by Harold Meyerson
On Wednesday afternoon, within a few minutes of one another, many of America’s leading unions — the Service Employees, the Teamsters, the American Federation of Teachers — not to mention labor’s omnibus federation, the AFL-CIO — all released endorsements of Occupy Wall Street and its ongoing demonstrations in New York’s (and the world’s) financial center. Nothing surprising here — other individual unions and numerous local unions had already released statements of support for OSW, and the AFL-CIO itself has held several demonstrations on Wall Street since the financial collapse of 2008.
But for geezers like me, who came out of the student left of the ’60s that found itself in various pitched battles with organized labor, the difference between then and now couldn’t be greater. To review the bidding for a moment, the AFL-CIO under the leadership of George Meany (and later, Lane Kirkland), while an indispensable champion of most domestic progressive legislation, was an ardent supporter of Cold War policies in general and the Vietnam War in particular. Despite some faltering efforts in the early and mid-’60s to keep the Old and New Lefts from splitting, that’s exactly what they did. And it wasn’t just the radicals of the New Left who viewed labor with disdain and contempt; it was also the New Politics liberals who rallied around the anti-war presidential candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. (The ’70s sitcom “All in the Family” rather faithfully captured the upper-middle class liberals’ disdain for white male blue-collar workers, and that disdain certainly extended to their unions.)
That disdain was fully reciprocated. Famously, union hard-hats beat up antiwar protestors on Wall Street at one 1970 demonstration. George Meany memorably termed McGovern delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention “a bunch of jacks who dressed like jills and had the odor of johns about them.” For years, the AFL-CIO relentlessly opposed the rise within Democratic Party circles of dovish foreign-policy groups, feminists, and other forces that had emerged from the ’60s Left. The AFL-CIO’s political director in the ’70s, Al Barkan, delivered stump speeches demonstrating how labor could carry the Democrats to victory without any help from these troublemakers. He was, of course, proved dead wrong.
That said, there were unions that opposed the war and reached out to the student organizers. I distinctly recall a planning meeting of Columbia University students in the fall of 1969, held in somebody’s grubby Morningside Heights basement, as we figured out what we’d do in the upcoming Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations. At one point, the door opened and a middle-aged man came into the room and asked what he and his organization could do to help us. The man was Ed Gray, and his organization was the Northeastern Region of the United Auto Workers — a group that had played a key role in getting demonstrators from New York to D.C. for the great 1963 March on Washington and wanted to help us do the same.
The UAW, AFSCME, the Machinists, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and different regions of SEIU and the Communications Workers were a minority within the AFLCIO, and throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the biennial AFL-CIO conventions featured floor fights on public policy in which these groups tried to moderate the Federation’s hawkish stands on foreign policy and on other American liberal constituencies. They generally lost.
But during this time, labor was not only shrinking — it was changing. Many onetime ’60s radicals went to work for unions, or rose through the ranks. (My mentor, the socialist Michael Harrington, played a key role in bringing together the ’60s radicals with friendly unionists.) The fastest-growing unions, which tended to be in the public sector, were increasingly composed of women and minorities, who were rising to leadership positions in their unions. With the election of SEIU President John Sweeney to the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995, the federation threw open its doors and welcomed the constituencies that it had battled in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The new model labor movement would go on to oppose the Iraq War when it still was popular, embrace immigration reform — its coming together with groups that used to be called the new social movements was a complete reversal of its past position. Its waning numbers made such reversals strategically necessary, but these shifts in position were genuine: In some cases, these unions were now led by onetime ’60s kids who had taken to the streets decades earlier.
Occupy Wall Street, of course, shares the broad economic perspective of labor — both rightly believe that American finance has injured and betrayed the American nation. Both groups sing from the same hymnal. But in the bad old days, the cultural differences between the two constituencies would have driven them into separate, even opposed, camps. Unscripted militancy made labor nervous. Today, unions welcome that militancy, even if its unscripted nature leaves them a bit apprehensive. The labor movement that once bashed the long-haired kids on Wall Street now embraces them. The far-flung wings of the American left are back together. Whether, combined, they have enough heft to change the way American capitalism operates remains to be seen.