Labor Day Was Once A Sacred Day on the Democratic Party Calendar

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The Democrats and Labor
The Democratic Party was once the party of labor. That has changed.

George Liebmann
Sep 4, 2023
12:01 AM
Labor Day was once a sacred day on the Democratic Party calendar, commemorated by massive demonstrations in Detroit—the home of the UAW, the Reuther brothers, and dreams of a guaranteed annual wage.

The American labor movement, born in bloodshed in the 1890s, legitimated by the William Jennings Bryan campaign in 1896 and 1890s judicial opinions by such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Howard Taft, was further reinforced by the period of labor peace enforced by President Wilson’s War Labor Board, of which Taft was co-chairman. The postwar slump weakened but did not extinguish the movement, which revived with the aid of favoritism during the New Deal, culminating in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the tight labor market and need to avoid production interruptions during World War II.

The force of pent-up savings due to wartime rationing and the fact that America’s international competitors had bombed each other into smithereens gave rise to the golden age of labor after the war, with its dreams of perpetual full employment and its regime of administered prices agreed on by labor and management dividing the windfall profits of America’s temporary industrial monopoly. The revival of European and Japanese industry and the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 brought an end to labor’s happy time. Celebratory symphonies, some still played, were composed by people like Harvard’s J. K. Galbraith, with glib talk of labor’s “countervailing power.”

The first symptoms of a new dispensation were provided by the 1962 steel strike and the confrontation between the Kennedy administration, and its Harvard economists, and the forces of evil, represented by U.S. Steel’s Roger Blough. The “victory” of the administration concealed the fact that Blough proved to be right. Foreign competition, the removal of tariffs, and the extravagant water pollution legislation of the 1960s, which by requiring “best practices” mandated extravagant spending to eliminate the last 1 percent of pollution, doomed places like Pittsburgh, Gary, and Birmingham, and the rest of the Rust Belt. The American steel plants that survived tended to be newly built plants near Southern seaports.

The 1973 oil crunch, awakening an enthusiasm for small foreign cars, helped finish the job. Since then, the growth areas in America have been in the service-oriented internet and computer industries. American manufacturing has dwindled, along with interest in the related parts of its educational system, engineering, and high school vocational education. Labor Day Democratic celebrations have become almost as rare as politically incorrect Jefferson-Jackson Dinners.

It is time to consider the non-existent labor agenda of the anti-Trump Party. Doing so will convince the impartial reader that while the Republican Party is vexed and encumbered by one man, the Democrats have almost entirely succumbed to an ideological epidemic. When there was widespread unemployment and impoverishment in the 1930s, there hadn’t been much in the way of social disorder. There is today a great deal of social disorder, ranging from the slums of the inner city to the motorcycle gangs of Waco, the drug gangs of Los Angeles to the drug-dependent youth of Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and rural New England.

The recovery program carried out through various New Deal agencies—the PWA, WPA, CCC, and NYA—in the 1930s had been a work program, not a dole, founded on Roosevelt’s declared premise that “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the national spirit.” The Obama administration, by contrast, engaged in a sub rosa expansion of cash relief, through extended unemployment compensation, food stamps, and lax administration of the Social Security disability program.

Large portions of a generation have been thrown on the scrap heap by the Democratic Party. To borrow a metaphor from Speaker Paul Ryan at the 2012 Republican convention, they are lying on sofas in their parents’ basements, looking at fading Obama posters. To remedy that, there might have been a proposal to relieve workers under age 25 from employment taxes, as has been done in other countries. But not in America.

The private sector labor force has effectively been abandoned by the Democratic Party. During the Clinton administration, a commission was appointed by his Labor and Commerce secretaries, under the chairmanship of the respected labor arbitrator John Dunlop. The commission recommended relaxation of the ban on company unions so as to allow local employee participation committees meeting on company premises to negotiate local productivity deals, including wage increases. Legislation, the so-called TEAM Act, implementing this recommendation was then vetoed by President Clinton at the behest of the most cosseted of unions, the United Auto Workers.

Since the veto, the number of unionized workers in the manufacturing industry has declined substantially. The upshot is that tens of millions of private sector workers, including those at Walmart (on whose board Hillary Rodham Clinton sat without audible protest from 1986 to 1992) have no representation at all even with respect to employee grievances and bathroom breaks. Mrs. Clinton’s sterling example was followed by Michelle Obama, who sat on the board of a leading Walmart supplier from 2005 to 2007, when it became impolitic to do so.

It was astute of Walmart to thus perceive the hitherto unidentified managerial talents of the wives of upwardly mobile Democratic politicians. The explosive growth of Walmart and Amazon took place during the 16 years of the Clinton and Obama administrations, distinguished by their abandonment of any vestige of antitrust policy. Today those two companies, between them, employ 4 million workers, nearly 30 percent of all workers in retail. Main Streets have been denuded. Through no fault of Franklin Roosevelt, the prophecy of Herbert Hoover in 1932 has been realized: “the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of a thousand farms.”

What Justice Louis Brandeis would have thought of Walmart, Amazon, and the Democrats’ embrace of Judge Bork’s “consumer welfare” theories can well be imagined. It was he who cautioned that “only through participation by the many in the responsibilities and determinations of business can Americans secure the moral and intellectual development which is essential to the maintenance of liberty.”

Private sector workers have thus become completely proletarianized. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich makes no mention of the TEAM Act veto in his memoir Locked in the Cabinet, preferring to remain a Clintonista in good standing. Neither does President Clinton in his memoirs. The UAW, alone among unions in manufacturing industries, has been well treated by the Democrats, first by a massive subsidy to its pension funds at the start of the Obama administration and then by Biden’s massive subsidy of expensive electric cars, which may yet prove to be the worst federal scandal since Teapot Dome. The upper-income beneficiaries of the car credits are indeed far removed from the teenagers simultaneously being denied an opportunity to enroll in a revived Civilian Conservation Corps.

The Democrats’ immigration policy was defined by Clinton’s action in heaving into the wastebasket the thoughtful report of a commission headed by the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, which to aid less skilled American workers, recommended a skills-based immigration system of the Canadian type, curtailment of family-unification and “diversity” visas, and a revived program for temporary agricultural workers. This was opposed by important Democratic campaign contributors with “family unification” ambitions. In its place, Clinton appointed a new more timid commission, whose minor recommendations maintained the status quo.

The Democratic education policy, dictated by teachers’ unions, guarantees deficient high school science teaching by enforcing a uniform salary schedule and excluding from the teaching force persons who have not wasted a year of their lives on largely worthless education methods courses. The upshot is the off-shoring of scientific and technical jobs. As for higher education, the emphasis has been on debasing the major universities in the name of racial equality, while failing to nurture new vocational institutions to serve high school dropouts, mature female undergraduates, military, law enforcement, and other career changers, and persons doing well in community colleges and in the workforce.

Democratic social policies, devoted to the protection and celebration of “free love” and its consequences, have produced a spiraling rate of single parenthood, the consequences of which cannot be offset by improved social benefits. Those left behind by these syndromes are the fatherless youth, without vocational skills, many of whom are ignorant of the country and have never been more than a few blocks from the places they were born. They do not vote, and the electric car purchasers do nothing for them.

On this Labor Day, we will hear more from the Democrats about the Stonewall gay rights demonstration against behavior-oriented health insurance premiums than we will about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that gave rise to the labor-protective legislation of the Al Smith and FDR administrations.

George Liebmann
George Liebmann is the president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, is the author of The Tafts (Twelve Tables Press, 2023) and of works on diplomatic history, including Diplomacy Between the Wars: Five Diplomats and The Shaping of the Modern World and The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and His Times, 1960-2010, both published by Bloomsbury. He can be contacted at

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