Epitaph for American Labor by Max Green

Labor Unions' Big-Government, Socialistic Agenda Is Contrary to Their Interests

AEI Press • 1996 • 207 pages • $24.95

David Kendrick is program director for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, a charitable organization providing research and analysis on the social and economic inequities of compulsory unionism.

From a former New York representative of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) comes Epitaph for American Labor, which, according to its author, Max Green, testifies to a reversal of my own thinking. . . . Whatever was true of yesterday’s [union] movement, today’s movement practices a variety of reactionary leftism that opposes America’s values and interests. With Big Labor conspicuously flexing its political muscles these days, a book that deflates its pretensions is most welcome.

It was not always like this, Green writes, as he recalls the pragmatic nature of organized labor’s leadership pre-New Deal: Through its first century, the American trade union movement was distinguished by its rejection of socialism. This moderation was due primarily to the leadership of Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), who, perceiving the state as the executive arm of the dominant economic class . . . saw nothing to be gained by bringing government into the equation between business and labor.

Indeed, Green points out, the union movement’s top priority during the Gompers era was the passage of legislation to keep government out of labor-management disputes, culminating with the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act exempting union officials from antitrust lawsuits. (Unfortunately, organized labor had succumbed to the temptation to resort to politics by this time—Norris-LaGuardia also outlawed antitrust lawsuits, yellow dog contracts under which employees agreed as a condition of employment not to join a union.) As late as 1938, union officials in the Gompers tradition opposed a minimum wage, according to Green, out of fear that if government could impose a minimum wage, it could also impose a maximum wage. Contrast that early opposition of union leaders to the incessant, multimillion-dollar campaign in which the AFL-CIO hierarchy succeeded in bludgeoning enough Republican congressmen to raise the minimum wage last year.

While this turn in the union hierarchy’s attitude toward state intervention has been well-documented, Green breaks new ground in our understanding of Big Labor’s role in the Cold War, taking issue with the often-expressed idea that the unions were important in the victory over communism.

As the Cold War was beginning in the late 1940s, David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, proclaimed that whether democracy was to revive in the countries overrun by Hitler and Mussolini lay in the trade unions. By this rationale, the principal weapons against the expansion of Soviet hegemony lay in the herding of workers into union ranks, and such so-called democratization schemes as the expropriation of privately owned land for redistribution by the state, or land reform.

In Vietnam, for example, the redistribution of land, intended to win hearts and minds, but imposed on the South Vietnamese people by the United States at the AFL-CIO’s insistence, led to resentment, felt at several levels of Vietnamese government and society, of interference by foreigners. In the end, Green concludes, these social efforts to undermine the internal insurgency of the Viet Cong were just a sideshow diverting attention from the harsh but essential task of meeting the military challenge from the North.

During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration sought to rebuild U.S. defenses while reducing the budget deficit. But the AFL-CIO’s executive council insisted, first, on smaller increases than what Reagan thought was necessary, then later in the decade, that if vital [domestic] programs are to be cut or frozen, defense spending must also be frozen. And in 1983, six of the AFL-CIO’s ten largest unions supported the nuclear freeze.

While unionists and their more avid supporters have made much of the AFL-CIO’s support for the Solidarity trade union as a factor in bringing down the Iron Curtain, Green points out that the periodic and futile labor protests which had continued in Poland since 1956 would probably have continued indefinitely had it not been for . . . a transformed Catholic Church.

In the wake of Pope John Paul’s 1979 visit to Poland, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa recounted that millions of unorganized and unaffiliated Poles had suddenly seen themselves as a community under the leadership of the church—an experience that a year afterward had led to the creation of Solidarity. According to Green, this outpouring of emotion, coupled with a new alliance between the Church and dissident intellectuals formed the basis for the birth of Solidarity as a liberation movement, as distinguished from an ordinary trade union. Thus, Solidarity’s role in liberating Poland had far more to do with the unification of all Polish society than it did with traditional trade unionism.

Union officials have coerced and even terrorized millions of workers they claim to represent, but their big-government, socialistic agenda is contrary to their interests. There are no more excuses to disregard the natural right of employees to decide for themselves if a union deserves their financial support.

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