“The AFL-CIO is the most important single component of the American Left.” Thirty years ago this idea would have been regarded as a liberal and radical truism. Today, most intellectuals would probably think it an act of nostalgic piety at best, a refusal of reality at worst. For a series of large, sad, and undeniable half-truths have come to obscure the labor movement’s function in American society.

Clearly, the unions have lost the dynamism of the CIO years. They spend long hours wandering around the corridors of the secondary levels of power, and many of them were even afraid to endorse a March on Washington which had been blessed by Cardinal Spellman. Some AFL-CIO foreign policy statements have justly won high praise in the pages of the National Review; and when one compares labor to the singing, picketing, jail-going Negro movement, it looks middle-aged. Worse, those unions primarily concerned with defending the job gains of the ex-poor in these times of chronic high unemployment have often placed themselves on the wrong side of the Civil Rights barricades.

All this is true, yet it still doesn’t amoun’ to a denial of labor’s essential role in any national movement for social change. For the fact remains that the most numerous, politically cohesive institution fighting for domestic reform is still the AFL-CIO. The black 10 per cent of America has already shamed more conscience into America than anything since the CIO. Yet the Negroes, cannot completely save the rest of us from ourselves, since whites are, alas, 90 per cent of the population. And there is even less hope that middle-class liberals and radicals, the reform Democrats and the ADA are an archimedian lever fit to move a nation of nearly two hundred million people.

Thus, however critical one may be of the unions, the revitalization of the labor movement is a pre-condition both for meaningful Civil Rights and for making the resurgent social criticism of the Sixties into more than ambitious talk and turning it into congressional action. If one argues that this revival will not, or cannot, take place, that is not an indictment of one institution but a sentence of social stagnation passed against the entire society. Such pessimism is, I think, premature. Sociologically one is permitted, morally one is obliged to keep hoping.

But then, as Jobs, Men and Machines makes clear, it would be hard to find more unpropitious times for a rebirth of labor. This book is an uneven collection of contributions to a conference on automation, including fairly predictable essays on such matters as the Kaiser automation agreement and “early warning” plans for impending strikes. But the best of these essays document the way in which contemporary technology, and indeed the economy itself, is more and more hostile to traditional unionism. And this requires lèse-majesté to the Council of Economic Advisors.

For some time now, Washington has been officially committed to the proposition that automation does not cause unemployment but, on the contrary, creates jobs. The problem, the Council has argued, is not that computers and feed-back machines are destroying work, but that there is a lack of effective demand in the economy. From such a premise, a tax cut follows, even when its bonus to corporations may well be used to automate; and from such a premise, the reduction of the work week does not follow. Among the essays in this book is a temperate, persuasive critique of the official line by Professor Charles Killingsworth of Michigan State. He deals, for example with the argument that the technological change of the past always created jobs. Here, the classic case in point is Henry Ford’s 90 per cent reduction in the man-hours required to make a car, an act which expanded the market and employment enormously. This, Killingsworth concedes, does happen when technological innovation takes place in an industry at the rapid growth stage. But what happens when automation takes place in Detroit now? It does not reduce the price of the automobile, it does not de-saturate the car market, increase volume, and thus put men to work. It does, however, cut down employment.

Still, the Council would reply, the figures show that the American economy increased its work force during the Fifties. But, as Killingsworth notes, the gross quantities conceal the important qualitative shift. Between 1950 and 1962, there was a tremendous advance for college graduates (their unemployment rate declined by over 36 per cent) and a marked regression for grade school graduates (their rate went up by 13 per cent). The semi-skilled jobs had been eliminated, clerical and engineering jobs had been added, which was fine for clerks and engineers and a disaster for the untrained, particularly the Negro. This development might even offer a clue to the question raised by another official government fact: why did the “natural” reduction of poverty stop sometime in the 1950s?


Part of the difficulty in defining the impact of automation is that it does not register truthfully in the government figures. Somehow the semi-skilled worker finds a low-paying unorganized job in the service industries or for a cockroach capitalist. He is thus not technically a victim of automation. But where a generation ago there was at least some hope that a man could fight his was out of such a job, learning as he worked, automation has now created an abyss between those with training and education and those without. So a man can be sentenced to life at the bottom of the economy without even becoming a certified, statistical tragedy.

Another aspect of this same development is the practice of “silent firing.” A fair number of companies are not laying off workers—but neither are they hiring. In San Francisco, for instance, Harry Bridges’ longshoremen have agreed to the eventual elimination of their trade so long as the present membership is paid off. The most obvious victims of this kind of arrangement are the young, another group with a high statistical immunity.

In order to count as a labor statistic, one must be actively looking for work. But, Secretary Wirtz has told us, there are some 300,000 free-floating youth who are not in school, at work, or in the labor market. Sargent Shriver has predicted a million and a half job-less teenagers in the next five years unless drastic measures are taken. The Department of Labor reports that one out of three male youths is not fit to be a private in the Army (half of them by virtue of their educational deficiency) and one can guess their fitness to be privates in a technological economy. The nation currently sends about a third of its high school boys to college and a third into the streets.

There is an almost poignant moment in the conversation between Willard Wirtz and A. H. Raskin recorded in this volume (this, and Killingsworth’s article are the best parts of the book). The Secretary of Labor describes how Congress balks at even analyzing the needs of the labor market and preparing to meet them: that would be planning, and planning is unthinkable. In any case, the persistence of longterm unemployment, the new hopelessness of the unskilled, and the chaotic youth situation in a time of silent firings, make automation somewhat less benign than Washington admits.

But then, if the studies in this book challenge the Council of Economic Advisors, they should also bring the AFL-CIO up short. The kind of economy predicted by Killingworth (and for tomorrow, not in 1984) will be structured against the traditional sources of labor strength. It is, of course, the union job which has proved most vulnerable to machines, and the management-dominated posts which have been expanding. Does this mean a persistent decline for labor, and consequently for the Left in general?

B. J. Widick’s Labor Today is an attempt on the part of an informed, militant insider to answer this question. It is a provocative study, particularly excellent in its humane account of how workers feel and react when the firings hit. Widick argues that the unions have not faced up to the unpleasant facts of the automated economy, partly because their organizational vitality has been sapped by the very problem which they have refused to confront. He shows how collective bargaining is already proving a frail device for dealing with the tremendous disruptions of the new technology, and he sadly chronicles a decline in labor’s political power and the split between the intellectuals and the union activists. The portraits of Hoffa, John L. Lewis, and Walter Reuther, with which the book ends, suffer however from being a little too impressionistic.

Precisely because I feel that Widick has raised many of the right questions in this generally useful book, I want to take issue with one of his answers: that it is the chasm between bureaucratic, relatively high-living union leaders and the rank and file which is at the bottom of the present crisis. In a sense, I wish Widick were right, for then the solution to the unions’ problems would be transparently simple: support the ranks against the leaders. In reality, I suspect that there is a much deeper source of some labor conservatism, one which unites leaders and members and is socially quite dangerous. In a time of chronic unemployment, automation, silent firings and the like, the gulf may not be so much between the bureaucrats and dues payers as between both of them and the unorganized, the young, the Negroes. And such a situation could evoke a cruel solidarity of the have working class against the have-not working class. We know that the United Mine Worker leadership cooperated in the “rationalization” of the coal fields; we know that the Hazard miners and others like them have protested bitterly and desperately against what this has done to them; but which side did those lucky ones who still made $26 a day in the “rationalized” mines take?


In short, I would place less emphasis on the corruption of the present labor leadership and much more on the structure of the economy (there are however, those, most notably in the building trades, who have made a vice out of a necessity). Consequently, I would be more hopeful that the frustrated, rather than malevolent, leaders and staff of the ex-CIO will eventually find new ways to respond to the present crisis. But how?

It is already clear that the major structural problems cannot be dealt with at the collective bargaining table. Even the apparent exceptions, like the Kaiser automation agreement or the Bridges contract in San Francisco, involve in a sense the sacrifice of future workers for the protection of present workers. But more generally, the problems generated by the new technology are larger than any given company, or even industry Their solution requires political decisions at the national level. This is not the place to discuss such decisions, though it should be clear that, if they are to be the right ones, they must involve enormous expansion of the public sector and democratic planning.

But the labor movement should not simply become a political force with no organization and bargaining roles. There are some specific programs which the unions could undertake immediately. For example: the organization of the working poor, of the unemployed, and of the white collar and professional workers.

Most poor Americans who are capable of working do so. What if the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Union Department, or some powerful Internationals, really put time and money into an attempt to reach these people? It could restore an organizational élan and membership base to the unions; it would be an extramely important Civil Rights action since the working poor are heavily Negro, Puerto Rican, Mexican and so on. The traditional argument against such a move—that the working poor are out of touch with the unions—could be answered out of the present treasuries of the labor movement. (This idea, which I first heard suggested by Irving Howe, is being seriously discussed by some unionists, particularly in the UAW.)

For years now, the most imaginative labor leaders have regularly announced on ceremonial occasions that they were going to organize the white collar workers. This has never been done. The United Federation of Teachers is an excellent proof of the fact that it is not impossible. If it is not done, the unions will have to content themselves with a reversion back to the old AFL tradition of labor aristocracy and this society can look forward to being one big, happy corporation.

Finally there are the unemployed. Some recent union studies show that long-term joblessness in the Sixties is much the same as it was in the Thirties: it promises anti-unionism and authoritarianism, and creates a potential for the most violent and reactionary groups. The IUE has announced that it is going to organize its unemployed former members. It remains to be seen if this will mark the beginning of a serious effort.

There are many reasons for the failure of the unions to make new departures; but the labor movement has reached the point where it must change if it is to maintain its position in American society and hold on to any hope of realizing its professed ideals. The Sixties have re-opened a period of serious social criticism; the Negro movement is in the streets. Were the unions really to transform themselves and take strong action, they could make real the possibility of a broad social and political coalition capable of appealing to a national majority—the possibility, in short, of an American democratic Left.

This Issue

May 28, 1964