What Ever Happened to the Labor Movement? A Report on the State of the Unions

(With research by Judith Ramsey)

The leader is half front man, half sultan; he may be a manly old warlord like George Meany or a hardrunning young hustler, or the educated type who has to watch his vowels lest he get too many correct. More than half the union members find their leadership only fair to poor, or so their polls say. The rank-and-filers don’t go to meetings much. The roly-polies are still generally in charge, and if they have their way, not much will change. All this and more can be learned from this deep study of the labor unions c. 1973 by a distinguished novelist, essayist, and critic.

The leaders: a gross profile

“ Let me know if you find an American labor movement,” said Bert Powers of the New York typographers’ union. A quaint assignment for a freshman hazing: like being sent to look for Rousseau’s General Will or the Mystical Body of Christ. The labor movement is on the one hand an act of faith, and on the other a thousand small movements rowing vigorously in their own directions.

What most people have in mind by “Labor” is the AFL-CIO Executive Council, which consists of thirty-five Buddhas (no female Buddhas) who sit calmly above the battle. They bargain not, neither do they strike. (“George Meany never led a strike in his life,” is the cliché knock on the chairman.) They are Labor in the sense that an oil lobby is Oil, or the National Association of Manufacturers is Business: that is, powerful, but not the way Getty or Rockefeller is powerful. Most writing about Labor (which has a dismal sameness about it)1 overemphasizes these elders because they are the most tangible aspect of Labor, and its most coherent symbol. George Meany in particular is a godsend to a lazy writer, and to a celebrity culture, and many people have the impression he is Labor, all by himself. He isn’t, of course, but when you get past George, it’s like analyzing the Indian Ocean. The ocean is what it’s all about, but one must begin with Meany, and all the little Meanys.

The rank and file may be younger and blacker and less predictable; collective bargaining is certainly more sophisticated, and merged industries are hard to deal with in a back room; but you still have to start with him, the old man of the tribe, the labor leader.

Where a doctor might pass for a lawyer and a lawyer might be a banker, there’s no mistaking this guy. The gravelly voice, abraded in drafty meeting halls, the face of many weathers, and that style— watchful, patient, sufficiently charming for the political side of things. He tends to be built for sitting up all night, like a beer bottle, and his backside is probably as callused by now as his hands. He is past sixty-five, but has no thoughts of retiring. “What to?” says one labor leader—referring to another one.

The American labor leader is part of a vanishing species that never quite seems to vanish.

The American labor leader is part of a vanishing species that never quite seems to vanish. For years now, there’s been talk of a new breed, but when the new breed comes along, it always turns out to be past sixty-five and bottle-shaped. Visit a dynamic young leader like Albert Shanker, with teachers, not mine workers, in back of him, and the reflective indoor physiognomy of a teacher, and you’ll find him halfway into the gravelly voice, the face, the style. No one has yet found a better model, and one hopes for purely aesthetic reasons they never do. How many American originals hold up so well?

In the larger unions, the leader now sits on a bureaucracy much like any other and spouts lesser men’s briefings on pension plans and guidelines and other complexities. Yet his is the face that Labor shows the world—and itself—and he remains important for that. Labor-talk always comes down to leader-talk, funny and gossipy as a Dublin pub. Why does George Meany do such and such? Well, you know old George. Old George’s crotchets may in fact serve as a cover for Labor’s true interests. But they are also a factor in themselves. The labor movement remains uniquely personal and man to man. To rise in it you need, to be sure, toughness and guile—but the boys better like you as well. The fact that they didn’t like George McGovern still complicates any reading of their political interest: although maybe not quite as much as they’d like you to think.

Anyway, let’s take a slightly closer look at the old boy, half front man, half sultan. From the several labor leaders I’ve met and the many I’ve heard about, I’d say that he hits it off well with his staff, especially the priest’s-housekeeper-type secretary (it’s taboo to marry the girl), and takes a fatherly, or godfatherly, view of his membership. His office tends to be functional but homey, informing you that power has not made him uppity. He officially distrusts intellectuals, but his picture of them is so grotesque that a real one has nothing to fear: you won’t be spotted. Besides, his son goes to Amherst. And deep down, he is too sensible and practiced in human affairs to hate anyone, unless there’s a tangible advantage in it.

He also distrusts journalists, and will tell you how consistently they misrepresent Labor. This gives him an excuse to refuse interviews (I have never received such cumbersome runarounds: George Meany’s secretary could not fit me in for weeks on end, until time ran out) when delicate matters are in the air, and to deny the ones he has given afterwards. Naturally, this adds to the useful legend that the press misrepresents Labor. Yet his forte is besting people with his tongue, and he may be tempted to have a go at you. In which case his pride proves well placed. Although he is a politician with a narrow constituency, and can be a little uncertain with strangers, he is excellent company, often a barroom wit, profoundly cocky but amiable, and he controls interviews beautifully. He tells you exactly what he set out to tell you, no more, no less, quite regardless of the questions. Some of his answers even sound memorized and you’ll find them again in the union newspaper. One fresh pearl to an interview is about all you can expect.

If you dig any harder you will hit hostility almost immediately. The kind of mild adversary questioning on which reporting depends reminds him like a fire bell that Labor is embattled and that you’ve probably been sent here to make trouble. “What do you mean by that? I don’t understand the question.” You wait meekly for the secretary to buzz you out.

This paranoia may vary somewhat according to status within the movement. One young leader, who is a careerist playing a very difficult game, actually wrote the editor of this magazine to protest my fiendish interrogation. Naturally, I rushed to the tape, hoping he’d blurted something I’d missed. Nothing, of course: it was a milk-and-water job all the way. He had talked affably for two hours and was still talking on the way out and was probably afraid he’d been too friendly for his own good. (Incidentally, a couple of other spokesmen cancelled appointments after this, suggesting that our boy may have alerted the whole fraternity.)

Contrariwise, the majestic Paul Hall of the Seafarers’ International Union takes a publish-and-bedamned attitude. A waiter has to like Hall the way a fisherman likes a giant tuna: a marvelous talker, colorful, funny, indiscreet, Hall might break the writer’s legs but would never hold a grudge. These are the two extremes, the anxious young hustler and the manly old warlord. But in between there is more caution than not.

The labor leader is also designed for function, which is why he survives. For instance, although his machismo is probably second nature, an educated man like Lane Kirkland (Meany’s putative successor) has to watch his vowels in case he gets too many of them correct. And Gus Tyler, the friendly philosopher of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers (ILGWU), says it never hurts to seem tougher than you are. “When Mike Quill, the New York transit workers’ leader, would stand up at those Garden meetings and really lace into Lindsay and let the other guys have it, the members would stand there and cheer and yell. He didn’t have to call a strike. And he didn’t. If they didn’t have a chance to ventilate, he’d get the strike and it’d go wildcat.” The rank and file must never suspect the chief of selling them down river to the boss: so if he doesn’t give them a strike, he had better give them a display of bristling menace. (One leader, who was caught smiling recently, playfully accused the photographer of “ruining my image.”)

Thus, to please the members, it is often necessary to irritate the public. Bad public relations is built into the situation, although those grunts and snarls may not be aimed at you at all, but at the membership. Union men sometimes complain that the public doesn’t understand them, but maybe it’s just as well. The ones you love to hate, like Mike Quill, do not necessarily get the biggest contracts. The Auto Workers, Tyler points out, with their silky-smooth negotiators, might call fewer strikes if the members had more chance “to ventilate”—an omen, perhaps, if the bureaucrats ever take over from the roly-polies.

According to a recent poll, 59 percent of rankand-filers consider their leadership fair to poor. Whether this is just the nature of rank-and-filers, or the fruit of real observation, is difficult to say: they don’t go to meetings much, and it’s hard to tell what they’re thinking unless they launch a wildcat strike in a given factory, as the Auto Workers have taken to doing lately. In which case, leadership hurriedly adjusts its robes and pretends to lead.

The usual charge is that the old boys are out of date. But as one raised in a Church where the leaders are perennially out of date, I have to wonder whether there isn’t some advantage in this condition. “George Meany’s last hurrah,” say his supporters. And we think, Well, let him enjoy it. A marvelous character, George. Nobody minds waiting a few years for his vibrant successor. And so change never comes.

Seeming to be the last of the breed and perhaps even a little bit barmy is a trick worthy of the British House of Lords. Actually, in terms of Labor’s practical interests, the current leaders are nothing like the doddering codgers they’re made out to be. They have delivered quite well, politically and economically. Walter Reuther once called them “old fogies,” but as we shall see, the old fogies were more than a match for Reuther. People talk about the unprecedented power of the labor movement, but then fail to connect it with the supposedly senile leadership. The leadership, senile like a fox, doesn’t mind what you think. Here, for instance, is George Meany on worldly vanity. “Let the politicians have the glory,” he says; “they’ll feel better about us when we come ask them for something.” Vintage Meany, vintage labor leader.

Things may seem fairly quiet at the top. Who will replace George Meany? Well, let’s see now. A question for the third beer. The power struggle up there is almost imperceptible. But further down in the Big Muddy “it is as complicated and as tough and as sophisticated as the politics of the Borgias,” says the whimsical Gus Tyler. Promising young leaders prefer to stay down there where the power is small but real. “Maurice Hutcheson [once the top cheese; since, ironically, retired] has the same relationship to the carpenters’ union as the Queen of England has to the British Empire. He’s there. And they’ll keep him there forever, and his son, and his son’s son, provided that he doesn’t tell the affiliates what to do.”

This is worth bearing in mind when next you hear about the gerontology of labor leadership. Nobody down there is scuffling for Meany’s job. A local fief can’t take his treasury and his political contacts up the greasy pole with him. “He knows [his lieutenants] are dying for him to become president, because the moment he leaves this area, after two years he’s lost his base,” says Tyler.

Still, that’s only part of it. Local leaders are fiercely parochial, and they may not know what they’re missing nationally. One asks expert after expert to define the power of the Executive Council, and specifically of George Meany, and a vaguer set of answers you never heard. It boils down to a nebulous network of favors which may retire when George does. “He can call off the cops for you,” if that’s your problem, “he can legitimize a shaky strike,” “he can fight for legislation.” “He can embarrass you,” says columnist Murray Kempton, which, in a business where Face is half the battle, may be the biggest gun of all.

Whatever the exact nature of Meany’s power, real or totemistic, it reflects like the sun off the faces of his followers, who chorus his praises repeatedly and sometimes downright fulsomely. Even independents like the Auto Workers would not, in my hearing, say a word against him—possibly because they might want to get back into the AFLCIO someday. Only the odd maverick voice, in horrible isolation, will say something like David Jenkins (a former legislative aide to Harry Bridges of the Longshoremen): “We recognize he is as paranoid as Joe Stalin.” Or Leon Davis of Local 1199, the New York Drug and Hospital Union: “He couldn’t get two votes for dogcatcher in our local.”

To please the members, it is often necessary to irritate the public.

How much of Meany’s mystical power is shared by his cardinals on the Executive Council is hard to judge. One interesting clue is that, however much or little there may be, it’s enough to make someone as shrewd as Albert Shanker of the New York teachers’ union want it, even to the point of elbowing past his own national leader, David Selden, to get on the Executive Council. This seems at first blush like an odd ambition. Council members are unsalaried and untenured, and the only power they appear to have is the power to agree with George Meany. (Even a feisty dissident like Jerry Wurf of the Municipal Employees protests his admiration for the boss, and rations his dissents to no more than one a year.) They do have some prestige, for what that’s worth, and broader interests than the local capos. They have quotable opinions on national elections as well as next year’s contracts, on Japan as well as Dearborn. Up there, one can even believe in a labor movement.

Labor and the liberals

The political clout, real or fancied, of Meany and his Council, and the direction it seems to be taking, is what worries liberals the most. (In what follows, the word “meany” will sometimes be used generically, like caesar, denoting the whole imperium. At such times, a lower-case m is used for ungainly convenience.) Labor people will tell you that liberals gave up on them long ago “because we became successful—they only like glorious failures like Chavez,” but in my experience this is only glancingly true. To be sure, Stalinist intellectuals, that phantom, infinitely expandable band, gave up on Labor in the forties, when Reuther et al became such majestic anti-Communists. But your regular cuddly liberal confined himself to fretful tut-tuts over union abuses, and took no action at all. Of course, the kind of full-bodied support Labor used to need it no longer gets from anyone, and some Labor romantics, who would like to be figures in a WPA mural forever, may resent this. But in recent conversations with ivory tower friends, when the question came up, “Would you cross a picket line?” the answer was: “Just about never.”

It would be truer to say, on behalf of the wishywashy liberals, that Labor has pulled away from them. Liberal loyalty has tended to be stubborn to the point of sentimentality. If you are a liblab over forty, you will have weathered quite a few temptations to abandon it. The day you sensed that they were making more money than you was a rough one—but you swallowed it: the latest raise still left them some ways behind the chairman of ITT or Sammy Davis at The Sands. And when the plumber refused to make a house call—OK, you can’t blame a whole movement for that. And when the subway went on the fritz and the teachers and the garbage . . .

Still OK. They’re striking me this time and not some fat-faced boss. But a liberal mustn’t be selfish. Besides, the rising cost of corruption and official boobery probably hits me harder and I don’t even know it. (In fact, I suspect these service unions have brought the most ill will down on Labor for the smallest return. Liberals aren’t that unselfish.) Groggy by now, but determined—Hoffa, there’s one in every crowd. Segregation in the building trades? You should see the Social Register.

But in the last year or two, the old faithful have begun to wonder whether they weren’t being even more gullible than tradition demands (the kids may have caught on quicker). When the New York AFL-CIO dumped their old pal Arthur Goldberg in favor of Nelson Rockefeller for Governor, one eye opened. When Meany himself declared neutral for Nixon, the last veil seemed to come off. It wasn’t just the decision or nondecision, it was the unavoidable crassness of it all. McGovern had compiled a 93 percent proLabor voting record; Nixon made 13 percent. A fragrant fact sheet on McGovern, taking trade-off votes out of context, was circulated among Labor delegates in Miami—and later traced to the building of the busy Committee for the Re-Election of the President in Washington. Meany’s own favorite excuse, that McGovern let him down on a makeor-break vote in 1965, hardly stacks up against Nixon’s 13 percent. Yet so passionate was George Meany’s neutrality that he later tried to punish his Colorado affiliate for endorsing McGovern, and is still trying at this writing, although his own team “won 80-0,” as Moe Foner of the New York Drug and Hospital Union (1199) put it. (Constitutionally he may be entitled to do this, hinging on the sense of the word “affiliate”; but a less thorough man could always drop the matter.)

American Labor travels light ideologically and can swap beads with just about anybody—except possibly with an idealogue, like McGovern.

Hastily, the apologists fell back on the cloudy issue of style—it was the feminists and fags and abortionists (all of whom were rebuffed by McGovern in Miami); it was the generation gap and the elitists and God knows what all. The poor old liberals, who’d gone along with Labor so far, were rounded on as snobs and dreamers, which possibly served them right.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal calmly published some, on the whole, less moonstruck reasons for Labor’s position. The Administration had in the last year or so:

(1) Allowed Meany’s pet construction unions a separate pay board, which rode looser on the wage-control guidelines than the regular one did.

(2) Relaxed pressure on these same unions to integrate. New York Plans, Philadelphia Plans, et cetera, went into deep freeze.

(3) Dropped anti-transport strike legislation that would have inconvenienced the Teamsters, and showed uncharacteristic clemency to James Hoffa. (Hoffa’s parole seemed at first glance calculated to embarrass the current boss, Frank Fitzsimmons. But I have it on good authority that Fitzsimmons wanted Hoffa out of jail, where he was rapidly becoming a saint to the membership.)

(4) Assured the Seafarers that a good piece of the merchandise in the Russian wheat deal would be carried in American bottoms.

(5) Benignly witnessed the Justice Department’s clearance of Paul Hall, the Seafarers’ boss, from indictment for illegal campaign funding. (Since misuse of funds is the common cold of Labor, it gives politicians their most reliable bargaining handle.)

And so on. By chance, these were the unions which also felt the most violent antipathy to long hair and fags. Those less blessed, like the Meat Cutters and Machinists, felt they could live with hair down to your fanny. (One demonologist suggests that Meany’s recent demand for food-price controls may be a negative payoff for the Meat Cutters’ McGovernism. I cite it here mainly for the rich quality of the paranoia.)

Why does Labor feel obliged to go through these contortions to conceal its real interests—even when these seem legitimate? The Seafarers’ deal, for instance, needed no cumbersome camouflage. For years (if boss Paul Hall speaks true) our State Department had allowed foreign ships to carry the bulk of our overseas trade, for good diplomatic reasons. (Hall may exaggerate this imbalance, especially in the case of wheat, which has traditionally traveled in U.S. bottoms. Anyway, it is the case he makes.) Now with our wheat on the way to Commie rats the unions could righteously close down the docks, and rediscover the evils of Communism one more time. This gave them new bargaining power, and they used it. (“If money would have bought them [the longshoremen], Nixon would have given a billion dollars a guy, from a pure political necessity.”—Hall.)

Still, Labor gropes for high-minded excuses, and finds them. Whether it’s anti-Communism or the work ethic—anything is better than admitting you just want the money. Maybe there is enough idealism in their own membership, or their own memories, to require some minimal lip service. Or maybe some deeper sense in organized labor acquires its legitimacy (not to mention occasional governmental funding) from idealism. Whatever it is, the result is too often a threadbare hypocrisy that makes Labor look worse than it is. Its gross spokesmen, already grossly profiled above, develop the heavy disingenuousness of mobsters and bishops. The ever-refreshing Paul Hall admits frankly that he doesn’t give a damn about long hair or homosexuals, so long as they don’t disturb the rest of the crew and keep it awake at night. And even those who use style as an excuse will admit with the next breath that unions have more serious fish to fry than that.

They will also tell you they are not paid to be idealists. As Albert Shanker puts it: “Most teachers join our union because we have a contract, we process their grievances, and we manage a welfare fund, and we get them salary increases. They didn’t join because they want us to support great social legislation.” Precisely. And why should we expect more, from any sector of society? Even liberals have interests, but they’re too noble to admit it.

One hears this same tune in different voices. The gist: “Why expect us to be better than you? We’re just like anyone else—bakers, candlestick makers.” (Someday, I’m going to check out candlestick makers. There’s something fishy about the way they kept coming up in these interviews.) The point is incontestable. And when they follow with a list of the social legislation Labor has supported anyway, one has to wonder why they are better than us, if they don’t have to be.

But then why, if their real business is union business, did Peter Brennan—then head of the New York City Building and Construction Trades Council, now Secretary of Labor—declare the Vietnam War the “main issue” of the last election? What conceivable effect did the war have on the construction business in New York—unless possibly a bad one? And why did the New York teachers consider the war none of their business, while the national AFT came out against it? Idealism seems to go on and off like a tap in these matters.

Or again, there was George Meany, going straight for the Vietnam War in his Election Day wrap-up, as if it were burning a hole in the AFL agenda. Why? Well, George is a lifelong anti-Communist, like Peter. Remember the troubles he’s seen when Communists tried to take over the movement. Yes, that was some time ago—but George has a long memory.

This kind of argument makes Labor sound almost as fatuous and otherworldly as the liberals they mock. Meany’s anti-Communism certainly runs deep and strong. Yet in March of last year he backed any Democrat, except Wallace or Lindsay, against Nixon. So a short memory would be the issue here, not a long one. To be sure, McGovern’s labor relations were as clumsy as most of his other relations (he even managed to leave his staunchest union supporter, Jerry Wurf of the Municipal Employees, off his labor advisory board), but Meany’s touchiness is an even weaker reed than his antiCommunism. His regal indignation was a sight to see in Miami: it was George the Character at his finest. But he played it too broad, snorting and nocommenting and refusing to leave his hotel. As if he really had nothing to say.

What did he (and his AFL-CIO colleagues) really want: renewed control of the Democratic Party? He hinted as much after the election, although the more usual line is that American Labor resists party affiliation. It weakens you too much— look at Britain, where Labor has all the force of the Church of England. An official Labor Party can sell you out at leisure because you have no place else to go. American Labor travels light ideologically and can swap beads with just about anybody—except possibly with an idealogue, like McGovern.

A beachhead in the Republican Party then? Well, that would be handy too. But the question seems none too pressing to our spokesman—suggesting that one isn’t phrasing it right. The relationship with either party is more ad hoc and fragmentary than any European model. It consists of scores of separate relationships with local politicians, most of whom happen obviously to be Democrats, but some of whom (especially if you’re in the building trades) are not. It was this network of private understandings that McGovern (and the Democratic Party reforms identified with his name) threatened, and Lonesome George himself could not make enough deals to remove the threat, so long as his young followers manned the clubhouses. They, you’ll remember, had no mystique of the labor movement. Their idea of a labor hero was Cesar Chavez, and their obsession with boycotting lettuce must have grated on the elders much more than their long hair. Cesar Chavez is emphatically not what the labor movement is all about.

So to some extent this is just more nontalk for the basic Labor article, “Is Labor returning to the Democratic fold?” which appears about twice a month in your favorite newspaper. “Strong sentimental ties” are cited among the old softies, although assorted builders and teamsters have been voting Republican for years. Well, the Democrats certainly need Labor funding, and Labor needs friendly politicians. And it’s always nice to control a party. But Labor can probably live for now without it. In 1972, COPE—the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education, Labor’s collective funding device—supported a motley collection of good old boys, and got very much the mixture it wanted, plus two presidential candidates competing furiously for future favors. So who needs a party? “We reward our friends and punish our enemies,” Hall quotes Samuel Gompers. And a Republican friend is as good as a Democrat, if possibly a little harder to find. A Labor contribution looks bigger in a Democrat’s hope chest, where it doesn’t have to compete with an industrialist’s, and the Democratic link will no doubt continue in some form. By 1974, according to one prophet, Meany will announce that the Republicans have betrayed him (Watergate is hurrying the timetable) and by 1976, God willing, he will be talking about the Democrats coming home, and he will presumably deliver as much rank and file as in 1972, when 71 percent of workers said that Meany’s opinion had no influence whatever on their votes.

The one noteworthy development of 1972 was a more efficient marshaling of votes for local rumbles. Traditionally, unions are organized around the shop rather than the neighborhood, so they cannot deliver much of anything in the workers’ home districts. But this time, by means of the newfangled telephone and other twentieth-century devices, they were able to defeat the reformer Allard Lowenstein in Brooklyn. And if Labor could shake off its endearing parochialism, it might someday become an electoral force commensurate with its twenty million bodies. But so far, this power has followed a terribly narrow pattern of rewards and punishments: Congressman John Rooney of Brooklyn kept the Brooklyn Navy Yard open (he lost anyway), while Bella Abzug crossed a teachers’ picket line (she won anyway). Forget the mighty winds from on top. Labor’s politics is petty and intimate down to the smallest quid pro quo.

Our gross spokesman gives you a look that says, “You know all this, don’t you? Or are you too dumb to bother with?” He believes as sincerely as Richard Daley that the country depends on a system of deals. If he is a building tradesman like Meany, used to trading with government and business, he probably finds a world without deals almost inconceivable, and a nondealing candidate like McGovern near to a half-wit. Fags and lifestyle are thus code words for “the deal is off this year.” “They’ll grow up” means: if we can’t get rid of the kids, four years in the clubhouse may wise them up anyway. “More and more of our membership is voting Republican” means: the situation is so serious we may have to fall back on that excuse. In fact, the membership’s opinion is rarely consulted on political endorsements. One leader looked blank when asked how his rank and file had voted; and when I suggested he poll them before endorsing someone, he said, “Hey, that’s an interesting idea.”

Again, none of this would seem half so sinister if anyone admitted it was going on. And there are signs that in the Nixon era of neo-realism, self-interest may come out of the closet partway—unless Watergate drives it back in, like a groundhog’s shadow. According to our gross spokesman, the unions need to do all the wheeling and dealing they can just to keep up with merged industries and merged government. Their anti-Communism may be part window dressing but their interest in, say, protective legislation is dead serious. When Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. makes a car in Japan (the Datsun) exclusively for the U.S. market, and when 95 percent of our baseball gloves are made abroad, talk of excessive union power strikes our spokesman as laughable.

Viewed in this light. Meany’s Vietnamese fixation may make a little more sense. Meany has frequently declared his opposition to any government that does not permit a free trade union movement. But Communism has a special place in his cosmos. He did, as his fans will tell you and tell you again, oppose the French in Algeria and he takes a sour view of Franco and the Greek colonels; but he would never make the colonels a leading U.S. election issue.

Essentially, Communism is a rival International, capable at best of closing off succulent markets and at worst of flooding the United States with cheap bicycles, chopsticks, and bamboo hats. Meany was infuriated by Nixon’s visit to China, but again Pecksniffian hypocrisy obscured the motive. “He’s afraid that people will forget the slave labor camps, et cetera,” says Albert Shanker piously, but Shanker “did not know” if Meany had taken any political steps against repression in, say, Greece, outside of glaring fiercely at it.

Meany’s anti-Communism is undoubtedly sincere; and, primed by his guru Jay Lovestone, it is even relatively sophisticated. (Murray Kempton maintains that, like most ex-Communists, Lovestone portrays the Communist Party as preternaturally clever, and George is duly impressed.) But the cold war has also served Labor’s purposes much as it has served the government’s, not only creating jobs but giving the work force a little of the urgent national importance it had in World War II. And if Nixon wants to liquidate it, he will have to be very nice to Labor; he will have to—do just about what he’s done.

The AFL has generally supported an expansionist foreign policy from its earliest days under its first president, Samuel Gompers.2 When you hear the Democratic Party described as the party of war, it may not be quite the evil Republican smear you once thought it was. Some (not all) of the Democratic Party’s friends in Labor have favored a pugnacious foreign policy dating from the annexation of the Philippines. This is not just from native bellicosity or a desire to unionize the world (Labor doesn’t think about the world that much, to my experience); but wars, or at least wartime Presidents, have been good for Labor. World War I was a boom period, with meatcutters and electrical workers and name it organizing frantically, and with government obliged for the first time to talk to Labor like a grown-up. Woodrow Wilson’s War Labor Board set the style for the New Deal (depressions have their uses too), and in between there was the sour taste of Republican peace, when Labor was set back a generation. The Depression emphasized another dazzling new concept: the working man as consumer (somebody had to buy the goods). And in 1935, after much bloody skirmishing with management, the Wagner Act was passed, defining the right to organize, strike, and close a shop, all the prerogatives that now seem prehistoric. Then in World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt paid through the pince-nez for Labor cooperation. And it was natural to suppose that a cold war would do more of the same—better at least than another Coolidge era.

There was a further urgency in the postwar era. Labor greeted the springtime of peace, and the lifting of a no-strike concordat, with a record number of strikes (4985, unless I’ve missed one), and the nation felt hobbled and testy, not enjoying its peace as much as it expected. In 1947, a Republican Congress rammed home the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto—a law which proved tame enough in execution, but which had Labor screaming murder at the time. The so-called “slave-labor law” brought Labor into politics on a full-time basis, and established the terms. Labor would not tolerate legislators who passed such bills and would help any—even Southern Bourbons from nonunionized areas—who opposed them. Everything else was decoration.

Taft-Hartley summed up the no fewer than 230 attempts to repeal the Wagner Act in the previous twelve years, which indicates that Labor is always under pressure even on its good days. It made possible state right-to-work (or anti-closed shop) laws—which a number of states adopted, though some later repealed them; it called for eighty-day injunctions and emergency strikes—not so bad: better than compulsory arbitration, at least; it forbade secondary boycotts—and this was more serious. But in other respects its ineffectiveness left the toothache about where it was for next time.

In 1959, with a lull between wars and America turned inward, legislation struck again. This time, the emphasis was on corruption. The McClellan investigations had released some pretty ripe smells, and even congressional Democrats were moved to legislate. The Landrum-Griffin Act beefed up TaftHartley a touch, but its main concern was with union democracy, or rather with curbing the power of the warlords within their own bailiwicks.3 Lowercase meany was in a pickle this time, because the bill actually favored his membership over him. His solution was to denounce outside interference of any kind—a view that has ossified like a gargoyle’s grimace, as we’ll see in discussing union democracy.

A rhythm is discerned in Labor’s ups and downs, a spurt of power followed by a flurry of public alarm. And this has coincided by chance with the rhythm of our wars.

The revisionists of the Left, with their mania for structures shaped like a human head, tend to feel that Labor systematically courts these misfortunes it thrives on. But Labor has an interesting pacifist streak alongside the other one. In 1940, the AFL did not conspicuously want war, and the CIO was vociferously against it. Prompted by a strong Communist element, the latter followed the twistings of Stalinism as best it could, and preached isolationism until Russia was invaded. And recently you would find doves even in war-related industries. I once witnessed a boilermaker in submarine work take a poke at an electrician on this score, and the Connecticut Labor Council almost came to massed blows before endorsing Joe Duffey, a peace candidate, for U.S. Senator in 1970.

The only sense in which Labor is institutionally prowar is the sense in which meany (and Meany) have been for so long and profitably in partnership with wartime Presidents. For the old established leadership there is a special advantage to this. A mobilized, slightly rigid wartime posture temporarily organizes this gypsy gold-mine country of ours and legitimizes the Labor hierarchy, making it almost a branch of government.

But since most of our recent wars have seemed pretty good to liberals, the nature and strength of this partnership was shrouded for a while. Vietnam blew the cover. Here was a completely hopeless war, and organized labor was defiantly supporting it—and even (laying it on with a high good humor) calling it the main order of business. Liberals who had conspired in the charade so far, voting time after time for antiwar Democrats only to find themselves deeper and deeper in mud, awoke at last, blinking like Harold Lloyd, to the jeers and catcalls of the good old Labor boys—whose further pleasantry it was to accuse the Liberals of deserting them.

How we got here—a historical time-out

Labor and idealism have gotten along over the years about the same as Christianity and idealism: let’s call it up and down. The original craftworkers who scratched and bit to become the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor in 1869 were all the idealists you could want: they favored a system of cooperatives, worker ownership of production, and share-thewealth. The AFL, which came along in 1886, was more down-to-earth: all it wanted, in Samuel Gompers’ word, was “more.” These two spirits have been seesawing ever since.

For the romantic view of Labor, you select from Column A: that is, the International Workers of the World (or Wobblies) under Big Bill Haywood, who wanted to unionize everybody in one great brotherhood, and who swept the West like a grass fire; and martyr Joe Hill, “who never died”; and—letting out the hair shirt a bit—John L. Lewis, who formed the CIO in 1935 and struck the holy places, rubber and steel and General Motors, and won the boss of U.S. Steel round by admiring his tapestries—Lewis, a Shakespeare-quoting, head-bashing lion; and Lewis’ boys, the grim-faced strikers of Flint, Michigan, who turned their hoses on the cops and strikebreakers; and so many others.

All this is very well, and meany honors it, like a cardinal washing the feet of the poor at Easter, in imitation of Christ. But the outfit that Meany heads up is a little bit different. The AFL never wanted to unionize everybody. It limited itself to the crafts, with the exclusiveness which that implies, and in fact some of the union affiliates were specifically formed to keep out immigrants and, in the posthellum South, Negroes. It was also antisocialist, getting some of this from Catholics in the building trades, like George Meany.

The pattern is already familiar. When the Wobblies came roaring out of California like so many yippies or beatniks, the AFL took the same dowager’s view of it that we saw repeated in Miami last year. The Wobblies were romantic socialists, who didn’t even believe in contracts and often took a royal rooking in consequence. The conflict shouldn’t be exaggerated, but the AFL did break a couple of Wobbly strikes, on the grounds that they would lead to a two-union system that management could exploit. And eventually, in another familiar pattern, the IWW burned itself out, splitting into factions left, lefter, and leftest, and fading away completely in the superpatriotism of World War I.

The same two-unions argument was raised against the CIO in the thirties. But by now the AFL, with its sagging leadership, and its old antiindustrial bias, had shown it couldn’t cope with the big companies above the craft level. The Depression had unleashed a generation of despair that demanded a force equal to it, and the force was John L. Lewis.

Labor and idealism have gotten along over the years about the same as Christianity and idealism: let’s call it up and down.

At first, the CIO embodied some of the romantic radicalism that liberals crave, not to mention a number of outright Communists. But the Communists, as usual, promptly proceeded to give radicalism a bad name. After opposing World War Ii extravagantly, pursuant to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, they went roaring off in the other direction, as Stalin suddenly began demanding more and more American war matériel; they even favored incentive pay for productivity, one of management’s trustiest weapons against Labor. The romantic tradition had hooked into the Kremlin and short-circuited, and there was no leftist “model” left, unless you can believe a Stalinist Wobbly.

By the late forties, a coherent radicalism was as hard to find in Labor as anywhere else in America. The closest thing to it, Walter Reuther, rose to power in the Auto Workers partly by scourging Communists—a necessary exercise at first, but later a tactical convenience, as Red-baiting became the national blood sport.

Reuther was the liberals’ darling, and he certainly did wonders in humanizing UAW contracts, and by extension other contracts, but on the larger political scale he could do little more than go to international conferences and issue statements. As head of the CIO, he was “just a pile of press clippings” to Meany. Mrs. Roosevelt admired him, and so did the Europeans, but his colleagues weren’t impressed. The end of ideology had arrived and it suited George Meany, who had never even been there, much better than the saintly Walter Reuther.

By the early fifties, the CIO had purged most of its Communists, leaving scorched earth and Reuther on the left. The United Electrical Workers were expelled to outer darkness and later ten others, including Harry Bridges’ West Coast longshoremen. So by the time the CIO and AFL hooked up in 1955, there were no insurmountable ideological impediments, except Walter Reuther’s mouth. The hierarchy was similar in substance and style to the present one, and in fact Labor is still in that era—the tail end perhaps; or perhaps not.

The breakup of Meany and Reuther was the usual strange mixture of personality and power politics. Reuther’s holy arrogance was no match for Meany’s earthy ironies. So when Walter began skipping Executive Council meetings, it could have been fear of personal humiliation, as Meany raked him over and the old boys chuckled. It could also have been a certainty that he couldn’t get the votes. For instance, he wanted American Labor to stay in the ILO (International Labor Organization), which Meany considered Communist, even though it included AFL members (you can’t be too careful). At the meeting devoted to this subject, he didn’t show, and Meany, shooting sarcasms from the hip, won unanimous approval. Eventually, in 1968, Reuther pulled his Auto Workers out of the AFL-CIO (Meany had suspended him anyway), and the strongest potential dove was gone from the scene, leaving the Council looking a lot more like the old AFL than the young CIO: that is, not wanting to unionize everybody, emphasizing autonomy over solidarity, and, incidentally, ready to pursue a Gompers-like foreign policy in Vietnam or anywhere else.

Movement? What movement?

The AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Miami last February was back to business as usual, lots of Phase 3 and Burke-Hartke trade bill, and Vietnam all but forgotten. How important is Labor’s overseas interest anyway? Walter Reuther’s brother Victor lashed meany for his CIA connections in the sixties, but everyone who was anyone had CIA connections in the sixties. What about now? Everyone I asked maintained that too much fuss had been made about it, that a writer like Ronald Radosh who stirs these ashes “is blowing it out of ail proportion” (a favorite phrase). Yet a quarter of the AFL-CIO budget goes into foreign matters, so let’s hope the membership is getting something out of it.

Such discussions usually end with the man saying, “It’s not CIA money. It’s over the table”— which, Radosh retorts, doesn’t tell you much. Only a very old-fashioned organization would still get its money from the CIA. The money now comes openly from AID, the Agency for International Development (who’s looking anyway?), and can be assumed to be spent in our national interest, as cleared by Washington. But if the AFL is still active in counterinsurgency, as it was in, for instance, Guatemala, precious few people in Labor seem either to know or to care.

Most of Labor’s foreign policy seems relatively open and benign these days; education programs in Africa, encouragement of strikes in Japan (the Japanese prefer to strike at night, when everyone has gone home, says Hall; a politeness that drastically limits their effectiveness and drives down the price of catchers’ mitts), and perhaps some quiet, ugly Americans nosing about in South America— presumably nothing on the ITT scale. Europe gets only token attention, partly because European unions are too leftishly doctrinaire for the likes of Meany, and partly because the job is already done: after a flurry of involvement in the forties and fifties, Europe wound up as unionized as you could want. The aim now is to unionize such of the Third World as affects us, so that G.M. and Singer don’t spring a lot of coolie-made Buicks and sewing machines on us. If the result is a class of millionaire auto workers on the fringe of a jungle—well, why not? Other nations’ economic stability seems to worry meany almost as little as it worries—what’s the word? geneen?

You could say that Meany is the movement—if there was a movement.

To domestic Labor, all this is pretty much in the nature of a hobby, anyway: Jay Lovestone’s toy train. The International Sheet Metal Workers held a conference in San Francisco last fall to discuss the possibility of international strikes—a logical move against international mergers—but you can’t rouse any interest in it among Labor interviewees. Whatever its policy and its rhetoric, Labor’s mood is isolationist. Meany did not have a representative at San Francisco or at the various Geneva conferences on international unionism, though this would seem like legitimate union business, as opposed to subsidized cloak-and-dagger stuff. Only Leonard Woodcock of the UAW (who happens to double as president of the Metal Workers) has done much of anything about the multinationals, and most of that is talk—arranging conferences and study groups in the best Walter Reuther tradition. A few other U.S. unions have taken a friendly interest. Steel has shown the Japanese how to cool off (literally) a closed plant, and the International Association of Machinists and two electrical workers’ unions have shared know-how and goodwill. But this is a far cry from sympathy strikes and agreedupon living standards. In action, the Europeans are way ahead of us: for example, German Ford workers refused to work overtime during a British Ford strike; but then their situation with the multinationals is more desperate. The multis will have to plunder us silly before U.S. Labor wakes from its domestic slumbers.

The local boys have enough trouble bringing a semblance of unity to their own movement. Bert Powers complains that printers in Philadelphia will do the same job for a dollar less an hour than his men get in New York. Fat chance, then, of coordinating with Japan.

The only sense in which most of the movement is a movement at all, except in the sense that even people who deny it use the term, like atheists swearing, is that unions don’t interfere with each other. This principle at least has a religious force. You do not talk evil of another man’s strike, however destructive or goofy. Even though a corrupt union may be hurting a whole trade (let’s say by making housing too expensive and driving jobs out of a particular city), the brother unions will stand grimly by. When Frank Schonfeld exposed corruption among his own New York painters, it was no use his waving for help from the movement; it goes out of existence on such occasions. Conversely, a Cesar Chavez, however unpopular, will get no trouble from the movement either. He may be a romantic revolutionary with a bedraggled membership and hippie appeal, but when the Teamsters tried to muscle in on his union, they got a reprimand from Meany. “Vicious strikebreakers,” he called them, and his Council later voted $1.6 million “or whatever it takes” to keep Chavez in business: an open declaration of war with the Teamsters, as some saw it.

You could say that Meany is the movement—if there was a movement. His support of the Hospital Union helped them to bust open Charleston and Baltimore and to weather a make-or-break strike in New York—and yet remember, it was Leon Davis of that union who said Meany couldn’t get two votes for dogcatcher. Why? Because for all his earlier help, they feel that Meany sold them out with his support for Nixon’s Phase 3, which removed mandatory wage and price controls except in three fields, one of which was health care. “It was politically popular to control medical costs,” says Davis. “In fact, hospital workers earn a national average of $106 a week. And only ten percent are unionized anyway.” So the effect on inflation would be minimal. Was this vindictive on Meany’s part? Davis didn’t think so (“although we did disagree about the war”). Meany had to trade someone to Nixon, and hospital workers are too weak to put up a struggle. One is reminded slightly of Sidney Greenstreet selling Elisha Cook, Jr., to Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (“I love Wilbur like my own son”). Anyway, it’s that kind of movement.

Which is not to say that unions do not help their embattled brothers with funds from time to time. But it would surely be saner to consider these as favors to be remembered and cashed when needed. Some gifts are indeed hard to explain cynically—for instance, the unromantic Harry Van Arsdale, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, sent money cross-country to Chavez—and it would probably be too smart-ass revisionist to dismiss sentiment altogether. There is a magnanimity built into the life itself—there being no such thing as a self-made labor leader—and we need not think of their favors as chilly transactions between electric typewriters. Still, favors real and possible are the oil of the movement, and it is so much old labor blarney to suppose they are not mostly self-interest.

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Compared with Big Business, Labor is like a Victorian cottage industry.

And solidarity usually stops at the checkbook. The Taft-Hartley ruling against secondary boycotts put a stop to sympathy strikes, and thus weakened the movement in its very soul. A Paul Hall will send his boys anywhere to picket, just to keep in practice, and observers may wonder what those “little stocky guys from Minnesota and Wisconsin, with crew cuts and little caps” (a lawyer’s description) are doing walking out with the bra manufacturers (a maritime affiliate, believe it or not). But a picket line as such has lost its symbolic power; you can hire a couple of janitors and no one will notice. What the unions cannot do is close a diversified shop. They can close a newspaper, but not the chain of theaters, paper mills, and Venezuelan bowling alleys that the paper owns, and which supports the company during the strike. However many crazy-quilt unions the mariners or Teamsters can stitch together, they cannot, legally, keep up with a merged industry by tracking it down to its various haunts. Compared with Big Business, Labor is like a Victorian cottage industry. A company that can afford an indefinite strike, or even close down the offending branch, upsets the balance of nature. And Labor will need all its money, friendly politicians, and overseas operatives to restore it. When they say, “We’re no worse than the others,” you should see the others.

What will not come back to help them (to the extent it was ever there) is the old brothers-in-arms solidarity of the days when the unions were still fighting for their lives. Unions tended to be ethnically solid then; so you were surrounded by your own people. Nowadays, there is a greater ethnic mix and probably just enough racism to make such brotherhood unlikely; and there is much less chance of a healing physical confrontation with management. Still, a whiff of battle remains, like the smell of Absorbine Jr. in a deserted locker room, if only in talk. Hall reminisces about heads he has busted and still expects to bust. “It still comes down to that,” he says.

Maybe for Seafarers it does—though the membership is shrinking and getting a bit old for such larks.4 But then, on another day, at the office of a very different sort of union, discussing the fine points of Phase 2, a cultivated black woman burst in and announced primly, “I guess we’ll have to beat some ass up there.” It seemed that McGovern headquarters in Harlem had just been burned down. The host, raising his voice only slightly, said, “I’ll have the cocksucker’s balls for this,” and more, in that wistful vein. Plans were hatched to send up a posse of their toughest members, “and beat us some ass,” as the lady repeated. Next day I checked the paper to see if ass was truly beat, but neither the fire nor the vengeance was reported. “He was really worried about the fire insurance,” said jolly Gus Tyler on the way out. (It wasn’t Tyler’s union, by the way.)

So violence is still there, like an old sacramental, though it has less and less relevance to Labor’s current business. Conservatives used to cluck about the core of violence in Labor, but every government has a core of violence to it. The core is covered now in financial and political power and respectability. But the boys like to remind themselves, and you, that the core is there.

A loyal opposition? You’re kidding.

George Meany did not speak for the whole of Labor, or anything like it, in his views on the Vietnam War and McGovern. His subtle Lovestone-ite views about Labor interests overseas actually made pretty good sense, and were quite close to those of the Best and the Brightest, but they were so artfully concealed that a good segment of Labor just thought he was nuts, which probably suits him fine. If his views had been clearer, they might have been even less popular. The boys are readier to indulge an old man’s whim than a calculated desire to keep the cold war alive. Thirty-five national unions opposed Meany, whim or no, and raised $250,000 for McGovern’s campaign—chicken feed compared with Humphrey’s $5 million, but remember, they were reduced to legitimate fund-raising and, more seriously, could not get their hands on the AFL-CIOcontrolled COPE.

Did this represent a serious split in Labor, or was it a one-shot tantrum? “There’s no split that wasn’t there before,” said one leader. What split was that? Left and right, of course—but what kind of left and right? Sun King Meany has supported all manner of liberal legislation, from civil rights to the guaranteed income. Vic Gotbaum of the New York Municipal Employees has called for “a loyal opposition” to Meany. But Shanker says if he got one, it would come from the Right rather than the Left. The workers who defected to George Wallace may see Meany as something of a liberal dogooder. His support for a high minimum wage, for instance, has a quixotic aspect: no self-respecting union would settle for anything as puny as the legal minimum wage.

Whether you call Meany a man of the Left or the Right depends on what you call the New Deal, for Meany is planted square in the middle of that. His mania is stability and maintaining the system. If poverty threatens it, throw the poor a bone. Otherwise they’ll start forming unions. George is quite content that only 25 percent of the work force is unionized. “Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not appear to want to be organized? If they prefer to have others speak for them and make the decisions which affect their lives without effective participation on their part, that is their right.” His defenders say he couldn’t have said that; it would mean that unionism’s crusading phase is through for fair; but he said it all right.

Much good time is wasted analyzing Meany’s soul—to his, no doubt, great amusement. Does he really care about the poor and the blacks? The question can be left between him and his hat. Subtracting George from the situation, one can see that an electrician cannot ask $11 an hour when you can hire a scab for a buck fifty. The bottom must be raised before the top can go higher. Meany’s 25 percent are the aristocrats of the work force (although some of them don’t feel it) and they have to look after the peasants. Meany’s liberalism needs no profounder explanation than that—though it may have one. It serves his purposes to appear complicated.

So if Meany gets opposition from the Right, look for something truly troglodytic and regressive. The Left? Only Victor Gotbaum, of those leaders interviewed, thought sustained opposition was possible. Leon Davis, a natural for it, says it’s against nature. “Alone we’re nothing, together we’re everything—it’s the whole philosophy of Labor.” In other words, there may not be a movement, but nobody wants to leave it. Even Gotbaum, a most articulate man, is hard put to state where the opposition would come from and how it would function. The Auto Workers, everybody’s nice-guy union, are currently outside the AFL-CIO and would make a dandy spearhead; but the people I talked to there could only repeat what a great guy Meany was. As long as George is around, with his mystic powers, he acts as an anti-coagulant to opposition. When he goes, who knows? “Maybe it’ll break down to various duchies,” says Davis. The new Meany will have to start all over, building his own sand castle.

But this is opposition on the Executive Council, or frosty tip, of Labor. Murray Kempton says the Council reminds him of the joke about the man who makes all the big decisions, such as ending the war and devaluing the dollar, while his wife makes the little ones, such as where they live and what they eat. Well, not quite, of course. The Council controls COPE, through Meany’s calculatedly hysterical mouthpiece A1 Barkan, and COPE pays for the politicians. Yet there is a sense in which a rival or shadow Executive Council would be like a second Swiss navy, solemnly announcing alternate foreign policies and wage guidelines to a bored world. The result could only weaken both bodies.

Joe Rauh and his Rauhdies: the OUTSIDERS are coming.

Labor’s foreign policy is not the real issue, but only the outward and visible sign of two different views of unionism, stemming from its two ancestors, pragmatism and idealism. These are summed up to some extent in the question of union democracy, and in the spectacular case of the United Mine Workers’ election last winter.

To a liberal’s eye, this election was as clear a case of right and wrong as the Vietnam War, and a splendid chance for unionism to vindicate itself and put us back to sleep. The squalid murder of the Yablonski family in 1969 had alerted even the flaccid Labor Department into torpid action, and they were calling for a new, supervised election in the UMW. Even leaving aside the Yablonski evidence, which placed the killing barely a Watergate away from Tony Boyle’s throne, there were multiple fractures of the Landrum-Griffin law of 1959, with its fair-elections provisions, and Tony Boyle was now enjoying a swaggering unaccountability in consequence.

A ringing voice (there is only one) from the Labor establishment in favor of Arnold Miller and the insurgents would have bought back public goodwill at practically no cost: just the slightest concession of sovereignty in cases where murder is involved. To be sure, the UMW does not belong to the AFL-CIO, but Mr. Meany has seldom been shy about such questions of protocol: observe his recent dressing down of the Teamsters over Chavez. But now, with the whole image of Labor at stake, Meany was silent, which meant neutral for Boyle.

As long as George is around, with his mystic powers, he acts as an anti-coagulant to opposition. When he goes, who knows?

Why? Hardly out of love for Tony. You’d have to travel far with Virgil and Dante to hear a good word for Boyle from anyone. “Wears silk shirts . . . absenteeism . . . never went near a mine” is more like it. And finally, “To think he succeeded John L. Lewis!” Judging from Meany’s own temperament, which is boisterously puritanical in the Irish style, Boyle would not have been much missed there either. Yet, as in the case of Nixon, Meany’s neutrality for Boyle was so fierce that no one on his Executive Council raised the minimal peep. Wurf, the maverick, is reported to have said, “I can’t oppose Meany on everything” (the McGovern campaign had used up his allotment); I. W. Abel, the Steelworkers’ boss, and once a reformer’s darling, even apologized personally to Boyle because one of his own assistants had split to work for the insurgents. Liberal friends of Labor I spoke to found the attitude of the Council almost unbelievable. Even the journalist, teacher, and former official of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, ultra neo-realist Arnold Beichman, expressed shock—which shows how little the Council is understood, even by its admirers.

Were they trying to alienate liberal opinion? Let’s say the question is not uppermost in their minds, one way or the other. What they are concerned about is liberal meddling. Chief “meddler” was Joe Rauh, moving force in the Americans for Democratic Action and lawyer for the victorious UMW insurgents, who looks uncannily like Arthur Goldberg. The Mine Workers’ journal captured this concern in graffiti form for Boyle’s campaign commercials. Here’s a typical whiff: “Clarice Feldman, Joe Rauh’s chubby dragon lady, who lives on rich-man foundation money . . . so she can devote herself to attacking the UMWA, thinks [the Miller ticket] is going to win the UMWA election because ‘the kids are doing such a good job.’ What kids is she talking about? Why, the college kids and hippy types who have gathered round Joe Rauh, the No. 1 OUTSIDER [their caps], to seize control of your Union so that Rauh can tell the coal miners what’s good for them.” And so on, not all of it so mild and urbane as this.

The word OUTSIDERS went screaming through their flack bi-week after bi-week in the largest type on the eye-chart. After a passing mild defense of Boyle (“He’s only been indicted once”), they would swing into their real pitch, which was: those OUTSIDERS led by Joe Rauh and his Rauh-dies, kids and pink fat cats, bringing legal aid and funding to the challengers.

They might put it less coarsely on the Executive Council, but the sentiment would be about the same. (Rauh: “If I understand that meeting, I really got it.”) Joe Rauh carries the tattered idealist flag, which still requires an automatic salute, but he was carrying it from outside, which is out of the question; he was interfering in Union Business, of whatever quality, and the sacred principle of noninterference was being threatened. Suddenly the movement was there, in all its majestic inertia. Powerless to do anything much about union malfeasance or corruption, it still rises like a ghostly policeman to prevent anyone else from doing anything either.

Rauh is a hardy soul sufficiently inured to kicks in the head, and he affably admits he had some outside money—pray, where was he going to get any inside money? Boyle had all of that tied up in a silk sock. But Rauh was bringing in something much worse than money: he was bringing in the law. And this Labor is bound to resist, atavistically, with its survival instincts up and roaring.

Worse still, he was bringing in a new law that hadn’t really been tested yet and was still malleable. Labor had managed effectively to dilute Taft-Hartley by opposing its execution in every possible instance. This was their first major crack at the machinery of Landrum-Griffin, their chance to show it its place; and though this might not be the battlefield of their choosing, it was the one they had. If Landrum-Griffin won here, it would be back tomorrow, and the next day, and meany’s crown would hang from a holly bush.

The Labor Department did its level bureaucratic best to make meany look justified. It moved in with both feet to supervise the miners’ election and was soon parked officiously in the UMW headquarters supervising the hell out of it. “Do you want that to happen to your union?” (a cloud for the Jerry Wurfs to escape under). But Rauh claims: “I told a lot of them when this thing started that if they didn’t clean up the Mine Workers I was going to make a lot of laws that they wouldn’t like . . . at any stage that the labor movement had indicated that they would support us we could have cleaned up on Tony Boyle without making all this law.” Labor movement? Anybody see a labor movement?

Rauh claims that Meany had a good two and a half years to help straighten out the Mine Workers and that his rigid noninterference led to the law— that is, the application of Landrum-Griffin—he now detests. Fair or not, this raises the basic question: who will regulate the unions if they won’t regulate themselves? Is any institution so innately good that it can survive without inside or outside monitors? Catholics will recognize the question: for years the Church would neither accept criticism nor generate its own. And great was the dry rot therein when the windows were finally opened.

“Even a democratic mechanism may not militate in favor of bringing women and blacks up. . . .”

The Mine Workers episode took Labor a step in the direction of government regulation, but it’s a funny kind of step when the government turns out to be Peter Brennan; a union insurgent appealing for a fair election this year might feel like an escaped convict finding the warden grinning at the end of the tunnel. All you can say is that the Landrum-Griffin machinery has been observed to work and precedents have been established. The old guard will now have to concentrate that much harder on keeping the machinery out of the wrong hands. In this sense, Brennan is probably no accident. Long before the election, rumor had it that part of Meany’s terms for supporting Nixon was a say in the choice of the next Secretary of Labor. No doubt the hope is that this will harden instantly into a precedent and that the job will become Meany’s baby in perpetuity. But do not judge these things too quickly. Early rumor also has it that Brennan was not Meany’s first choice (he didn’t want a union man, only a fellow traveler); and late rumor has it that Brennan will be out before his first year is up.

“There’s such a thing as too much democracy.”

Friends of union democracy don’t much relish calling in the law either. Herman Benson, the peppery editor of Union Democracy Review, believes ardently in a self-reliant movement as it was dreamed of in the thirties, cleaning its own house as it goes. Meeting Benson in his rumpled suit, hat, shoes, it’s impossible to feel he is less a pure union man than Meany. But some houses just won’t clean themselves, says Benson. A reformer in a building trades union, for instance, might simply find himself laid off work, by joint agreement of labor and management. For such cases, Benson would favor a union democracy apparatus, similar to the Civil Liberties Union, which could provide moral support and, if absolutely necessary, legal aid to the complainant.

Benson is the most optimistic man this side of author and former Socialist Party chairman Michael Harrington, and his faith in unions makes you want to believe too. But there are so far pitifully few successes to point to. Frank Schonfeld of the painters’ union, who fought for the autonomy of his own local, was cut off at the knees by a trial board from the International Brotherhood of Painters, which forbade him to run for office for five years. He’s appealing the case in court and so far it’s cost him $12,000. The only cause for encouragement remains Arnold Miller of the Mine Workers, who did win, though at a cost of millions and three Yablonski lives. But Miller talked immediately of applying for membership in the AFL-CIO. And if he gets it, nobody had better insurge against him. (Meany might kick him out himself, but there’ll be no cops in the lobby.) Just to show who was who, Meany refused to be photographed with Miller even after he’d won, though he consented to a private lunch. “He wants something,” Miller was heard to say.

Benson’s dream calls for a succession of insurgent heroes, as well as a sympathetic Labor Department, two long-shots in the same race. Joe Rauh hopes to get permanent foundation support for legal appeals, and maybe lead a sort of Rauh’s Raiders on union malpractice that Meany will just have to get used to. But his crusade can only skirmish the borders at the moment. The new reading of Landrum-Griffin merely allows that a complainant may be physically present when the Labor Department takes his case to court; it does not guarantee that his case will get there, that it will be acted on, or that he will live happily ever after. The obstacles are endless. If his challenge concerns an election, he must wait until the election is over, even if fraud is going on under his nose; which means that before the case is aired, the defendant will most likely be in full control of the union, and of the union newspaper—and of Meany’s implicit patronage. His sins will be washed clean, even as Tony Boyle’s. He will be part of the labor movement, and the plaintiff will be a union buster.

The complainant must also gird himself for the law’s delays. One Angel Roman of the Amalgamated Machine, Instrument and Metal Local 485 N.Y.C., who is applying for reinstatement as business agent (an official of a local union whose duties include adjustment of grievances and enforcement of agreements) has been waiting two years to be heard—a long time in the life of a working man. Meanwhile, a union can reach into its pocket for any number of appeals. A Joe Rauh might match them, but he’d have to do it again and again. It speaks well of the toughness of American workers that Rauh and Benson both anticipate their cooperation in these marathons.

Surprisingly, they may be right, in cases where it’s even possible. Jim Morrissey of the National Maritime Union, who had his head stove in by goons after opposing the ineffable Joe Curran some years back, has made a courageous comeback inspired by Miller and the Mine Workers. Boss Curran recently retired claiming a pension that would startle a Woolworth heir, and Morrissey is opposing his picked slate of successors. At this writing, Morrissey is trying to avoid the tiresome requirement of losing the election before he can be heard. He is appealing to the courts for the same fair-election guarantees that the Mine Workers got. And if he gets them, it will mean another big step forward for Landrum-Griffin, and the pro-democrats will be beside themselves.

It doesn’t look likely, though. (Soon you’ll know for sure.) The Labor Department still says it can’t investigate before an election. The National Maritime Union (NMU) has folded its paper, The Pilot, rather than give equal space to Morrissey. And if the latter loses, he will have to go through the grotesque motions of appealing the election to the winners, before throwing himself on the mercies of—Peter Brennan.

So that’s how it stands with outside regulation right now. And even these very small advances have depended on favorable circumstances. The NMU is a small union where a small challenge can make a big splash. A similar convulsion in, say, the Steelworkers would be something to shout about. (Rauh thinks it just might happen.) But national leaderships are generally harder for an insurgent to get at.

Moreover, the miners and mariners had a common piece of good fortune: they both made the headlines. Joe Curran’s spectacular resignation, dripping gold from every pocket as he kissed his poorish union goodbye, caught the public’s sleepy attention as the Yablonski murders had. Morrissey could lose the union newspaper, but the members could still read about him in the New York Daily News. (The Curran-ites could trundle out their trusty paranoia about outsiders as much as they liked—that pension of Curran’s, $55,000 a year for life, had to make a poor mariner’s eyes bulge, wherever he read about it.)

But does it always take a sexy scandal to bring public action? Unfortunately, most corruption is pretty dull, a matter of bookkeeping, and the public can only take so much of it for entertainment. Reform by headline is piecemeal, but so far it’s all we’ve got.

“Don’t worry,” says the gross spokesman, “government interference would be worse. Can you imagine what political use Nixon would make of it? Besides, the market keeps us in line. We can’t afford to be that corrupt; it’d put us out of business.” And in some lines of work that’s true.

But don’t bring it up to someone who wants to put up middle-income housing in New York or have his lamb chops carried by truck.

You get to the top by having a big mouth.

But if all goes well, and you get democracy all over, what have you got? According to even such a practicing democrat as Gotbaum, you may get racism: “For instance, Walter Reuther with an excellent record in terms of blacks couldn’t get a black on the Executive Council, because democratically they couldn’t be elected on the board.” On the same principle, you may get sexism. Even in a union like the ILGWU (Ladies’ Garment Workers), which is both democratic and packed with women, you find precious few women officials, though their training institute has some comers. Workers can be as reactionary as anyone else, even as their own leaders, and the fact that the United Auto Workers are theoretically the most enlightened of unions did not keep the members from voting against busing or for Wallace as the mood took them.

In fact, these arguments are only pertinent to a Civics I view of democracy as Mr. Clean, the wonder detergent. Democratic unions are probably a little better than the others on sex and race, but not enough to crow about. Gotbaum says, “Even a democratic mechanism may not militate in favor of bringing women and blacks up . . . in terms of women we’re better than the rest, but we’re bad, because the rest is so very, very bad.” Racism is finally determined by the number of blacks the job calls for; where they’re needed, they’re welcome. On a narrow scaffolding, they’re not. Sexism is determined by the rate of seepage of middle-class ideas. The first Women’s Libbers got a raucous comeuppance from the female Municipal Employees because they talked a life-style out of Mars. There are signs they know better already, in terms of particular situations, if not in grand strategy. Meanwhile, all that democracy guarantees anyone is a fuller hall (sometimes) and members who like to talk, and possibly a bright union newspaper that somebody may read.

In any case, the first point of democracy is not character-building but responsive government, and here a more realistic case against union democracy arises. The business of unions is bargaining, which can be as delicate as brain surgery. A responsive membership craning its necks and shouting advice can play hell with the operation.

For instance, Arnold Beichman, a very plausible anti-democrat, maintains that New York City may be down to its present three newspapers because the members of Bert Powers’ typographers’ union wanted more blood than the stone had to offer that year. Powers had done everything he could, alienating the whole reading public, to the saturnine pleasure of his members (to this day, he finds himself hissed in the street), but when he took back his final hard-won agreement with the publishers, the members howled for more. And it was too much.

That is certainly the worst that can happen. Powers had enemies to the left in his own union, ready to outbid his wildest dreams. Meanwhile, he had patiently to explain the economics of each new offer to his members—and they never did get it straight, even in terms of their own interests, let alone the public’s. How, a Beichman might say, can you possibly expect such people to cope with wage-price guidelines, acceptable inflation rates, and Japanese competition?

You can’t, of course, though you try with worker education programs and articles in that yellowing scrap of newspaper that sits in unread piles in the front office. Even in the Mine Workers’ election, with the volume up high and half the union paper given over by law to Arnold Miller’s insurgents, 18 percent of the members hadn’t heard of Miller on election eve (it seems, luckily, they couldn’t find the polling place either).

From the viewpoint of public interest, an unsophisticated membership could be a menace. In a normal round of strikes, there is an accustomed rhythm which everyone is used to. One union sets the pace—say the Auto Workers on the national scene, or the garbage men in New York City—for the others to measure themselves by. Then the others fall in behind, snapping and snarling, but about the usual distance from the one in front.

Now just one desperate demagogue with a kamikaze union at his back can destroy this whole chain and drive the economy crazy. The same goes for an inept bargainer on management’s side. When John DeLury of the New York City sanitation workers held up young Mayor Lindsay for ransom, the cry went up—“You pay that to a garbage man? I risk my life fightin’ fires” or whatever. And neither John Lindsay nor the city ever recovered. Were the unions grateful? No, they were embarrassed. They despised Lindsay for giving in to them and dislocating the order of nature.

So much for the case against union democracy. Actually, neither the desperate demagogue nor the wild-eyed membership is ever likely to materialize above the local level, democracy or no. In the final crunch, a democrat like Leonard Woodcock bargains like a Teamster; conversely, the sloppiest bargainer around, according to master negotiator Ted Kheel, represents an autocratic union. He just “signs and runs.” As to flashing gold coins at the members in return for votes: top leadership turnover remains just about as sluggish in democratic unions as it is in the others—or in the People’s Democracies. And for the same reasons. The boss controls the newspaper and assorted promo material, which is likely to feature pictures of himself peering knowingly into a mine face or welding machine, like a bishop at a confirmation. (In the Steelworkers, I’m told, a man could go mad staring at I. W. Abel. It’s worse than Muhammad Speaks.) The boss’s travels and latest thoughts are dutifully recorded. He is the only candidate most locals will ever see in person. A rival would need a small private fortune to counter these advantages.

And, according to anti-democrats, most members are not that interested in union politics anyway. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s just that they have other lives to lead, and their interest is sporadic and of a kibitzing nature. “Like a child in a family,” to quote the President on the average American. Nixon’s flirtation with Meany was made in heaven.

So the issue of union democracy may seem at first glance like an internal matter, rightly settled internally, as Meany insists. But there remain a couple of powerful rebuttals to this as there are to even the most benign fascisms.

One is that truly gross corruption on the Hoffaesque scale is less likely in a democratic union, and this is a matter of record. Even a somewhat empty display of accountability to the voters seems to prevent such Caligula-like activities. LandrumGriffin is easier to invoke in an open-mouth shop. A czarist outfit like the Teamsters may have some pretty cocky locals who will tell the Big Man to get lost, but in a pinch he can always take control by putting them in trusteeship, which can’t happen in democratic unions, and run them out of his own hat. (Incidentally, this is what Meany tried to do to his Colorado affiliate when it endorsed McGovern.) Also the Teamsters’ Fitzsimmons, and previously Hoffa, is entitled by union constitution to lay paws on international funds without explanation. (Conversely, when the democratic Auto Workers sent some cash to Arnold Miller, they were investigated by the FBI for misuse of funds.) All this goes into the price of trucking, and of everything that goes into a truck.

Nobody could be as corrupt as the Teamsters are believed to be—and they’re presumably not so themselves, although newspaper accounts have suggested that they may have had a finger in the Watergate, and don’t even have time to deny all the reported Mafia links—but nobody knows for sure because of their murky constitutional procedure. And this cruddy reputation hurts the whole labor movement and brings on the clamor for outside interference. If meany proceeds to dilute LandrumGriffin as he did Taft-Hartley, he will have to face the whole rumpus again when the tide turns—and maybe a rumpus with teeth in it, if that’s your kind of metaphor.

Secondly, a boss like Tony Boyle not only lines his own pockets, he also signs bad contracts for his men. Arnold Miller accused him of ignoring worksafety rules, pensions, and just about everything else. Boyle, as ever, is an extreme example: but work safety is something of a symbol. Remote, autocratic unions, such as the building trades’, are often careless about it (hence the tardy recognition of asbestos poisoning cases in construction). A lazy negotiator may sacrifice it for the sake of a gleaming pay packet, which actually costs the company less. A responsive membership might look at its contracts more closely.

A less conclusive reason would be that democracy is somehow what unions are all about, in the public mind at least—if not historically as an ideal. If you want to go on singing about Joe Hill and the Wobblies, you’d better believe that Arnold Miller is a better man than Tony Boyle, for all the bullyboy swagger of Boyle’s public relations. Meany would like to have it both ways: the defiant comradely tradition and the simplicities of one-man rule. I don’t know if meany still sings Joe Hill—maybe he does, like an old hymn in another language; but anyway he should, because old Joe has bought him credit, the way saints buy credit for the Vatican. And meany had better make pretty good friends with Mammon if he plans to give up that credit.

The blue-collar worker as sociologists’ plaything.

Studies of the blue-collar worker tend inevitably to be either too vague or too narrow. A mine worker may live in a different time capsule from a skilled auto worker, with a world view geared to the 1900s; so there’s not much point in talking about increased blue-collar restlessness and alienation, as government reports tend so gravely to do. Conversely, polling a hundred paper workers in Vermont gives you nothing but poetry, if that; it doesn’t tell you about paper workers in Oregon, let alone garment workers in New York. The wild variety of work in America is flattened out by the very word “blue-collar.” Another bottomless well has been opened up for the social sciences, without much in it for the rest of us.

The recent discovery of job discontent is especially unstartling. In a craft union, it may be significant—maybe the old boys did like painting in the corners as much as they now think they did and maybe their sons are even lazier than old men have always thought young men to be. But on the assembly line, discontent is a constant, and the only change has been in the freedom to express it. Few sane men would work on the line if they didn’t have to.5 So if absenteeism and alcoholism are on the increase, as reported, it should be recalled that these practices once got a man fired on the spot. Unions have steadily expanded their say in hiring and firing matters; and what with review boards and delays, an employer may feel that firing a drunk is more trouble than it’s worth. (If this keeps up, line workers may begin to rival writers in these particular vices.)

The issue of hiring and firing happens to be a major cause of resentment against organized labor. A restaurant owner I know pays way above union rates for the privilege of controlling his staff, and there must be many like him. Yet union spokesmen seem reluctant to discuss it at all.

“No one likes to negotiate for the incompetent worker,” says B. J. Widick, professor of industrial relations in the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. And as unionism approaches such skilled professions as teaching, the question becomes ever more delicate. Albert Shanker takes the view that college presidents, high school principals, and so on are no more interested in quality hiring than unions are; but this presupposes a heap of vindictiveness and favoritism in management. Anyway, the real problem is quality firing (one department chairman I know is worn to a shadow trying to replace a knuckle-headed language teacher). And here Shanker acknowledges difficulties, although not half as many as his critics. In general, is it possible to say that some workers have gone from too little protection to too much? Presumably if the boss can no longer discipline his employees, there’s no one to do it but the union. But it’s hard to find cases where this happens. Again, the noninterfering vacuum obtains: nobody else can and we won’t. So the goof-off worker is blamed on the culture, the long-haired life-style, instead.

Can one go even further and say that Labor is slyly contributing to the permissiveness its leaders denounce? It would be surprising if not. That is Labor’s natural object: to shorten working hours, lengthen vacations, and hasten retirement, and to bargain for all the permissiveness it can get. Cant about the work ethic notwithstanding, unionism has done as much as anything to upend those famous Old Values and loosen the Iron Grip of Authority. The pathos is that the old boys don’t like what they’ve wrought and hence groan about a decline in the national life, as if they had nothing to do with the national life themselves.

One of the things that make American collective bargaining an art rather than a routine is that the bosses are bargaining precisely for the kind of welfare that governments commonly provide in other Western countries. Labor is a welfare state, for its own members at least, and the complaints about the young are about what you’d expect in a welfare state.

If workers cannot be bullied into proper behavior, the logical thing to do would be to make the work itself more appealing. But meany’s puritanical soul resists this kind of mushy Deweyism. “If you want to enrich the job, enrich the paycheck,” says William Winpisinger of the Machinists, in that hearty, good-dose-of-castor-oil style (quoted, with much of what follows, from Byron E. Calame’s labor column in the Wall Street Journal of February 26, 1973). “The better the wage, the greater the job satisfaction.” In doubt, meany reaches back for Gompers’ simple slogan “more.” And a bluff, nononsense approach to social engineering always goes down well with the boys.

Faced with the looming threat of job enrichment, the gross spokesman will even deny that there is such a thing as worker discontent. The generally enlightened Leonard Woodcock of the UAW lashes out at the trusty old target, “elitist academics,” for talking “a lot of nonsense about job enrichment,” while Professor Irving Kristol accuses the social scientists of practically inventing the problem. (When the elitists are invoked, Labor is down to its last argument.)

Now while I yield to just about everyone in my respect for social scientists in bulk, there really is such a thing as blue-collar blues, as bad as ever and less passive in expression, and meany knows it. “There is something there and we need to know more about it,” Jacob Clayman, head of the AFLCIO Industrial Union Department, says cautiously. Unfortunately, most of the ideas for job enrichment have come from management, and are automatically suspect. Job enrichment is just “a stopwatch in sheep’s clothing,” says Winpisinger. An enriched worker is tempted to overproduce. And management, in sheep’s clothing, may ask him to do two or three jobs for the sake of “variety” and personality development, while quietly cutting down staff. Whatever one may think about unions, there really is a big bad wolf out there.

Management is certainly not to be trusted singlehanded with the problem. But again, Labor is slow with its own ideas. Older workers, of the kind the leaders are most in touch with, don’t want job enrichment anyway. It’s just a distraction in their anesthetic rounds. More profoundly, job enrichment “divides the worker and his union,” as another gross spokesman puts it. If management begins “designing” the job and rearranging assignments, the worker begins to look to management for his signals, and his own union sinks into shadow. In some cases, he may even cross crafts, and do work proper to another union altogether, in which case paying dues and going to meetings becomes utterly onerous and pointless. The worker’s perennial fear of being sold out by his leadership is matched here by the leadership’s fear of losing him.

And meany knows all this too. His natural mode of operation is to oppose the new with low growls until compromise is reached, and then to proclaim it as if he’d invented it. Woodcock has already professed a grudging willingness to take part in enrichment experiments, and as autos go, so goes America. If the workers want job enrichment, they’ll get it eventually; but the leaders naturally would like to seem to have gotten it for them. If management ever begins to look like the worker’s best friend, the unions have had it (and so, eventually, have the workers).

“No one likes to negotiate for the incompetent worker.”

Has the blue-collar worker also undergone some great upheaval in character that makes him different in kind from his old man? It was fashionable a few years ago to say that he had entered the middle class, or was just about to. Now you’ll hear that he’s taken his six-pack to Grosse Pointe and set up a working-class life-style there. (As a sixpack man myself, I sometimes think this bit of symbolism is overdone.) If “middle-class” means the high incomes that the loftiest unions pull down, then it’s true that most other union workers are nowhere near it yet (and a small union is never more on its own from the movement than when it’s bargaining); but if it means tea sets in Grosse Pointe, we’re talking fashion, and not some deep-set historical pattern. These matters of style fluctuate inconsequentially, and whatever is true today won’t be true tomorrow. The image of the hard-hat looking down from a girder has had a big run in TV commercials, and may have affected the reality. And it certainly has its attractions after an overdose of Abbie Hoffman. But the image of the hard-hat at home is less sharp and compelling. Ethnic rediscovery has not yet won out over the Sears Roebuck décor and the five-hour-a-night television set. (Open a Polish folk center and see.) The infatuation with hard-hats is actually a gesture without cultural soil. Unionized teachers and civil servants outnumber builders by a considerable degree, but that man on the girder has the faded glamour of a Western hero.

What may be much more significant is that the white-collar unions are growing in number while some of the old blue-collars are shrinking. This could affect the national profile of Labor and, more immediately, the power balance on the Executive Council. The likes of Joe Beirne of the Communications Workers and Jerry Wurf of the Municipal Employees have enough members to make a tiny stir up there, and as we’ll see in a moment, they may have already done so (you won’t believe how tiny). Since these unions tend to be more liberal and democratic than most, their influence on the Council may filter down to other unions where it’s needed. The Department of Labor may profit from a new ventriloquist. Who knows? The building trades may even cease to be called the lords of the union movement someday, though I doubt it. (The builders have the most intimate links with politicians and will always make out OK.)

Whatever happens up there, most blue-collar workers are likely not to care too much. They live further from the job than their forefathers, and have more to do in the evenings. I suspect the real secret of the blue-collar worker lurks in the tube, along with all our secrets. Television watching is the premier social fact of our time, and I don’t see why workers should be spared it. According to Nicholas Johnson of the FCC, “By 1969, over 95 percent of the nation’s households spent more than one-fourth of their waking hours in rapt attention before the images on their television screens.” And “the average child of eighteen has spent nearly 25,000 hours in front of the television set, and has seen approximately 350,000 commercials.” (How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1970.) Anyway, many union meeting halls are languishing right now like Broadway theaters. Some black leaders decided to go it alone on the McGovern campaign, and to remain bonded thereafter to deal with black union interests—but there is no evidence that more blacks are going to meetings. Twenty percent of union workers are women, but they race each other back to their TV’s as fast as anyone else. If union democracy falters, it will be partly from worker apathy.

Or is apathy the word? The above-mentioned Mr. Winpisinger, who snorts at job enrichment, concedes “the rising level of contract rejections and the growing number of defeats suffered by longestablished business representatives and officers in union elections.” The workers may be bored with meany and the good-old-boy superstructure, but they’re not necessarily bored with the actual gristle of unionism, the improvement of job conditions, and the right somehow to impose themselves on their work. If they can’t do this through their appointed leaders, and if they can’t always be bothered to go to meetings, they may do it themselves anyway, and on the job. Figures on minor job sabotage are hard to obtain, and it could be that they are a constant like suicide. But there’s an unsettling amount of it right now. Otherwise, small spontaneous strikes on the local level may be the thing to watch—especially if the national organizations are thinking of abandoning the strike altogether.

Collective bargaining: “If you snooze, you lose.”

Change is often more talked about (and feared) than practiced, and more apparent than real. Take the great American sport of collective bargaining. The early history of this sounds somewhat like the early days of pro football, with teams like the Canton Bulldogs gloomily slugging it out in the mud. Now the negotiators are urbane professionals who know each other’s tricks by heart (“You could play a record from last year,” says Bert Powers) and who “know that an agreement must be reached,” as negotiator Ted Kheel puts it. In fact, the two sides now understand each other’s interests so well that people are beginning to talk.

It all comes down to a cool mind and a hard bottom.

Still, it all comes down to a cool mind and a hard bottom. Powers, who nearly struck the New York Times this spring, is acknowledged king of the latter. He once sat twenty-seven hours at a stretch, and, when necessary, takes catnaps under a blanket of whatever newspapers are still left in New York. “They all come in like lions,” he says. “You can’t settle anything in the first couple of hours.” I asked if his eyes ever glazed over or if boredom crept in, and he seemed amused by the question. Whatever errors of judgment might be coaxed out by ennui will not come from him. (“If you snooze, you lose,” says Gomer Goins of the G.M. bargaining team.) Powers and Kheel are the most patient-looking men I’ve ever seen outside of Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Although computers might be expected someday soon to bargain directly with each other, producing exquisitely nuanced solutions, Powers and Kheel are as scornful of this as only professionals can be. Kheel in particular stresses intuition, a sense of the possible, which may turn up like a gift for music in any kid from the shop, and be equally missing from a well-known leader. The best bargainer Kheel ever met was John Gordy of the Detroit Lions, who dabbled in it for a year or two and then quit. “No scruples at all,” said Kheel admiringly. The worst bargainer? He grinned. Obviously, he wouldn’t want to put such a one out of business.

The trouble with negotiators, as with lawyers and other games players, is that their sport can become the whole world to them. Kheel, for instance, relishes strikes. They are the mustard of his profession, bracing for all concerned, especially the union. A strike may be the only time the rank and file gets to learn union business. And the leader becomes most fully himself. Besides, bargaining without strikes is like a gun without bullets. Both he and Powers throw up their hands in horror at the thought of outside arbitration. How could an outsider have that sense of music, for hitting the curve, that the kid in the shop has? “I don’t worry about the money,” says Powers. “You know at once how much they’ve got. It’s the other things.” The artist plays pension plans against overtime and work safety and comes out with a contract that is often a genuine original.

With these pros, to call in outside arbitration would be like taking away their ball. Maybe fortunately for the public, it isn’t Meany’s ball. Remember—“He never led a strike. His rise was purely political.” He says now that strikes are almost obsolete and has declared himself in favor of thirdparty arbitration of a nonbinding sort: another kind of gun without bullets, perhaps.

If Labor wants to lose its abrasive image, Meany is obviously right. As A. J. Liebling pointed out years ago, unions always “demand,” while employers “offer”—so that bad publicity is built into even neutral descriptions of strikes. And labor leaders are quick to tell you that newspaper publishers are seldom neutral: by temperament Republican, selfmade, dogmatic at table, they are the least unionminded of employers. “You never even get to meet them,” says Powers. “They all use agents.” Powers adds, interestingly, that TV news may be fairer than newspapers about strikes of all sorts.

Besides the specific irritations of strikes, which seem to drill at each nerve in the body in turn— bad phone service today, long hikes in the snow tomorrow—there is the general sense of threat, as one stage villain replaces another on the evening news, growling his demands.

One anti-Labor result of frequent strikes is that the nonunionized poor are reminded of how little they themselves make. A union is required, by the nature of the game, to ask for much more than it gets, and that’s the figure that sticks in the head and the craw. “Did you see the cement workers are asking for such-and-such? Why, Ph.D.’s don’t get that much.” Neither do cement workers, but the damage is done.

Another result is that the labor-costs component in inflation is always being flashed before the public eye, while the head of G.M. takes his money home quietly. A recent survey of union members shows that 61 percent of them believe that excessive union demands are the major cause of inflation. After all, they’re consumers themselves half the time, and they are tired of wiping out each other’s raises methodically. The have-not unions keep an especially beady eye on the have unions, of which Mr. Meany’s pet building trades unions are outstanding—although they may find their hands full competing with the new assembly-line low-cost housing outfits. Workers who have scraped up enough for a house in the suburbs are not happy to learn why they can’t afford it after all, or why they can’t get a plumber either. Ownership makes capitalists of us all, and as workers move up the pay scale, they find themselves dealing with more and more unions from a quasi-managerial position, which snarls up the class war as it is always being snarled up in this country.

Arbitration would presumably hush some of this up. It would take some glory from the swashbuckling leaders, but much pressure too: they wouldn’t have to bargain for their pants anymore, but could say to their membership in effect, “They made me sign,” and then curse the arbitration law, instead of management.

According to the anti-arbitrationists, such shadowboxing would be even more artificial than Mike Quill’s orchestrated tantrums. The leaders under this arrangement would scarcely be accountable to their members at all. They could come out of the back room with whatever deal they liked, blaming it all on the other parties (who would do the same). The workers’ latent fear of being sold out to the boss would presumably intensify, and they would either lose interest or start organizing again on lower levels against the whole superstructure.

No wonder Meany hedged the arbitration suggestion with nullifying restrictions. Still, the proposal is there, and has been taken up by other leaders, such as I. W. Abel, in Steel, a symbol of the new syndicalism—an alliance between the bigs of Labor, business, and government against the smaller versions of each. If the AFL-CIO doesn’t know that that’s what Nixon has been up to, they haven’t been paying attention.

If Labor gives up the strike, bargaining will become one more empty ritual, like tossing the coin at football games. And one must assume that it would fix the status of have and have-not unions about as is, screwing them even more definitively than Phase 2 did. It would deal a death blow to union democracy. Who would bother to go to meetings anymore? And it would cement the partnership between Labor and management: meanyism triumphant. As in Animal Farm, the pigs at the bargaining table would look just like the people.

Some believe they already do. In his book The Company and the Union (Knopf, 1973), about the 1970 G.M. strike, William Serrin quotes a black auto worker as saying, “The union and the company, they’re more or less partners.” That is, they’re in business to perpetuate each other. It is hard to buy this in relation to a sixty-seven-day strike that must have hurt somebody. In fact, the UAW had to take out a mortgage with the Teamsters afterwards. But if collusion can be suspected in a crippling strike, imagine what would be suspected of arbitration.

It seems perverse to miss the old-fashioned strike—as soon miss leprosy—but it is the one earnest of intent that everyone accepts (except the cynics who say that business uses strikes to raise prices twice as much as necessary) and it may just possibly be on the way out. Recently, I. W. Abel agreed with ten major steel companies on an experimental “no strike” guarantee plan, allegedly to head off the stockpiling that can occur when a strike is feared. Steel is an important indicator, being a union that can close down a whole industry and adjoining industries. If wages there are decided by prearranged slide rule, it might be contagious. The strike-happy railroad unions have also agreed to binding arbitration, and if those old feather-bedders can do it, anybody can.

For the plaintiff, it can be pointed out that these are both special cases. Steel loses millions by stockpiling and hedge-buying every time a strike is feared, and those millions come out of the workers’ hides one way or another—if only when foreign companies take advantage of our padded prices. “You can’t stockpile a hemline” is the word from the garment workers, and you can’t stockpile teaching or hospital care either. The gnat-bite municipal strikes will be with us the longest.

Heady prophecies were made, in the wake of Steel’s decision, that there would be no more nationwide emergency strikes ever again, but this could be as premature as that “generation of peace” we were going to get. Rubber and Autos have turned down arbitration cold, possibly waiting to see how Steel makes out, more likely because they’re not interested, and one awaits their new contracts this year with interest, not to say panic. Finally, Steel has a singularly autocratic boss in Abel, and it is not clear that a more turbulent membership would sit still for arbitration just yet.

The railroad workers accepted arbitration simply because they feared legislation—that old nemesis— which would ban nationwide transit strikes altogether. This still seems the most likely way for arbitration to arrive, if it does: from above. Meanwhile, the public can content itself with the words of Willard Wirtz, former Secretary of Labor: “Sometimes a bad settlement hurts the public worse than a strike.” An agreement to soak the consumer hurts worse than a strike, though you can’t see it. And workers, who double as members of the public, have several reasons to view the death of the strike with caution, even though it would make them a heck of a lot more popular in the short run.

Whither, and related questions

The new bipartisanship that meany has worked out is a hoary political device, half buried in claptrap. His dynamic progressive centerism still depends squarely on the same liberal sentimentality he sneers at. Americans like a roughhewn labor leader with all his sins better than a smooth manager, even when both are up to the same tricks. So as long as he stays roughhewn (and meany is great at this, as seen above), his left is safe enough. We may frown over Big Labor, but we don’t sick Ralph Nader on it or run candidates against it. McGovern murmured something about running against an abstract called Big Labor but nobody picked it up, and before you knew it, George was promising to remove all wage and price controls in ninety days—more than even Meany asked. (Parson George was a great one for going the extra mile.)

And if all else fails with the middle-class Left, the nonquestion of party affiliation can always be summoned once again. “The Executive Council may be moving left,” a friendly intellectual and labor expert told me recently. Why? Because Joe Beirne of the Communications Workers, a rabid hawk, had recently changed feathers and challenged Meany over his Vietnam War position. The thing to note about this is that the war is virtually over, so the challenge was purely academic. Beirne was also accusing Meany of deserting the Democratic Party in the last election—but the election is over too. I asked my friend if any issue of present substance was involved and he said he couldn’t think of any offhand.

Being liberal over dead questions is a perfect way to keep the Left happy. And the late war still serves beautifully for empty displays of independence. To see how much it really means to Meany, observe that Vic Gotbaum felt quite free to oppose the boss of bosses on it—he went for McGovern— but has not felt free to support Jim Morrissey’s union-democracy challenge, which is a real issue.

Since Beirne’s overnight conversion to peace has to be suspect, one must assume he was reaching for the support Meany had lost, without actually giving it anything. This may be interesting in terms of Meany’s power on the Council—Beirne can perhaps hope for enough support from Jerry Wurf and Paul Jennings of the Electricians to challenge the king—but not so far, in terms of real political trends. Meany may be threatened, but meany lives on. (In fairness to my informant, a wise man, it would probably make a difference if Meany’s successor turns out to be one of the comparative liberals on the Council. But it’s rather like assuming that a Humphrey will be better than an LBJ. Until liberal labor leaders debate something more vibrant than the last war, we can’t guess what they would do to alter the course of Labor. And as long as intellectuals equate Democratic Party affiliation with the Left, they won’t really have to do anything.)

With the Left rumbling softly but safe for now, Meany has been free to browse to his right and has done so. Big companies deal more comfortably with big unions anyway. It’s tidier and possibly even cheaper. Fewer strikes mean fewer unions playing leapfrog for wage increases. For a politician, it means one box of cigars to give instead of twenty, one deal, one friend. The Right has no reason to dislike big unions. With their bureaucratic accountants and economic advisers, the big labor unions are more sophisticated and aware of the national interest than are the little wildcat outfits.

Yet, unless they are consummate playactors, I have to believe that Labor people found the alliance with Nixon distasteful even before Watergate exploded; a sign of weakness, not strength. Meany would prefer a Democratic Party to his taste, and he continues to make the old partisan noises. Peter Brennan had not been Labor Secretary for long before Meany attacked him for selling out to the Nixon Administration on minimum wage legislation. And, sincere or no, it is the kind of thing Meany has to do if he values his left base at all.

Perhaps as liberals grow older and are replaced (or not replaced), that base could slide away anyhow, leaving meany alone with his new friends, and making Labor officially rightist for the first time, though hardly in control of the GOP. Young lefties may, in turn, celebrate the old Wobbly virtues of Cesar Chavez and the crusading union democrats, and a new movement might conceivably be born under the old one. But with the new politics in its current shell shock, with Chavez on the ropes and the union democrats scrambling for crumbs, it seems pretty remote right now. With meany relatively secure for this year at least, we can take one last look at him in his splendid immobility. For all its faults, the AFL-CIO remains a relatively liberal influence in a business society: it does, for whatever reason, support social legislation, and it has sufficient economic sophistication not to rip off the public unnecessarily. Its major defect is that if it decides to live in a world of its own, no one can stop it.

In the matter of corruption, the AFL-CIO may be no worse than the candlestick makers; but unfortunately their only method of dealing with it seems to be expulsion, and their No. 1 Horrible Example, the Teamsters, has flourished exceedingly well on its own. Freed from AFL-CIO jurisdictional taboos, the Teamsters now prowl the workworld like a tomcat, unionizing everything that isn’t nailed down and, ironically, advancing the Wobbly ideal of One Big Union much more than the staid old AFL is doing.

Compared with Labor’s old boys, the Roman Catholic Curia is downright flighty.

The Teamsters are the professional bad boys of American Labor and their treatment of Chavez in the California grape and produce fields (signing a contract without figures on it to beat him out) was breathtaking. Yet they also have some of the best and liveliest of locals, especially on the West Coast and St. Louis, along with the crookedest, in (surprise) New Jersey. Their power is one of the unknowns in the equation; Nixon thinks enough of it to court them every bit as industriously as he courts Meany. And he may know something. Theoretically, they of all unions can paralyze the nation, just by tying up road cargo. Yet they have refrained so far from national strikes, maybe being too rich to need them.

The Auto Workers, or professional good guys, are another unknown. If they come back to the AFL-CIO, they will presumably help democratize it, as they helped Arnold Miller with the Mine Workers, besides rolling Labor’s political clout back into one fist. But outside of the occasional trip to Miami, it’s hard to see what’s in it for Leonard Woodcock. His dues would be close to one million a year—a heavy price to pay for agreeing with meany and sharing his lobbyists—and educated opinion has it that he probably won’t go back if Meany is replaced by another building tradesman. (A merger with the Machinists is a possible alternative, which would give us yet another unknown, and an interesting one.)

All my life I’ve been hearing that Labor is at the crossroads, that it’s finally gotten too big for us and must be definitively crushed. The easy thing now, as our President might say, is to announce a Turning Point and say that the crossroads are here. But neither the President nor I ever choose the easy thing. Labor hears those voices too, and knows that when they grow too loud, punitive legislation is on its way. (Labor tries fitfully not to pass this irritation line.) The next wave of resentment may always be the last.

This year, for instance, there was ominous talk about major contracts coming up that would balloon prices and beggar us all. Yet the unions involved have, to this writing, been the soul of reasonableness, even considering dreaded arbitration, as we’ve seen. Also, in regard to wage-price controls, meany has been as cooperative as his role permits while fulminating for the record about fat cats and capital gains. The real menace, if one has to have one, is not big unionism itself, but the impressment of its leaders into an Establishment troika with business and government, planning the economy from above. In this arrangement, Labor would not be the strong partner. Its so-called power is largely defensive anyway. In fact, it has yet to prove it can flourish full force in a time of peace and plenty, or, more specifically, that it can cope with the multinational companies, or with the superdeals of the superpowers, business and government respectively doing their stuff. Labor may feel itself lucky to be let into the troika at all if this keeps up.

The logical alternative would seem to be a growth in international unionism—“Workers of the world unite” is hardly meany’s favorite slogan, but if capital can mate anywhere at will, maybe the work force can get together at least a little. And on the home front, some more conspicuous brotherhood wouldn’t hurt. The widespread impression that Labor consists of aging white men guarding their gains may be an exaggeration verging on a libel: but it is widespread. And when blue-collar ethnics seem to be consistently at odds with the unskilled minorities, the worker as a political force is weakened. And no short-term bribe from any politician is worth that. Again, meany presumably knows all this. The AFL-CIO has excellent position papers on mergers and multinationals and is theoretically enlightened about race and everything else there is to be enlightened about. Meanwhile, meany moves slowly.

Whatever prediction one makes must start with the understanding that if the old boys had their way, nothing would change at all. Compared with them, the Roman Catholic Curia is downright flighty. Changes are still more likely to come from outside—from the kindness of politicians, or from new styles in business, or from a new breed of worker. Predict those and you can predict meany a few feet behind, growling, opposing, accepting. Surviving.

  1. A striking exception is the Wall Street Journal labor reporting, which I have scavenged more than once in preparing this article.
  2. Not so the CIO. It may be significant that when the two merged, the AFL man Meany prevailed over the dovish CIO man Walter Reuther.
  3. The AFL-CIO had a 70 percent score in the 1958 elections. But they may have been too successful. By defeating right-towork laws in various states, they exasperated the demand for strengthening Taft-Hartley.
  4. Hall is very proud of his training school in Piney Point. Maryland, which turns problem boys into disciplined headthumpers, and sounds truly impressive. But he’ll need an awful lot of wheat deals to rejuvenate his membership.
  5. “You would think that twenty to twenty-five years ago, workers in the Ford and G.M. plants got finished in a day and thought, Well, I’ve done a day’s work. That’s great. Bullshit. They always hated the line.”—Brendan Sexton, former Education Director, UAW.