Labor in Crisis, 1966‒1995

Endorsed by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Labor and Working-Class; Postwar


It is not possible to understand labor-capital relations in the U.S. in the years since the New Deal if we confine ourselves to looking at workers, unions, management, and the state. There is another highly influential element which must be considered: the labor economists and labor lawyers who were recruited by the National War Labor Board (NWLB) as intermediaries between union leaders and management officials during the world war and who continued to serve as the principal arbitrators between labor and capital for half a century after the Board was closed down. For many years relations between unions and corporate management which the NWLB vets did so much to construct held together. However, during the late 1970s high inflation, sharp increases in unemployment, low productivity, economic stagnation, and a wave of strikes began to undermine the arrangement and ultimately proved fatal to the unions that underlay it. Nelson Lichtenstein and Ronald Schatz’s papers will explain how the system broke down despite repeated attempts to salvage it by John Dunlop and other NWLB vets. Schatz contrasts this to the success in new union building accomplished in the Major League Baseball under the direction of another veteran of the NWLB, Marvin Miller. Lichtenstein and Schatz have been working on labor-capital relations in the U.S. throughout their careers. Dorothy Sue Cobble has done important work on 20th century labor history throughout her career, with an emphasis on gender that both complements but also critiques Lichtenstein and Schatz’s work. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an expert in latter 20th century labor history and political conservatism.

Papers Presented

A Whole New Ball Game, 1966–1980

This paper will focus on one stage of their work, the years between the late 1960s and the latter 1970s. High inflation, sharp increases in unemployment, low productivity, stagnation, and a wave of strikes created great difficulties for workers, union leaders, management, and government. NWLB vets—most prominently, John Dunlop, Sylvester Garrett, and David Cole—were temporarily able to overcome those difficulties by constructing “corporatist-style” agreements and boards between union and business leaders and arbitrators in steel, construction, and other industries. However, their efforts soon broke down, as corporations united in the Business Roundtable and other alliances that fought unions on a scale not known since the early 1920s. Appointed to a series of posts by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, Dunlop repeatedly attempted to persuade political leaders and corporate presidents and board chairman to co-operate with unions but was repeatedly rebuffed. “The present and future labor-management-government scene is treacherous,” he remarked in 1985. However, not every Labor Board vet failed in that era. One exception was Marvin Miller, a Labor Board economist who joined the Steelworkers union headquarters in 1950 and became an advisor to the union’s president and a key figure in the union’s new conflict-resolution agreement with Kaiser Steel after the 1959 steel strike. In 1966 Miller left the steel union to become a new director for the Major League Baseball Players Association. Under Miller’s leadership many ballplayers earned high salaries, retired players acquired good pensions, and the Major League Baseball Players Association became one of the most powerful unions in American labor history. “Instead of pointing to the sky, today’s players should be pointing to Marvin Miller,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bouton once remarked.

Presented By
Ronald W. Schatz, Wesleyan University

Dunlop’s Deal: Anatomy of a Corporatist Failure in the Clinton Era

It is a mischaracterization to call the Administration of President Bill Clinton merely “neoliberal.” Rather it was also an example of a failed “corporatism,” exemplified by the abortive effort to reform U.S. labor relations under the auspices of a commission chaired by Harvard’s John Dunlop, the legendary industrial relations dealmaker. The “Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations” grew out of more than a decade’s worth of liberal-labor efforts to “manage” American capitalism, compete with the Germans and Japanese, and accommodate U.S. labor to what Secretary of Labor Robert Reich though was the inevitable rise of a global labor market that would privilege skilled workers and collaborationist managers.   The key “deal” Dunlop and others hoped to pull off was an exchange: companies would get the right to create workplace productivity and engagement organizations, softening the Wagner Act’s ban on company unions, while real unions would get some labor-law reforms that might have made organizing easier. But this deal won no traction from any wing of the employer community, not old-line manufacturing, then being battered by imports, nor Silicon Valley or even unionized high technology companies like Xerox, whose otherwise liberal CEO, Paul Allaire, served as a Dunlop Commission member. The same labor intensive, service sector employers who sabotaged the Clinton Healthcare reform were even more adamantly hostile to any labor law deal that hinted at more employee voice.

Presented By
Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

Session Participants

Chair: Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Loyola University Chicago
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University of Chicago. She is the author of Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Pennsylvania, 2013). She is the editor of Barry Goldwater and the Remaking of the American Political Landscape (Arizona, 2013) and co-editor, with Nelson Lichtenstein, of The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (Pennsylvania, 2012). She has held fellowships from the Mellon Foundation (Cambridge University), the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. Her forthcoming book on the history of the student debt crisis will be published by Harvard University Press.

Commentator: Dorothy Sue Cobble, Rutgers University‒New Brunswick
A distinguished professor of history and labor studies at Rutgers University, Dorothy Sue Cobble specializes in the study of work, social movements, and social policy. Her books include the award-winning Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century and The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America, which won the Philip Taft Award for the best book in American labor history in 2004. Her articles and essays are frequently reprinted and have been translated into multiple languages. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Swedish Research Council, American Council of Learned Societies, National Endowment for the Humanities, Woodrow Wilson International Center, Harvard University’s Warren Center for American History, Russell Sage Foundation, and other sources. In 2017, Stockholm University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Social Science.

Presenter: Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

         Nelson Lichtenstein is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, which he founded in 2004 to train a new generation of labor intellectuals. An historian of labor, political economy, and ideology, he is the author or editor of 16 books, including a biography of the labor leader Walter Reuther and State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. His most recent books are Achieving Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy (2016); The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Left’s Founding Manifesto (2015); The ILO From Geneva to the Pacific Rim (2015); A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor (2013); The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (2012); The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business (2009); and American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century (2006). 
Lichtenstein’s first book was Labor’s War at Home: the CIO in World War II, first published in 1983 and revised in 2002. In the 1980s through the first decade of the 21st century he was part of the editorial collective that wrote and revised the textbook, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s History. In 2012, the Sidney Hillman Foundation awarded him its Sol Stetin Award for lifetime achievement in labor scholarship, and this Spring the UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate make him its 2019-20 Research Lecturer, the highest academic honor conferred on the campus faculty. 
   Lichtenstein is a distinguished lecturer for the OAH and has served on several OAH book prize committees. He is currently writing a history of economic thought and policymaking in the administration of Bill Clinton. With Gary Gerstle and Alice O’Connor he has edited Beyond the New Deal Order: From the Great Depression to the Great Recession. Lichtenstein writes for Dissent, Jacobin, New Labor Forum, and American Prospect.

Presenter: Ronald W. Schatz, Wesleyan University
Ronald Schatz is Professor of History at Wesleyan University, where he teaches courses on 20th century U.S. history, labor history, and American Jewish history, as well as seminars on labor and religion, the Cold War, the rise of conservatism in the U.S., and local urban history, among other topics.

His book The Electrical Workers: Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-
1960 was published in 1983. His new book, The Labor Board Crew: Worker-Employer
Relations from Pearl Harbor to the Reagan Era will be published in December 2020. He
has had articles published in the Journal of American History, Past & Present,
Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas, Labor Law Journal, and
Radical America and in various anthologies published by Cambridge University Press,
University of Illinois Press, Cornell ILR Press, and others. He has given presentations at
the annual OAH and AHA conferences, the Labor and Working-Class History
Association, Columbia University, Harvard University, M.I.T., Stanford University,
SUNY-Buffalo, the University of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania State University, the
Centre d’études nord-américaines, Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris,
the European Social Science History Conference in the Hague, and the Newberry Seminar in
Labor History.

Schatz has received fellowships from Stanford University, Harvard’s Charles Warren Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

His career was slowed by a neurological infection in 1984 that caused seizures for twenty-five years. However, he never stopped conducting research and, as a result, has been able slowly and steadily to write the forthcoming book, which is more ambitious and nuanced that it otherwise would have been.