The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How conservatives drove a wedge between economic and cultural liberals

The wealthy understood that a unified left spelled doom for their economic advantages

People take part in the Workers First Caravan for Racial and Economic Justice near the United States Capitol on June 17, 2020. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The left is deeply divided between forces fighting for economic justice and those fighting for social equality for minority groups.

Some economic justice advocates express exasperation with excessive “wokeness” and the political damage it does — often sotto voce for fear of being canceled — while those in the Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and LGBTQ rights movements frequently tire of hearing how more economic justice would cure the discrimination minorities face.

In 2020, for example, Adolph Reed, an African American political scientist and civil rights activist, planned to give a talk to the Democratic Socialists of America arguing that overplaying covid’s harm to Black people weakens multiracial movements that are critical to improving public health. The Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus raised such a fuss the DSA canceled the talk.

What many of these advocates don’t know is that their opponents on the right actually created this schism on the left. Beginning during Reconstruction in the late 19th century, business and White elites saw that united movements for minority and economic justice threatened their interests, so they repeatedly devised strategies to splinter them.

A haunting chapter came in 1947 when Congress passed the Labor Management Relations Act, better known as Taft-Hartley for its sponsors, Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) and Rep. Fred Hartley Jr. (R-N.J.). Vocally biracial at the time, industrial unions blasted it as a “slave labor” bill. President Harry S. Truman vetoed it. But Northern big-business Republicans and Southern racist Democrats joined to override that veto 75 years ago this month on June 23. Their victory damaged both economic and racial equality to this day.

In the 1890s, biracial coalitions that linked the Populist and Republican parties won many local elections. Their success threatened Southern White elites. They even captured the entire North Carolina government in 1894, strengthening voting rights and attacking abuses of monopoly capital.

Racist White Democrats reacted brutally, intimidating and killing these opponents to shut them down in 1898. The defeat of the North Carolina fusion — including an actual, violent coup overthrowing the government in Wilmington — sharply intensified Jim Crow segregation throughout the South.

In the face of this oppression, the United Mine Workers (UMW) founded one of the first U.S. industrial unions in 1890. It exhibited some racism, but most locals were biracial, and several people in leadership positions were Black. The UMW made important gains, including sometimes forcing management to end White-Black wage differentials.

In 1904, mine owners in Alabama initiated attacks on the UMW, refusing to renew contracts and hiring Black workers to break sporadic strikes. In 1908, the union fought back with a major strike, but the Alabama governor used the state’s Jim Crow laws to tear down the miners’ integrated housing. With no place to live nearby, they were dispersed from the coalfields and lost the strike. The union was all but crushed. The episode exposed how White elites used racist Jim Crow laws to break interracial coalitions that threatened their economic power and wealth.

Protecting this power motivated racist Southern Democrats — a key New Deal faction with outsize influence in Congress — to ensure the seminal 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) didn’t cover their Black workforce: sharecroppers and maids. They also insisted the new law allow racial discrimination, though not requiring it.

That same year, however, the next threat to their power emerged. A group of unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Its first president, John L. Lewis, who was also head of the UMW, understood the potential of biracial organizing. The CIO hired Black organizers, sought to educate racist Whites and adopted the slogan “Black and white, unite and fight.” Its constitution declared “uncompromising opposition to any form of discrimination, whether political or economic, based on race, color, creed or nationality.”

Thanks to the NLRA, which made unionizing easier, and new organizing, U.S. union membership swelled from 3 million in 1932 to 9 million in 1939 — despite the unemployment of the Depression — and then to 15 million during World War II. Having made strong gains among Black workers migrating to Northern factories, as well as Black workers in emerging Southern industries, the CIO launched “Operation Dixie” in 1946 to expand its geographical and numerical strength. Department of Labor economist H. F. Douty said, “Workers among both races are beginning to realize that economic cooperation is not only possible, but desirable.”

Labor leaders planned to build a truly national movement, as scholars Sean Farhang and Ira Katznelson have detailed. They hoped to enter tripartite negotiations with the government and business and build a strong, unified welfare state — like their European counterparts were in the process of doing.

Once again, this biracial union vision sent shudders down the spines of big business Republicans, who dominated Congress after the 1946 midterm elections. Meanwhile, Southern elites realized that they hadn’t limited the NLRA sufficiently to truly safeguard their segregated economy. Sen. Burnett Maybank (D-S.C.) compared the CIO to “the carpetbaggers and the scalawags” during Reconstruction who “disrupted our civilization and economy by inciting the colored people and by controlling our Government.”

These two conservative factions came together to pass Taft-Hartley.

The act authorized “right to work” laws letting employees enjoy union benefits without paying dues, blocked foremen and independent contractors from joining unions, created diverse types of injunctions against strikes, limited picketing of employers and split labor enforcement off from the National Labor Relations Board to prevent the relatively pro-union board from prosecuting unfair practices.

The law destroyed Operation Dixie and defeated the CIO’s national ambitions by ruthlessly targeting labor’s strategies for expanding coverage. As United Automobile Workers President Walter Reuther later said, “If Taft-Hartley has been a problem to unions in organized industries, it has been a disaster to those unions whose major organizing job is yet to be done.”

Employers could force workers to sit through anti-union propaganda sessions, deploy foremen to pressure them not to join, assign jobs to independent contractors and swamp courts with alleged violations of newly minted labor-law intricacies. Right-to-work laws also robbed unions of resources: Why join and pay dues if you got the same benefits free?

As the CIO turned inward to protect existing members’ salaries and benefits, it began to succumb to racism. Most existing members were White and seniority gave Whites the best jobs. Embracing more Black Southern workers was now almost impossible. Its defensive strategy persuaded the CIO to merge with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the historically racist umbrella group of craft unions. A campaign against “Communist” labor leaders, as part of the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, managed to target the most anti-racist among them.

Taft-Hartley marked the beginning of the decline of American unions. Peaking at 33.4 percent of nonagricultural workers in 1945, union coverage fell slightly for a few years, crawled back almost to its 1945 level, then continued falling ever since. As unionization fell, income inequality worsened, signifying the dangers of a divided left.

As the civil rights movement peaked in the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations focused on nominating judges with civil rights credentials. Few of these judges were as concerned with labor law and, in their desire to protect the civil rights of individuals, they sometimes eroded collective bargaining rights. That helped ratify a division between the fights for economic justice and minority justice.

This divide has persisted to the present day — and hampered the achievement of either social or economic equality. For example, after George Floyd was murdered, support for Black Lives Matter surged to 52 percent of Americans and opposition declined to 29 percent. But instead of including economic justice and class consciousness, activists focused on divisive and narrow demands like defunding the police. This contributed to support for the movement falling to 42 percent and opposition surpassing it at 45 percent.

This schism continues to hamstring the Democratic Party and its ability to enact policies on both fronts. The divide has left Democrats with an unwieldy coalition of cultural liberals — often White and suburban, with less interest in economic fairness — and minority groups, who tend to be more socially conservative but supportive of a robust welfare state and economic justice.

By contrast, liberals have experienced the most success in American history — from the populist fusions of the 1890s to the New Deal — when coalitions join across racial lines and challenge economic elites. They win elections and enact policies that benefit Americans no matter their race.

If Democrats forge more solidarity, they will fare better electorally, enabling them to address the priorities of those advocating for economic justice and racial equality.