Friday, December 6, 2019

"When Unions Gave Capitalism Its Ballast"

In my review of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman I referenced Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith's rebuttal of the film's storyline (based on Frank Sheeran's historically questionable late-life claims about his role in the murder of Jimmy Hoffa). In addition to debunking Sheeran's account, Goldsmith also argues that the film fails to address the more significant long-term consequences of, for example, how Robert Kennedy's vendetta against Hoffa helped undermine the position of organized labor more effectively than big business ever could, with consequences we are suffering from today. Certainly, one of the many differences between then (the 3rd quarter of the 20th century) and now is the powerful role played by organized labor in American society then as compared with its politically pitiful position now. 

And now James Pinkerton at - of all places - The American Conservative, has joined the chorus with at least two-and-a-half cheers for the role of mid-20th-century labor unions, in a December 4 post entitled, 'The Irishman' Remembers when Unions gave Capitalism Its Ballast.

There has a always been a traditionalist strain of conservatism which has been alert to and troubled by the damage capitalism does to society and social cohesion. But Pinkerton is a veteran of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush campaigns and Administrations and so might not have been expected to be nostalgic for the days of strong labor unions. In any case, he has called The Irishman "time travel to a lost world—mid-20th century America," a world "where, if you can believe it, labor was equal to capital."
In my own review, I referenced the elderly Sheeran's realization that the younger generation does not remember Hoffa mainly for what is says about getting old. Pinkerton properly also notes the social significance - the difference between now and a very different time when "strong unions shaped society."
Of course, there was also corruption. The complicity of organized labor with organized crime is obviously the setting for The Irishman, and there is no denying that ugly part of the history of that time. That said, Pinkerton reminds his readers, "it must also be recalled that the decades of union power coincided with America at its most powerful and in a way at its most cohesive. Pluralism among countervailing power blocsBig Labor versus Big Business—may seem messy, but it’s also societally healthy, keeping the nation’s humors in balance."
And so he quotes presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower, who - just months before his first landslide victory - told the AFL in 1952: “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
How the Republican party, especially since the disastrous election of 1980, has taken the country in a different direction is a familiar story. Pinkerton, however, highlights the Democrats' comparably significant role. Like Goldsmith, he goes back to Kennedy. "The newer Democratic Party would be more in the.  mode of RFK: white collar, maybe even rich, as well as high-minded and reformist—even preachy. Onetime JFK and RFK aide Fred Dutton helped accelerate this new trend in 1971, when his book, The Changing Sources of American Power, advised Democrats to look past old-fashioned, old-thinking unions and look instead to more socially avant-garde groups, such as students, minorities, and professionals."
Of course, it hasn't all been ideology. I would say that the social solidarity of the post-war era certainly depended on the attenuation of pre-war economic inequality thanks in part to the power of organized labor. But it also reflected the sense of common purpose the war - and after it the Cold War - had helped to foster in society. And it also reflected America's uniquely unchallenged global economic and political power in the wake of the war. By the 1970s, that sense of common purpose had been irreversibly weakened, while competing sources of economic power had emerged in the wider world, which impacted organized labor's influence.
Still, as Pinkerton concludes, "The Irishman is a time machine, taking us back to a period when labor was equal to capital, when the working class was growing into the middle class. Yet over the last half-century, reformers have helped capital to triumph over labor, and, as a result, much of the middle class has been busted back down to the working class."

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