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Revisiting the Wagner Act & its Causes
Why Insurgency & Politics Both Matter
The passage of the National Labor Relations Act — known popularly as the Wagner Act — in 1935 was a watershed moment in U.S. history. Breaking with over a century of anti-labor politics, the Act banned company unions and established a robust mechanism for the federal government to enforce workers’ rights to unionize. Putting an end to untrammeled corporate despotism, millions of working-class people soon won themselves an unprecedented degree of dignity, security, and power at work.
Union membership shot up under the legislation, especially once protest and politics forced the Supreme Court to uphold it in 1937. U.S. labor unions were, for the first time, firmly protected by law. Unlike in previous generations, employers were henceforth unable to easily bust their employees’ organizations once the momentum of a workers’ upsurge began to wane. In 1935, historian Selig Perlman argued that “the overshadowing problem of the American labor movement has always been the problem of staying organized.” After the Wagner Act, this was no longer the case.
What brought about such a dramatic change in state policy? In Part One of this series, I challenged the standard liberal story that labor law reform was solely the product of electoral and legislative initiatives. Here I take issue with the influential account of radical scholar and activist Michael Goldfield, who argues that the Wagner Act “was the product of large-scale social unrest in general and of intense struggles by workers.” And its primary goal, he contends, was “to constrain, limit and control the increasingly militant labor movement.”
Goldfield’s interpretation — which is shared widely on the U.S. Left, including by groups like Socialist Alternative and authors like Charlie Post — captures important dimensions of the 1930s working-class upsurge, but his overall explanation is flawed. While bottom-up insurgency was a necessary condition for passing the Act, it wasn’t the only major factor at play. And the Wagner Act’s main intended purpose, consequences, and social support are also different from how they’re portrayed in the writings of most radicals.
I show below that both working-class insurgency and government-level initiatives were essential for winning the bill — and that the latter were not simply the product of the former. Contra Goldfield, the Act’s main goal was to boost workers’ collective bargaining power. As such, the capitalist class actively opposed it and did everything possible to defang it after it was signed — a crucial point to underline, since the Wagner Act has so often been blamed for organized labor’s subsequent conservatism and steady decline.
The severe flaws in contemporary U.S. labor law today stem not from the Wagner Act itself, but from the changes made to labor law by a reactionary political counter-offensive begun in 1938. Unions’ relative weakness in the political arena proved to be a decisive block on their push to defend and expand their initial gains.
The key lesson from this experience is simple: class struggle from below advances furthest when combined with pro-labor initiatives in the governmental arena. There’s no inherent zero-sum relationship between bold organizing from below and bold political initiatives. To replicate and hopefully surpass the victories of our predecessors, unions and leftists can’t afford to downplay the electoral arena. We want workplace militancy, but we want working-class politics too.
Explaining the Timing
One of the most serious problems with Goldfield’s account — beyond omitting the significant role of 1933 New Deal labor policy in spurring working-class insurgency — is that it cannot explain the timing of the Act’s passage. New York Senator Robert F. Wagner’s first attempt to pass a robust, enforceable labor reform bill failed in the summer of 1934, i.e. in the midst of a convulsive strike wave. But his legislative efforts succeeded in 1935, a year when bottom-up struggle, though still high, was less significant (see Figure 1). Not only did fewer workers strike in 1935, but the defeats of most union organizing drives in 1934 — due in part to AFL misleadership — had partially undercut workers’ momentum. Wagner’s indefatigable efforts to pass enforceable, pro-union legislation succeeded in 1935 despite a lower degree of mass pressure from below than a year prior.
Figure 1: U.S. Workers Involved in Strikes, 1925-37
If it were true that bottom-up insurgency with a strong radical flank was the only major causal factor explaining the passage of labor law reform, then Wagner’s bill should have passed in 1934, not a year later. Though she erred in discounting strike militancy all together, political scientist Theda Skocpol was right to point this timing discrepancy out in her academic debate with Goldfield; she also correctly noted that the two most significant factors that shifted in the direction of passing Wagner’s bill from 1934 to 1935 were the election of a more progressive Congress and the demise of FDR’s newly formed National Recovery Administration in this intervening period.
When pressed on this question of timing, Goldfield evaded Skocpol’s point on the NRA. And he did not try to deny that the November 1934 midterm election made Congress more favorable to labor’s demands the following year. Instead, Goldfield argued that the election of a significantly more pro-labor Congress was not an independent causal factor, but rather “an intervening variable that in good part reflected the Depression-inspired demands and attitudes of the vast majority of the population.”
This might be true, but Goldfield’s citation above obscures the fact that pressuring the government through radical-led movements is a different mechanism of popular influence than the mechanism of changing the government’s composition through democratic electoral channels. And to demonstrate his case that insurgency was the major driving force in shifting government policy, he would have to provide some evidence demonstrating that bottom-up protest specifically — more than just a general, exogenous shift in the views of Democratic voters — was responsible for the election of a uniquely union-friendly Congress in 1934. But since he provides no such evidence, we have no way of measuring the plausibility of Goldfield’s overall argument about the primary of insurgency over electoral action.
1919 vs 1934
The idea that movement militancy was the only major driving force behind the 1930s electoral changes and subsequent government policy has a hard time explaining why other peak moments of mobilization in U.S. history produced no analogous state-level transformations.
More specifically, there’s a second important question of timing that Goldfield has yet to provide a compelling answer to: Why did unions win robust bargaining rights in the 1930s rather than in the labor upsurge that followed World War One? In other words, why did the federal government — which had significantly aided unionization during the war — respond to a 1919-22 labor insurgency with repression, while in the mid-1930s it responded with union recognition? This shifting role was no minor historical phenomenon, for, as Jefferson Cowie writes, the “defeat of an industry-wide steel strike in 1919 — along with drives in meatpacking, police, and the Seattle General Strike — demonstrated that without government support, or at least neutrality, corporate opposition could not be overcome.”
On the face of it, much of the quantitative evidence on strike activity runs against Goldfield’s thesis. A far higher percentage of the workforce struck in 1919 than at any time in the 1930s (Figure 2). Yet in Goldfield’s view, the latter insurgency was nevertheless more of a threat to ruling elites because the radical Left was stronger during the Depression and because insurgent labor struggles were magnified by wider social movements and third parties.
Figure 2: U.S. Workers Involved in Strikes, 1916-38
This is a plausible case. But Goldfield has never provided any data showing that the strength of the radical Left and non-labor social movements actually was greater in the 1930s than in the post-war upsurge or that these particular distinguishing factors were sufficiently relevant to the decisions of politicians to make up for lower strike activity during the Depression. On this score, there are grounds for skepticism.
On the heels of decades of deep Socialist, IWW, and Populist organizing, and the dramatic transformations engendered by the war, the Russian Revolution of 1917 played a key role in raising U.S. workers’ hopes and elites’ fears during the post-war maelstrom. “Perhaps at no time in American history did radical ideas penetrate the mainstream consciousness more deeply,” writes historian Joseph McCartin. As seen in Table 1, membership in Left organizations was significantly higher in 1919 than in 1934.
Table 1: Membership of Radical Organizations
1919 Socialist Party: 69,517
1919 Communist parties: 27,500
1919 IWW: 25,000
1934 Socialist Party: 19,121
1934 Communist Party: 26,000
1934 IWW: —
No less importantly, the Depression upsurge immediately followed a decade of crushing defeats for labor and the Left, which created an especially unfavorable balance of forces for workplace organizing, as did mass unemployment. To be sure, protests from the unemployed were uniquely disruptive during the early 1930s, but it’s unclear how these could have been determinative for pressuring state actors to pass a reform primarily benefiting employed workers. And the comparative data on U.S. third party strength, one of the factors that Goldfield highlights as favoring the Depression-era insurgency, shows that Left third party voting was consistently higher in the 1910s than it ever was in the 1930s.
Historians have put forward compelling alternative hypotheses for why labor outcomes diverged in these two periods. Lizabeth Cohen and Jefferson Cowie stress how demographic and cultural changes in the 1920s paved the way for greater inter-racial and inter-ethnic workers’ unity in the 1930s; Mike Davis similarly notes the rising importance of confident young, second-generation immigrant workers in the 1930s. Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph McCartin have demonstrated how unions’ rapid-but-temporary growth with federal support during World War One was quickly reversed as the government turned against labor after the war ended. In contrast, the government’s backing of union rights in the 1930s took place in peacetime, in order to extricate the economy from a depression — a political dynamic which helped ensure a more long-lasting recognition for unions. Along similar lines, authors including Skocpol point to state-level factors such as the watershed Democratic electoral realignment of 1932-36, which pushed reactionary Republicans out of office and which raised the costs of labor repression for urban liberal politicians that hoped to get reelected. Goldfield and others sharing his views have yet to either disprove these contending explanations or to show that radical insurgencies from below were greater factors.
Recognition or Repression
Goldfield argues that the strength of bottom-up unrest and radicalism took repression off the table as a “live option” for governmental leaders in 1934-35. This both underestimates the agency of state officials and it underestimates the extent of repression that did take place in the 1930s, by employer thugs, local police, or, in some regions, troops sent in by hostile state officials (see Figure 3).
Faced with an upsurge in strike militancy, government actors had real choices. They were not simply forced from below to move away from a long-standing heritage of labor repression. We know from detailed histories of the 1934 strike wave that state violence was a live option for employers and government officials, as seen most dramatically in the defeat of the textile workers’ strikes in the South — by far the largest strike of the year — during which at least fourteen workers were killed and hundreds wounded.
Figure 3: U.S. Strike Fatalities
In contrast, the decision of other state actors to take a less repressive approach was a significant factor in the success of San Francisco longshoremen and Minneapolis teamsters, who achieved the two most important strike victories of 1934. Of course, there would have been no work stoppages in the first place without daring militancy from below. Workers drove these strikes forward, including by defying the law and facing off, when necessary, against police, troops and armed strike breakers. High-ranking government officials would not have been placed in a position where they were obliged to intervene in these conflicts one way or the other had it not been for an explosion of working-class self-activity.
Such heroic bottom-up elan, however, was not a new phenomenon. U.S. history from 1877 through 1919 was littered with inspiring mass strikes that were ultimately crushed and defeated despite the bravery of their participants and the militant strategies of their radical organizers. One of the key things that made the 1933-37 upsurge different was the role of the state this time around. A historian of the San Francisco general strike thus concludes that “while the longshoremen's strike of 1934 fell into an established pattern of waterfront struggle, the decisive element in bringing about a successful conclusion from the labor point of view was the neutrality or positive assistance of the Federal Government.”
Though strikers in 1934 had many legitimate criticisms of the tortured attempts by Governor Floyd Olson in Minneapolis and the FDR administration in the San Francisco strike to be “even handed” in the midst of open class warfare, the big story of the 1930s is how much of a departure this was from past state practice. Both workers and employers clearly recognized this shift away from repression, and they drew their political conclusions accordingly. As such, in September 1934 a Minneapolis Central Labor Union resolution praising Governor Olson for his conduct during the strike was approved by the delegates, with the open backing of Local 574 Trotskyist leader Miles Dunne. Increased class polarization marked the 1934 and 1936 elections, as mobilized workers surged towards what they now saw as FDR’s party. On the other side of the class divide, most corporations in the years after 1934 broke from what in their view was a lamentably pro-labor administration.
This experience suggests that popular desires expressed through the mechanisms of political democracy can be a significant constraint on politicians. Politicians generally want to get re-elected. And when they hope to maintain the support of large numbers of pro-union voters — as was the case with Olson and FDR — they face more popular pressure than their right-wing peers, such as the Republican governor of California, Frank Merriam, who did not hesitate to send in the National Guard troops that killed two strikers in San Francisco. Even if we leave aside the possibility that some politicians can act on sincere pro-labor convictions, it therefore makes sense that repressive practices will tend to vary and that such shifts cannot be explained solely by the degree of movement pressure from below.
The Act’s Purpose
Goldfield states that the primary goal of the Wagner Act was to “constrain, limit and control” an insurgent workers’ movement. This is, at best, a very one-sided formulation that stands in tension with the actual provisions of the bill, the actions of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) established to enforce it, and the robust documentation, both public and private, of the Act’s intentions, which centered on equalizing power relations between capital and labor by promoting strong trade unionism. If Goldfield’s thesis were true, for example, then why did Wagner in 1933 threaten to withdraw his support for the NIRA unless it included the union rights provisions of Section 7(a)? In other words, Wagner made this pivotal pro-union ultimatum at a moment before there was any strike wave and before unions began to regain strength.
After 1933, Wagner proceeded to wage a relentless battle in Congress to win robust pro-union legislation against the reluctance of FDR and the indifference, at best, of most of his colleagues. In the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, “Wagner was almost alone among liberal Democrats in placing a high value on trade unions; and it was Wagner who was almost single-handedly forcing a reluctant administration into a national labor policy.”
Schlesinger is right that Wagner’s proactive fight for union rights was unique among Democrats. That said, his argument taken on its own needlessly downplays the causal importance of the strike upsurge, which helped make attempts to resolve “the labor question” a top legislative priority. And there were other key factors that also pushed Congress to act, including the policy vacuum suddenly created by the implosion of the NRA, hopes to spark an economic recovery by raising workers’ purchasing power, and, not least of all, the widespread assumption that the Wagner Act would get quickly overturned by the Supreme Court.
But Wagner’s stubborn initiatives were consequential. Without them, there very well might not have been a robust pro-union bill brought to the floor of Congress at the especially favorable junction of 1935. The most detailed study of this history argues that a unique constellation of events created a brief opening that Wagner seized, despite the relative weakness of organized labor: “Largely ignored [in explanations of the Act’s passage] is an evaluation of how the specific conjuncture of forces and events may have opened up the situation so that timeliness and position were more important than raw power.”
There are further reasons to question Goldfield’s contention that the bill was primarily intended to constrain labor militancy. Liberal Democrats no doubt wanted to see fewer strikes. But had the Wagner Act primarily been focused on constraining the workers’ insurgency, it surely would have included some penalties or prohibitions on work stoppages. Instead, it explicitly stated that “nothing in this Act shall be construed so as to interfere with or impede or diminish in any way the right to strike.” Even if one agrees with Goldfield’s contention that strike pressure obliged the passage of labor law reform, it doesn’t follow that the content of such reform had to be as overwhelmingly pro-labor — and as conducive for industrial unionism — as the Wagner Act. As David Plotke notes, the alternative could have been “extended repression, expanded company unions, support for AFL unions and their initiatives in mass production industries, [or] a minimal NLRA and limited recognition of industrial unions.”
The anti-strike, anti-labor legal provisions of modern U.S. industrial relations were generally introduced only years after the Wagner Act, through policy amendments, Supreme Court decisions, and NLRB case law. Goldfield, like many other leftists, unjustifiably conflates the 1935 Wagner Act with the far more constraining legal system that had been erected by the late 1940s, which dramatically limited workers’ ability to effectively strike, organize new industries, and bargain for a broad range of demands.
This evolution was not a necessary product of the Wagner Act itself. In fact, the Act — enforced by the newly established NLRB — immediately boosted labor organizing efforts, especially those from the movement’s left, industrial CIO wing.
From 1935 through 1938, the National Labor Relations Board wasted no time in lending its support to the insurgent labor movement. Invoking the recently passed Act, the new NLRB aggressively fought company unionism, armed guards, and company spies. It held companies responsible for the anti-union activities of their managers and supervisors. It leveraged the unfair labor practices provision of the Act to prevent company intimidation of workers and to actively curtail employer free speech by banning employers from most forms of anti-union propaganda.
The NLRB held that it was illegal for an employer to refuse to enter into a collective bargaining contract once an agreement with the union was reached. It forced employers to reinstate workers who had been fired for anti-union activities — and it forced employers to pay back governmental relief agencies all costs incurred for supporting the worker when unemployed. It decided in favor of the “card check” process in which a union could be recognized by getting a majority of workers to sign cards, rather than needing an election process in which employers could seek to intimidate their employees — 31 percent of unions were certified in that manner in 1938 and 1939.
And, unlike today’s much-weakened board, the NLRB had both the capacity and legal standing to quickly enforce its decisions, especially after the Wagner Act was legally upheld by the Supreme Court in early 1937. As one scholar put it, the early NLRB was “the most high-powered and effective law enforcement in our history.”
To be sure, few of the gains of the period would have been possible without a simultaneous workers’ upsurge, as epitomized in actions like the 1934 strike wave and the 1937 Flint-sit down strike. But any rigorous account has to acknowledge that the Wagner Act and the new NLRB were also key reasons why roughly two decades of unprecedented unionization growth began in 1937 — i.e. once the Act was fully recognized and enforced as the law of the land (Figure 4).
Figure 4: U.S. Union Density, 1927-1955
The Act’s Social Support and Transformation
After over a century of undiminished authoritarian employer rule over their employees, the Wagner Act helped millions win a substantial, and lasting, degree of dignity and democracy at work. This was no small transformation. As illustrated in Lizabeth Cohen and Eric L. Davin’s vivid studies of Chicago and Western Pennsylvania, workers of all races and backgrounds enthusiastically celebrated these New Deal transformations, viewing them as victories won through their own efforts, with the help of their allies in what they now experienced as an increasingly responsive state. An overwhelming majority of unionized workers during the Depression — Black, white, and immigrant — would certainly have disagreed with Goldfield’s contention that the Act was not “progressive.”
The idea that Wagner’s bill was simply an effort by politicians to restore order fails to sufficiently account for the fact that there were a number of plausible routes to promoting “industrial peace.” It’s true that neither its author nor most congresspeople were advocates of class struggle. Wagner was a pro-union progressive liberal who wanted order in industrial relations. But the New York Senator argued in 1935 that only a significantly different type of order — one that significantly increased workers’ organized power and “industrial democracy” — could minimize violent industrial strife. In his view, granting robust union rights, the Act’s major intended purpose, would have the additional benefit of lowering strike activity, by eliminating the ability of employers to force workers to resort to bitter strikes in order to win union recognition. Without justice, there would be no labor peace.
Beyond securing union rights, nobody could know in 1935 what the Wagner Act’s impact would be on future labor insurgency. To this day we have no way of knowing what fate lay in store for the U.S. labor movement had the NLRB remained pro-union and had the unadulterated 1935 Wagner Act remained intact, rather than being systematically gutted and transformed after 1938.
For its part, big business went on a major offensive to prevent the Act from getting signed in 1935. Corporations and their representatives overwhelmingly insisted that the legislation would increase, rather than decrease, militancy, as had occurred with Section 7(a). Once we correctly understand the actual content of the original Wagner Act, it is much easier to explain why it was stridently and almost unanimously opposed by big business. Contrary to the Communist Party’s dogmatic assumption that Wagner was acting on behalf of corporate America, the overwhelming majority of capitalists actually fought bitterly to prevent the bill from passing. During the 1934 congressional testimony of Communist leader William Dunne against the proposed legislation, Wagner thus interjected that “you say the bill lines up with big business. If that is so, they do not seem to appreciate it."
Once Wagner’s legislation passed despite the opposition of most capitalists, they immediately pivoted to doing their best to disobey it, hoping that it would get overturned by the Supreme Court. And within a year after it was legally upheld by the Court in 1937, employers and Republicans responded by initiating a successful political offensive to “de-radicalize” the Act and the NLRB.
The accretion of major anti-worker legal provisions to our modern-day labor relations system was the product of dramatic political defeats, starting in the late 1930’s and 1940’s. Backlash against labor came hard and fast in 1938, as corporations, Republicans, and conservative craft union leaders from the AFL joined together in an unholy alliance to weaken and transform the Wagner Act and the NLRB, which they accurately saw as boosting the CIO and Left-leaning industrial unionism. Opposition to labor militancy also came from below from hitherto allies like farmers and professionals, as well as some non-unionized workers, leading to a surge in Republican electoral wins in 1938. These efforts were given a major institutional boost by the anti-democratic framework of the U.S. political regime and party system, which tended to marginalize third parties while giving reactionaries, particularly from the South, a disproportionate political say, as well as numerous veto points on progressive advance, by either blocking legislation in Congress or circumventing it through “states rights” federalism.
This new anti-CIO coalition succeeded, with FDR’s backing, in purging the Left from the NLRB after 1938. The new Board soon proceeded to allow employers to hire strikebreakers as permanent workers, it took away the NLRB’s ability to certify unions via card check, and it limited the scope of permissible bargaining issues. For his part, Wagner stridently opposed amendments to gut the Act’s expansive, pro-union purpose. Though these initial attempts at federal amendments were defeated, many states from 1938 onwards leaned on the country’s reactionary “state’s rights” federal framework to adopt anti-labor laws undercutting the Wagner Act’s provisions — laws that served as the basis for the later Taft-Hartley bill nationally. World War Two temporarily checked this employers’ offensive, as labor was incorporated into tripartite institutions for the war effort. Unions grew their ranks significantly during WWII, though usually with the trade off of accepting narrow, routinized labor relations and pledges not to strike.
The push to roll back the Wagner Act and organized labor was successfully ratcheted up after the war’s end, resulting in the 1947 passage of the infamous Taft-Hartley bill, which banned wildcat and political strikes, prohibited secondary boycotts and mass picketing, barred Communists from holding union office, enabled “right to work” states, ended card check union recognition, banned foremen and supervisors from unionizing, and slowed down the process for redressing (and minimized the penalties for perpetrating) unfair labor practices by employers.
The Act’s Limitations and Contradictions
None of this is meant to imply that the original Wagner Act was flawless. In order to garner votes from Southern Dixiecrats in Congress, it included no anti-discrimination clauses and it excluded agricultural and domestic workers from its protections, a large workforce that was disproportionately African American. The legislation also excluded public sector workers. And it fell well short of establishing the centralized national-level bargaining that would go on to play such a major role in facilitating sustained union power in much of continental Europe.
These are all major and impactful flaws. But they are not the grounds upon which authors like Goldfield and Post have rested their case against the bill, which they accuse of constraining, bureaucratizing, and conservatizing the labor movement.
Such criticisms do capture important elements of the historical record, though they tend to conflate potential problems with inevitable problems. It’s true that the Wagner Act’s empowerment of a strong federal government agency to enforce and adjudicate labor law carried with it potential dangers, especially in the event that the NLRB were to come under the sway of anti-labor forces. This insight was integrated into a well-rounded 1935 analysis from the Socialist Party, which was the only major radical organization of the era to support the law. Underscoring the Act’s pro-labor core, the Socialists insisted that it created significant new openings for “militantly aggressive labor organization.” At the same time, however, they noted that the Act “may be construed by an unfriendly board or by reactionary courts in a fashion contrary to the interests of labor.” In their view, this was not a reason to oppose the legislation — rather they drew the conclusion that because so “much depends on the administration of the act,” unions had to stay strike ready and they had to increase their political influence to shape the state through “a political party of their own making.”
What is often glossed over in radical criticisms of the Act’s empowerment of the federal state is that bitter experience by 1935 had demonstrated that legally enforcing union recognition against an exceedingly hostile capitalist class required strong national enforcement. Wagner and AFL leaders had initially supported the light-touch, voluntarily enforced regulatory approach embodied in the 1933-34 National Recovery Administration. But persistent capitalist hostility to collective bargaining wrecked this plan. And precisely because 7(a) under the NRA was so consistently ignored by employers — as well as local politicians and repressive forces — demands from below for the New Deal administration to intervene were central to the strike upsurge that erupted after July 1933. No radicals at the time, or since, have ever compellingly explained how labor rights could have been legally enforced in such a context without robust federal intervention.
The progressive potential of the Wagner Act under favorable state actors was clearly shown by the pro-labor, pro-CIO practice of the NLRB from 1935 through 1938. Goldfield asserts that the Wagner Act was intended to prop up “the AFL leadership group” against radical threats to its left — yet the opposite dynamic occurred. As noted above, the main immediate beneficiary was the CIO, in which Communists played a major role.
It is true that unambiguously pro-labor state practice proved to be exceedingly rare in the following decades. Legalistic, bureaucratized, Democratic Party-dependent unionism increasingly crowded out the more autonomous, combative, and visionary unionism of the mid-1930s CIO. This sad outcome, however, was inseparable from the labor movement’s relative lack of political power, which would have seriously impinged on the evolution of any new labor order.
Unions have generally advanced further in their organizing efforts under Democratic administrations, but they have never progressed past being a junior partner in the Democratic coalition. Barry Eidlin illustrates in his insightful comparison of U.S. and Canadian labor politics that this subordinate interest group dynamic in the United States undermined unions’ policy sway and their ability to win over broader public opinion through political interventions — a dynamic that, in turn, significantly limited U.S. unions’ power and growth. Unlike in the rest of the advanced capitalist world unions in the United States could not lean on a mass workers’ party to defend and advance their interests within the state or to broaden their “historical bloc” through policy reforms, mass organization, and political agitation.
The 1930s was one of the few moments in U.S. history where organized labor was able to find a transmission belt, however limited, for its demands and interests within the state. The rapidfire and ultimately successful reactionary assault on the Wagner Act after its passage showed just how exceptional this opening was.
Though the Act unfortunately failed to cover the entire working class, no other piece of U.S. legislation has ever done so much to bolster the collective interests of working people and to help win them a substantial measure of dignity at work. Efforts today to match such a leap forward would do well to understand what it took to bring about this exceptional victory in 1935.
Of course, history never repeats itself exactly. It’s important to acknowledge that we face many unique problems from that of labor on the eve of the New Deal. For starters, today’s struggles take place in a polity that provides some institutional structures — constrained and hollowed out, to be sure — for union recognition. The openings and obstacles for union organizing are thus not identical to the pre-Wagner Act era.
Socio-economic shifts have been no less dramatic. The decline of strike rates and union growth across the industrialized world since the 1980s reflects not just labor leader timidity, but epochal structural transformations that have shifted the balance of forces against workers, making private sector militancy more difficult than before, especially when waged on a decentralized, firm-by-firm basis inside a legal system stacked against unions. Deindustrialization, financialized globalization, mass unemployment, neoliberal atomization of working-class communities, the growth of precarious work and “fissured” firms — all these factors make workplace action and organizing riskier not just for union officials, but for working people generally.
That said, after decades of declining strike rates and entrenched union inertia, the fate of unions, at least insofar as it’s within their own control, appears to be inseparable from efforts to scale up bold new organizing drives and strike activity. The inspiring organizing at Starbucks and Amazon, like the 2018-19 teachers’ strike wave, is posing a much needed alternative to unions’ risk aversion and their self-defeating reliance on corporate Democrats. As Republicans and the Supreme Court further undermine majority rule, mass disruption may in the short term often be the most salient tactic for helping turning things around. But disruption is not a strategy. Insurgencies are inherently episodic — to maximize their transformational power, they need to crystallize into institutions, both inside and outside the state. The experience of the Great Depression era suggests that the sustained growth and success of insurgent labor organizing requires parallel initiatives in the political arena. And this may be even more true now because of the fissured political economy of our current era.
In the political arena today, corporate politics clearly continues to dominate. We have, however, seen some promising new developments recently. These include the Bernie campaigns, the rebirth of Democratic Socialists of America, the election of “the Squad” and democratic socialists across the country, as well as the commendable efforts of the new NLRB to protect union organizing efforts.
Within labor, the most promising strategic development in recent memory is the “bargaining for the common good” approach articulated by unionized educators from Chicago to Los Angeles, an approach that centers fights for the whole multiracial working class. Expanding this orientation beyond public education and other care-based industries, however, will likely require even more directly and systematically intervening in the electoral arena, since not all workplaces are as intertwined with the community as schools and hospitals.
To rebuild working-class power today, we’ll need many more strikes and daring unionization drives, but we’ll also need serious and sustained pro-labor initiatives within the official halls of power on local, state, and federal levels. And to get further than our predecessors in the 1930s, we may very well have to find a way to turn the U.S. into the robust political democracy it has long claimed to be.
[This is Part 3 in my series of working papers on the lessons of labor and politics in the 1930s. Citations can be found here. Please share this link widely, but do not republish.]