When I learned of The Chief’s plans to expand from being a regional paper to one providing workers a national voice, I was glad. Our country has lost most of its independent media, and this troubles me. If the industry is dominated by just a few corporations, we get only the news they want us to have. As a result, we’re inundated with perspectives that support the corporatist worldview.
The “left” and “right," Democrats and Republicans, no longer occupy distinct territory; they both exist on ground controlled by corporations. The public is deprived of opposing views. No one is representing a workers’ perspective. That’s problematic, because today working people find themselves enmeshed in a lopsided battle against corporations. In simple terms, you could say it’s the employer class versus the worker class. And the employers own the stage.
Workers United Get Results
The Chief’s timing is good, as it appears the labor movement is mounting a comeback. A Gallup poll found that unions are enjoying an all-time-high approval rating, with two-thirds of voters surveyed giving them a thumbs-up, the highest since 1965.
The New Deal, the 20th century’s biggest win for workers, was the product of an alliance between labor unions and progressive social and political movements. It was the 1930s labor-unionization movement (organized into the Congress of Industrial Organizations, CIO), plus two socialist parties and one communist party that won the New Deal.
FDR could not have gotten it through Congress without the people's tireless work on the ground: in the streets, schools, churches, and around the kitchen tables of the nation. FDR, without this support, would have been as ineffective then as Joe Biden is now.
Sadly, Biden lacks any equivalent of a New Deal coalition willing to take to the streets and persevere until it succeeds.
Benefits for All
The New Deal coalition changed the country. Those achievements included the first nationwide Social Security system in U.S. history. Everyone past working age was guaranteed a basic income for the rest of their lives and thus a decent retirement. Other key parts of the New Deal were the nation’s first unemployment-compensation law, its first minimum-wage law, and its program of Federal jobs that rescued 15 million Americans from unemployment.
There’s a parallel lesson about solidarity between organized labor and social movements found in modern European history. Why do most western European nations provide 4-5 weeks' vacation, paid holidays, free or largely subsidized higher education, universal health coverage, paid maternity and paternity leave, highly subsidized child-care, and so on? U.S. laws guarantee none of these benefits.
Stronger Safety Nets There
Europe’s robust family-and-labor safety net endures thanks to the coordinated action of its unions and its progressive social movements. Together they mobilize public opinion and endorse the politicians willing to advance the labor agenda. In Europe, journalists report from a workers' perspective routinely; people demand it.
American history thus provokes an obvious question. What happened to the New Deal coalition, and why? How could the U.S. working class permit its disintegration, and with it the shrinkage of so many public supports won during the 1930s?
Today’s minimum wage buys less than the first one passed in the 1930s. FDR’s government provided Federal jobs to 15 million in the 1930s. But Obama, Trump, and Biden together failed to inaugurate any comparable Federal jobs program to offset the capitalist crashes of 2008/9 and 2020/21.
After World War 2, the New Deal Coalition was effectively attacked. It has been steadily weakened ever since. Unions represented a third of U.S. workers in the 1940s; they represent under 11% now.
Divide and Conquer
The alliance formed to smash the New Deal coalition could be called the Business Coalition. The employer class mobilized the Republican and Democratic party establishments to be their hammers.
First the Business Coalition undermined public support for the New Deal. Using its influence over the media, it turned Americans against the groups that comprised the New Deal Coalition (CIO, socialists, communists). A badly weakened labor movement shrank steadily. It had insufficient support from its allies on the left who had become socially ostracized and cast into the shadows.
Thrown back on itself, organized labor focused narrowly on workplace issues to prove it had split with the leftists who had a more-ambitious and broader agenda.
In the decades since, intermittent efforts to ally with progressive social movements (against nuclear war, racism, sexism, environmental degradation, Occupy Wall Street) have never approached the transformative power of the New Deal Coalition.
A Better Deal Now?
To regain its strength, the labor movement must learn from the past. If corporate interests and slavish media control the narrative, this century will resemble the last, or worse. The labor movement and progressive social movements have common goals and they should work together in solidarity.
It’s my hope that this newspaper, The Chief, will show the independence to report fairly on and defend the interests of workers nationwide.
Mr. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School University in Manhattan. He is the founder of Democracy at Work and host of its nationally syndicated show "Economic Update."
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