Book Review - Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents


In Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents, labor historian Martin Halpern presents a series of insightful essays analyzing the modern labor movement’s relationship with both its left-wing and with Democratic administrations from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. In the process, Halpern achieves something remarkable – an analysis of center-left labor politics that is both sympathetic and supportive of the Center and the left, particularly of Communist Party activists and labor liberal Democrats.

In his first essay, 'The Labor Movement,' Halpern contends that the labor movement has been a force for social change and that social and community organizations which fail to relate to labor risk their own marginalization. In his second essay, 'Children of the Left,' Halpern uses uses sociological studies to show that the existence of strong family bonds among left activists in the United States has permitted left parents to transmit and in effect reproduce their values in hostile environments in which mass media and peer group pressures conspired to destroy the left. 'When Henry Met Franklin,' the third essay, offers a fascinating account of a lost moment in US history, a meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Ford at the height of labor struggles in 1938. While the meeting had been arranged by Roosevelt’s more conservative advisors and was not particularly productive of anything, Halpern uses the meeting to show the enormous differences between the two men, both of whom saw themselves as defending the capitalist system.

At the same time, one understands the importance of Roosevelt as an individual to the center-left politics of the era. Although Halpern sees the New Deal as largely successful in establishing positive changes in labor-management relations, he concludes that 'postwar hopes for a resurgent New Deal were dashed by the eruption of the cold war and by a renewed big-business offensive to restrict labor legislation with no FDR in the White House to help stem the tide.'

' ‘I’m Fighting for Freedom’: Coleman Young, HUAC, and the Detroit African American Community' is perhaps the most interesting essay in the collection. In spite of a relentless attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the FBI to search and destroy Communist and left activists in Detroit’s African American labor community, Halpern shows how Coleman Young, George Crockett and others fought courageously to retain support in the African American community, even while the organizations that they led were eliminated by government repression. This proved to be important as the revival of social struggle in the 1960s allowed such activists to become important community leaders.

In a fascinating essay on public employee unions, Halpern gives John Kennedy, whose reputation was never that high in progressive circles, credit for signing an Executive Order which gave limited but significant federal support to the development of such unions. Even George Meany’s conservative AFL-CIO leadership is given credit for helping to establish Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring discrimination in employment based on race and gender.

However, the stagflation economy of the 1970s produced a great political crisis for labor. Halpern examines that crisis in his treatment of the UAW’s 1976 endorsement of Jimmy Carter and its failed attempt to have the Carter administration enact labor law and health care reform. By 1980, the strategy of working within and influencing positively the Democratic Party, which had produced important gains in the 1930s and 1960s, was in serious trouble. After the Reagan-Bush administrations, a weakened labor movement experienced deja vu all over again in the Clinton years, as corporate money in politics and the Democrat’s Southern tilt sowed weakened both labor and its alliance with the Democrats.

Looking at the Gore-Nader division in 2000, Halpern criticizes Nader for focusing much of his attack on Gore and thus helping Bush 'win' the election. However, he credits Nader for raising the key issue that Gore ignored – corporate domination of the political process, which makes it much more difficult to implement progressive policies.

Yet Halpern remains cautiously optimistic about John Sweeney’s leadership of the AFL-CIO and also about the anti-corporate and anti-conservative views of workers. 'Historically,' he contends, 'the inspiration for rank-and-file organizing and democratization has come from the left. The inclusion of left-wingers in the official structure of the AFL-CIO and of several of its affiliates has led to many new progressive ideas and initiatives. It will take the further strengthening of the left at the rank-and-file level to inspire a mass movement and to provide a solid ally to the New Voices leadership as it seeks to accomplish its ambitious progressive agenda.'

In the upcoming elections, Halpern’s fine work helps us understand the necessity of both electing John Kerry for what he is, a Northern liberal labor Democrat, and abandoning the 'Southern strategy' of the Democrats which produced Carter-Clinton and division and defeat. The Democratic Party can and must win without making crippling concessions to Southern 'right to work' states. It’s future lies in returning to the New Deal path which made it a national majority party regaining the 'right to work' states by eliminating the Taft-Hartley based 'right to work laws' which has made these states into 'rotten boroughs' for anti-labor, anti-progressive politics.

Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents By Martin Halpern Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, 2003.