“Freedom is never given; it is won. A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”—Asa Phillip Randolph, American labor union leader, civil rights activist, and democratic socialist
In this gloomy time for progressives, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein sees hope in a small union victory by Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York. He told ‘Democracy Now!’:
“What’s remarkable here is that the enormous amount of effort and money that the management put into stopping this organizing drive, it’s really a statement on the part of management on how important unionism is. If they’re going to spend all this money and bring their top executives to prevent a handful of workers from unionizing, that’s the best endorsement of unionism I’ve seen in a long time.”
He said they had to send the highly-paid national big shots because lower-level management at retailers like Starbucks or Walmart or Target are “unreliable as union busters” because they can be too sympathetic to their employees. The big shots had to rush to crush the union drive because “every college town has a red hot Starbucks ready to organize.” Things can get out of hand.
This country’s rotten labor laws allow companies to engage in intense psychological warfare against workers trying to unionize. Management terrorism is perfectly legal.
However, Lichtenstein says that “the managerial mindset” is more important than labor law. In periods of serious social unrest “when we had great social movements in this country, whether it’s the women’s movement or civil rights or other, we’ve had a section of capital which has made the decision that it’s better to accommodate the social movement than not…that the dangers of resisting this movement are too great.”
However, the capitalist elite is divided. In a recent interview with ‘The Sun,’ historian Rick Perlstein said:
“On one side are big brands and publicly traded multinational companies, which have to worry about their public image, and companies that have always trended liberal because of their partnerships with labor and the government. On the other side is the more reactionary capitalism, in which most companies are locally based and owned by families who present themselves as aristocrats in their towns.”
Political scientist Thomas Ferguson developed “the investment theory of party competition” in his book ‘The Golden Rule’ ( “To discover who rules, follow the gold.”)
He argues that in the early years of the 20th century, American politics was dominated by
a coalition of labor-intensive and pro-protectionist industries (steel, coal, and textiles)
and the big financial institutions. They opposed labor unions and supported the Republican Party.
After the first world war, this coalition split up after capital-intensive firms such as Standard Oil and General Electric cropped up. They favored lower tariffs to stimulate world trade. International banks also rejected protectionism. These new multinational corporations formed the coalition that backed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They were able to tolerate unions since they had fewer labor expenses while the Republican-supporting national firms were labor intensive and operated in a more competitive environment. That didn’t mean that these multinationals were necessarily too supportive of Roosevelt’s pro-labor policies. Meanwhile, the unions pooled their resources to become investors in the political money game as well.
Today’s world is somewhat different. The labor movement was much stronger then. The South’s electorate was basically all white and in the Democratic Party. The region’s Democratic segregationist elite united with Northern Republicans to constrain the progressive impulses of FDR. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s shook up everything. In the early days, prominent business leaders of major multinationals, and foundations allied to them heavily supported the civil rights movement. The Democratic Party was torn apart and the more racist whites in the South became Republicans.
The Democratic Party moved away from the economic progressivism of the New Deal and the Great Society. Austerity and a neo-liberalism milder than Reagan and Thatcher was promoted. Clinton said, “The era of big government is over.” Rick Perlstein says that “Joe Biden (as a senator) was a pioneer of that idea, but he now understands that its time has passed.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has steadily become more and more “white nationalist” and anti-democratic. It is now fascism-curious. As the GOP becomes more crazy, how many of the corporate elite might conclude that the Republicans will cause violent social unrest, economic stagnation and environmental horrors?