achieve. But they are more necessary, and more urgent, than ever.
[All footnotes and sources can be found here.
This is a working paper — republication without author’s consent is prohibited.]
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Hi Eric, I work in the Romanian labor movement and your piece gave me strength when it comes to pinning down the importance of legislation. Going to college makes one think in utopian terms, neglecting strategy and using big words, such as revolution which for many workers seem out of sight. While the r-word is possible, yet unimaginable for the masses we represent, we found that legislation, just like section 7 (a) did in the US can lead to an increase in militancy.
Without the proper mechanisms put in place to support the working-class, many of them (maybe here it is also the cultural component of being Romanian, living under Ceausescu with a strong and punitive surveillance state) would abandon any desire of improving the workplace.
Hope to keep the conversation going and will keep reading the next pieces as well :)
Useful piece, thanks. Alongside the role of legislation, when weighing the benefits that the electoral side of the equation can bring, it's also important to keep in mind the role that labor-friendly elected officials can play helping strikes succeed. Gov. Olson in the 1934 Minneapolis strike and Gov. Murphy in the '36-'37 Flint sit-down strike both refused to unleash the typical torrent of national guard violence to put down the strikes, enabling the strikes' successes.