Why Labor Moved Left

Source: Nelson Lichtenstein, Dissent, Vol. 62 no. 3, Summer 2015

Hard times sometimes have a silver lining. As American unions have come under unrelenting assault, the left is “enjoying” a historic victory, but one most labor partisans would rather do without. If one considers the political landscape in the United States over the last half century, then American unions have moved—or been moved—to the left margin of mainstream thinking and action. They have gotten there primarily because of the shifting political and economic landscape on which they stand; for the most part, their leftism represents no conscious insurgency. Organized labor has become, instead, the domain of reluctant radicals.

The decimation, over the past few decades, of the industrial relations system that was a bulwark of Cold War liberalism has forced even some traditionally conservative unions—such as the Teamsters, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and the old Retail Clerks (now the UFCW)—to take stances once adopted by left-wing unions in the 1940s: participating in liberal-led coalitions, advertising their multiracial character, and “blaming and shaming” corporate adversaries. Labor’s capacity to play the role of an insular, conservative interest group stands in inverse proportion to its organizational strength. Meanwhile, and ironically, a few of the “new social movements” spawned by the New Left—environmentalists, “lean-in” feminists, and some elements of the now triumphant gay rights movement—have shifted to the center. Corporations and even some elements of the GOP court them, even as those same companies and politicians remain steadfastly hostile to trade unionism.