Authors on Issues: What do Employers have to do with Individualism and Racism?

Authors on Issues





In this latest installment in our Authors on Issues series, Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson, co-editors of the edited collection Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, write about how employers use racism to divide workers. 

What do Employers have to do with Individualism and Racism?

By Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson

For labor historians interested in raising awareness about the overall power of employers and class divisions in society, this fall has brought provocative lobs and jabs. First, historian Jefferson Cowie, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, dismissed an entire generation of labor historians for missing the rise of Trump. Borrowing from George Wallace’s handbook about pointy-headed college professors, he suggested that Ivory Tower labor historians were ideologically inclined toward a romantic belief in collectivism, so they missed how easy it was for the working class to be led down Trump’s dark alley. In his view, labor historians have been blind to “the strange and heady brew of anti-statism, anti-elitism, fragile pride, and, often, individualism (a word all but banned from labor history) that are part of class consciousness in America.” Shortly after Cowie’s intervention, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in The Atlantic that, in his view, too many white leftists fixate on class divisions and habitually fail to realize that white workers, not the nation’s elites, deserve primary blame for expressions of racism. He writes, “The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of.” We disagree with this assessment, insisting that we must consider the role of the exploiters while not holding any romantic view of worker solidarity, which required much hard work. The virtually white, homogeneous employer class did not have to work nearly as hard to establish solidarity with one another.

We invite Cowie, Coates, and their readers to consult our collection, Against Labor:How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, which contains efeurer and pearsonssays by talented historians interested in the anti-labor activism of organized employers from the late nineteenth century to roughly the present. These essays provide plenty of evidence that the nation’s diversity of employers were always deeply worried that workers would chose collectivism over individualism. Taken together, the collection demonstrates that, for more than a century, employers built powerful anti-union organizations to stop what they saw as looming dangers: the birth of left-wing organizations and workers’ demands that employers hire union members exclusively. The contributors to Against Labor explore numerous questions: how did employers deploy racism to divide workers? Why did they spend huge sums of money to build Astroturf organizations and disseminate thousands of pieces of anti-union propaganda? How close were they to both conservative and liberal politicians? How did they coordinate strikebreaking and union-busting activities, and how did they learn from one another? The collection’s chapters reveal how hard employers worked to promote individualism even as they engaged in their own collective organizing efforts. The point is important, but largely overlooked by Cowie and Coates: deep-pocketed employers throughout the nation networked and lobbied aggressively, recognizing that their hegemonic position required a considerable amount of effort.

Two of the collection’s essays examine the political-economy of racism, highlighting how anti-union employers promoted what authors Dave Roediger and Elizabeth Esch identify as “race management.” “Capital and management,” they write, systematically sought “to divide workers in ways that compromised labor’s efforts to address either race or class inequalities.”  Indeed, in the South, the open-shop movement coincided with the establishment of Jim Crow laws—laws promoted primarily by anti-labor elites, not white workers.

Not all anti-union employers used racism as they fought workers. In the Progressive Era, numerous employers, many of whom were Union Veterans, echoed comments from Lincoln.  They wanted workers to embrace the principle of “free labor,” insisting that union activists were responsible for creating a new form of slavery. Rather than call non-unionists “scabs,” these spokespersons referred to them as “free workers.” Anti-union organizations hired several of the nation’s most influential journalists and writers to spread anti-union messages, including the Los Angeles Times’s Harrison Grey Otis, world famous novelist Owen Wister, and George Creel, best known for leading the nation’s pro-war propaganda campaign during World War I. Together, they published and disseminated an incredible amount of propaganda celebrating the individualism of the “free worker” and denouncing what they considered the tyranny of the union “bosses” and the unfairness of closed shops. The anti-union National Association of Manufacturers and its affiliate employers’ associations, for example, claimed to have disseminated over 150 million pieces of literature between 1903 and 1906.

Employers’ efforts to divide workers continued throughout the twentieth century. They never stopped organizing, even in the face of labor’s victories in the 1930s and 40s. New organizations, including Southern States Industrial Council and the Astroturf Christian Americans, emerged in those decades. Led by Texas’s Vance Muse, the Christian Americans combined a toxic mix of racism and anti-Semitism to its anti-union campaigns. The racially inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Muse warned, threatened to further unite workers across racial lines, and “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Simply put, racism helped employers divide the working class. Indeed, Cowie and Coates should ask themselves: if white workers were hopelessly individualistic and racist, then why did white supremacist anti-unionists like Muse need make these appeals? Racism was an effective tool to divide workers, but we must be mindful that someone was deploying that tool. Employers operated it with the most power.

More generally, why do many of today’s employers pay union-busting lawyers $700 to $1000 an hour to prevent organizing? They do so because many workers want to join unions and improve their conditions. Workers, like anyone else in our society, are not naturally individualistic, racist, religious or anything else. They are products of their environment.  For this reason, we need to take seriously the roles of organized employers, the dominant forces responsible for shaping the nation’s laws, workplace conditions and, in many cases, our views. Those interested in social justice cannot afford to dismiss them.



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