The loss of the recall vote against Scott Walker in Wisconsin gives further evidence of the decline of the unions in America. After the Second World War, the unions were all-powerful, with American blue-collar workers reaching a standard of living previously unimaginable. But that was at a time when America had no competition from the rest of the world, emerging as it did from the conflict unscathed and unchallenged. With Europe and Japan in ruins and China still a backwater, American companies faced little or no competition in the American market. The unions had reached an understanding with industry in America. They got rid of the radicals in exchange for which the workers got what Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, said they wanted, in one word, “more.”
Even before the foreign auto industry began to invade the American market, hostility to the unions rose in a most unlikely quarter–among young Americans. The union-backed Students for a Democratic Society turned against their benefactors over the Vietnam War that George Meany and Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO steadfastly supported, as did their candidate, Hubert Humphrey. Construction workers attacked anti-war demonstrators in New York, increasing the growing anti-union sentiment amongst the young.
In the summer of 1972, I was attending a party at the East Hampton home of prominent labor lawyer Ted Kheel whose son was, like myself, working in the McGovern campaign that the unions opposed. I was wearing a McGovern button and I found myself confronted by AFL-CIO second-in- command, Lane Kirkland, who would rise to the top position following Meany’s retirement, and his wife Irena, both Vietnam War hawks. They raved and ranted at me, the two of them red in the face, until Kirkland finally stopped. When Irena continued, he told her it was “enough.” I had remained silent. It was a lovely party and a beautiful day and I did not want to start an altercation. But I remember what I was going to say to Kirkland before I decided to hold my tongue. “One day your union will need the support of people like me and you won’t get it,and it will fade away.” Later, after reading Ted Morgan’s “A Covert Life, his biography of labor leader Jay Lovestone, I learned how Lovestone, head of the AFL-CIO’s international division, was a CIA operative whose case officer was James Jesus Angelton, head of counter-intelligence at CIA. That made sense.
The rising new libertarianism amongst young Americans, many of whom supported Ron Paul, comes directly from this experience.
Libertarians are decidedly anti-war and they see in the power of the state the instrument that perpetuates the wars that have produced such uncontrolled federal debt. Many of the anti-war baby boomers came of age resenting the unions for their hawkishness. Across the country, Americans came to see the state and municipal workers’ unions as the reason for the threat of bankruptcy state and local governments face. Salaries of the county police in both Suffolk and Nassau Counties on Long Island where I live are over the top. Property taxes keep rising to keep up with the rising costs of local government. So it should come as no surprise that the unions lost the recall vote in Wisconsin. If the unions want to make a comeback, they need not only to remake themselves but to deal with their pasts. Unless they do, they will become increasingly insignificant, which will lead to the increasing income gap that threatens the stability of the country.