A Bifurcated Approach
by Paul Frymer
February 24, 2021
This interview with Paul Frymer, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Paul | The Wagner Act was built on the idea of making the workplace accountable to the workers, of getting better wages, and improving working conditions. It is a relic of a time when the government was involved in regulatory action. We just don't do that much anymore at least in the realm of labor politics.
One thing I write about in my book, Black and Blue, is that at the time of the New Deal, civil rights were really not a priority for most U.S. politicians. Though the vast majority of African-Americans had no voting rights and no protection against economic discrimination, these big pieces of legislation like the Wagner Act did not try to change that structure.
The New Deal was built around the idea of a white working class, and the Wagner Act is part of that.
What would it have looked like if it included civil rights?
Most straightforwardly, the NAACP wanted a provision in the Wagner Act that said that employers can’t discriminate on a basis of race. That was not in there.
The Democratic Party, which was reliant on Southern Democrats at the time, did not want that and it was not put in the bill. As such, the legislation allowed companies and unions to discriminate on the basis of race. There is a case in the 1950s that I mention in my book where an employer was accused of firing workers because they were union members. You can't do that according to the Wagner Act. So, he said he didn't fire them because they were union members, he fired them because they were black. That was fine under the law.
Workers in Hole, photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth56863/m1/1/?q=workers: accessed February 24, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library.
You write about how labor movements and civil rights movements often act independently of each other, rather than in conjunction. Why is there bifurcation?
It is a great and complicated question. W. E. B. Du Bois, the great civil rights intellectual and activist in the early 20th century, famously wrote about just how easy it is for employers to divide workers on the basis of racism.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, employers used to bring in African-Americans from the South or Chinese workers to break strikes and to create racial conflict. Though we are a long way from those kinds of extreme examples, today, we can still see the ways in which race and class have difficulty coalescing. We have lots of great examples of when they do when multi-racial or multi-ethnic coalitions form around class lines, but it’s very hard to do.
Specifically, in terms of the Wagner Act, the 1930s was the time of the labor movement and the labor movement, itself, was largely white. Later, in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement gets underway. The white labor movement publicly supports civil rights, but not always privately. Just as we have seen in the Trump era, there were conflicts among white workers who did not want greater diversity. Unions have continued to struggle with this.
Democrats have stepped back from workers. Trump towards them. Do you think his labor support is essentially just about race?
No, it was not just race. He gave them a sympathetic story to buy into. He said that he was going to give them their jobs back. He said that the United States and the Democratic and Republican Party had forgotten about the working class and that they don't care about the working class. They shipped your jobs out to other countries, he said. The sympathetic story is not that far off from the same one Bernie Sanders told. Jesse Jackson ran on that message in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a very powerful message that resonates.
The problem is, a lot of people out there, media and politicians, look for a scapegoat, and race is an easy scapegoat. Economic messages resonate a lot more when there are people who “don't look like us” that are perceived as threatening the white working class. So we point to things like building a wall.
[Workers on Platform], photograph, [1965-05-13..1965-05-24]; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth1011027/m1/1/?q=workers: accessed February 24, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
There's long been a debate within the Democratic Party about class and race, and how to emphasize both. One part of the party says it’s all about class and that race is an artificial construction that employers used to keep themselves in power, so we should emphasize economic distribution and racial inequality will be reduced in the process. That goes so far, but it doesn't go all the way. Race may be an artificial construct, in that we no longer attribute race with individual differences, but it still has taken an incredibly powerful meaning in our society as a result of longstanding prejudice and discrimination. Our solutions can’t just be about universal policies. We need to recognize that there is racism, discrimination, and prejudice in America and that it needs to be addressed on its own. It too cannot be dealt with in isolation from issues of class, but it needs its own stress and dedication. It's really complicated to have those conversations, obviously with Trump voters, but with progressives, suburbanites, and just about everyone else as well.
Backing up a little bit — in the 1930s, there were very few black members in unions. Over time it really moves up, but union participation more broadly declines. Why is that?
You are right. During the time in which African-Americans and Latinos have joined the labor movement, labor movement numbers declined dramatically.
Part of the reason for that is globalization. Part of the reason is that employers can reclassify workers so that they cannot be unionized--see the battles over Uber and Lyft and the gig economy more generally. And a big part of the reason is that employers are incredibly aggressive. Employers are very aggressively breaking the law and they can get away with it. What employers will do immediately is fire union organizers. That is against the law, but they know that they will just be slapped on the wrist, if anything. There is a lot of intimidation. Employers have all of these opportunities to make appeals to workers, to talk to them as a ‘captured audience’. The union does not have the right to access these workers, the way employers do.
You can see these aggressive tactics with the current Amazon fight. Amazon is about to have a union election in Alabama.
The union is fighting for the ability to vote by mail in light of COVID, and Amazon, just as the Republican party does, is fighting to make voting more difficult.
They don't want people to vote in the privacy of their homes because they know they will quite likely vote yes to the union.
What do you wish the media would note in their coverage of something union organizing?
The media has often made it seem like the union is the bully and the employer is the individual. They make it seem like people have the right to make as much money as they want, and whether individuals want to work for a certain company or not, is their individual problem. This whole idea of collective action is hard for a lot of Americans to understand.
It is also important to note that in a place like Alabama, where racism is deeply embedded in the history, culture, and still resonates in current politics, the employers use hiring practices to capitalize on this. They will bring in more immigrants to work. This racializes the workforce and the employers know what they are doing. In sweatshops and meatpacking plants, for example, they hire workers that speak all different languages so that they have difficulty communicating with each other.
So union organizing work is very, very hard and incredibly stressful. Especially going against Amazon, a massive corporation that is going to throw everything at you. Any worker who has been part of a union drive knows it is an incredibly stressful and often quite scary period of time. Employers will try to capitalize on this further by saying, vote against the union, and all this stress will go away.
Do you think support from local and national politicians is helpful or maybe even a requirement for successful labor union activism?
Totally. At the local level, we do have politicians to do that, and that is helpful. And Bernie will show up. And AOC will show up.
But what we need is the Democratic Party as a whole to stand by unions.
You see this dynamic right now going on with teachers and the nurse's unions and the question about whether the Biden administration will negotiate with teachers over COVID issues at school. The Democratic Party, generally, supports unions, but they frequently offer very little direct support to union campaigns. I mean the Democratic Party taking on Amazon is a big, big pill. Jeff Bezos gives a ton of money to the Democratic Party. He owns the Washington Post. Look at the conflict a few years ago when he pulled a potential Amazon plant from New York City in response to AOC’s opposition. It is not easy, and it often pits Democrats against Democrats.
Why do you think, politically, workers are sidelined for the swing voter? What do you think this obsession with the swing voter is, rather than the working class?
2020 is a good example of that. The African-American vote was the backbone of the Democratic victory. The African-American was critical to winning Georgia. The vote probably won Michigan, and on and on. President Trump obviously realized that because he was trying to make African American voting in Philadelphia and Detroit and in Atlanta much more difficult, or even throw large numbers of votes out.
But the strategists of the Democratic Party are overwhelmingly white.
Most of them are ambivalent on issues of race themselves. They look at the broader map and they say, "Well, who are voters that we need to win?" And frequently, they draw a big circle around white suburbanites. Election after election, the conventional wisdom is white suburbanites. We see that after what happened 2016. The focus immediately turns to those disgruntled white Trump voters in Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio.
And there is some truth to that. The white suburban vote in Georgia was also critical. Not independently of the African-American vote, but the African-American vote is not a majority vote in this country or in any state. You do need a significant proportion of white voters. But the Democratic Party, I think, has overplayed that idea in the sense that they think that in order to win the white vote, you need to then downplay civil rights, and downplay things like Black Lives Matter. There's evidence that goes in both directions. A lot of political scientists are currently studying how much the Black Lives Matter protests helped or hurt the Democratic Party. This is an incredibly fraught issue.
[Two Construction Workers], photograph, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc499160/m1/1/?q=workers: accessed February 24, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.
And when you talk about Black Lives Matter you do risk opposition from the white suburbs and other white workers. And that requires the Democratic Party, and our government more broadly, to have bigger conversations. They don't want to have those conversations, obviously. They don't want to explain to people why Black Lives Matter is singularly important for historical and systemic reasons, and how in certain ways, it is also for all of us. Those are hard conversations, and the Democratic party doesn't want to have them.
And you know, you see why any time anyone, whether it’s Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton or AOC or Bernie Sanders, says anything of nuance or subtlety, it gets shredded, and frequently, they back away.
This is cynical, but the country is becoming less and less white, at some point the white suburbanite won’t be the majority.
If you look at California in the 1990s, the Republican Party made, in a way, the same big bet on white voters that Trump did. And over time, they have gotten crushed. California is a liberal Democratic state because of demographics and so forth. So, there is hope among progressives that California is a sign of the future of the United States and that the Republicans are going to be crushed in the coming years.
Some Republicans think that too because they are focusing on trying to stop people from voting. They're trying to stop immigrants from entering the United States they fear will become Democrats. They're trying to stop Washington DC from becoming a state.
The one footnote to this is that I find the demographic argument a little bit problematic in that populations are not static. Populations are changing over time. Some populations ‘become white’ over time. We've seen hints of this within the numbers of some Latino populations.
We've already seen it with Cubans, a large number who have been conservatives and Republicans from the first migrations in the 1960s. Puerto Ricans are largely Democrats but there are some openings there, with a strong Republican presence in Puerto Rico itself. You see movement with the third, fourth, fifth-generation Mexican populations in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico as well.
The other thing that you touched on is young people.
What happens with young people as they age? Is the take away from what is currently being said, "I believe black lives matter and I think we need a new era." Or is the takeaway, "I believe black lives matter until it comes to my town and my school and my police department and impacts my housing prices."
This is the moment for the progressive white middle-class to decide how much it embraces racial progress and actively promotes it going forward.
Yeah. How serious are you, I guess.
Oh, I don’t doubt people’s seriousness and sincerity of beliefs. But it is once these beliefs are confronted with different dynamics that you have to really struggle with and be willing to face and accept.
You see this in gentrifying neighborhoods, from Brooklyn to the Mission of San Francisco to Silverlake in LA. These are pockets of progressive white populations. How much are they willing to embrace diversity over the long term, and recognize what it actually means?
The gentrifiers are probably the most progressive politically. Housing in LA is expensive, but…
That is why I think the government is so important. Because you hear these stories you can sympathize or you can find a way to understand it. And I don’t think it's just rationalizing. Every individual story is importantly different. But, that's where the government, I think, needs to step in and say, “We are going to set these rules and everybody has to follow these rules.”
That takes the pressure off of the individuals, and puts the onus on the government to create these spaces that are diverse. That is what we should do as opposed to putting all the energy on the single worker who has to go on strike for a year.
We should put the onus on broader government structures and law so that we actually make it easier for everybody to have it.