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Labor Party in the USA

Many in the newly reborn American socialist movement fervently hope that someday, in the face of numerous structural barriers, they can get a viable new party off the ground. But unfortunately, we can expect unions to be among the last to get on board with such a party.

Suffrage Procession, Wash[ington] D.C., May 9, 1914. Library of Congress

The most beloved Canadian of all time is not Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, or another hockey star. It’s not Pierre Trudeau, John Macdonald, or any of the country’s prime ministers. It’s Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan’s socialist premier who led the fight for Medicare in Canada. For decades he was a leading figure of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP). These parties have served as the Canadian labor movement’s independent political arm since the 1940s.

Douglas gave his famous “Mouseland” speech to a CCF party conference in 1944. It’s a funny and poignant political parable that lays out in popular terms why working people need their own party. In Douglas’s telling, Mouseland was a world of hardworking and civic-minded mice who, every four years, marched to the ballot box to elect a government of black cats. The cats did their job and passed good laws — but good laws for cats, not mice.

The lives of mice got harder and harder until they got fed up and voted out the black cats that ruled them for so long in favor of a new government run by white cats. But even with the white cats in charge, life was still bad for the mice. So they voted out the white cats, alternated between the black and white cats, even had a coalition government of all the cats.

But the trouble, as Douglas pointed out, wasn’t with the color of the cats — the trouble was with the fact that they were all cats.

Eventually, one of the mice had a revelation. Instead of electing governments made up of cats, it was time to elect a government of, by, and for the mice. The other mice didn’t take kindly to this idea at first. They denounced this visionary mouse as a Bolshevik and threw him in jail. But as Douglas concluded his sermon, “you can lock up a mouse or a man, but you can’t lock up an idea.”

For Douglas and his comrades in the CCF, that idea was the political independence of the working class, separate and apart from the black cats in the Conservative Party and the white cats in the Liberal Party. And in 1940s Canada, it was an idea whose time had come.

Below the 49th parallel, organized labor was moving in a different direction. While many industrial unionists still harbored aspirations for a national-level labor party, by the mid-1940s organized labor was firmly emplaced as a key component of the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition. As head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACW), Sidney Hillman had long supported the formation of a labor party. But with Roosevelt in the White House and the New Deal on the march, Hillman revised his position on the labor party question.

He acknowledged this shift in a 1936 memo to his union’s executive board:

The position of our organization is known: that we are for a labor party . . . But in the last two years things have happened . . . We have participated in making the labor policy of this administration . . . We know that the defeat of the Roosevelt Administration means no labor legislation for decades to come . . . The re-election of Roosevelt will not solve all our problems, but it will give us a breathing spell.

By the end of the war, Hillman had served as a member of the president’s National Defense Advisory Commission, associate director of the Office of Production Management, and the head of the War Production Board’s labor division. The Congress of Industrial Organizations – Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC) he led raised $1 million for Roosevelt’s 1944 reelection campaign and coordinated labor’s activities on behalf of Democratic Party candidates up and down the ticket.

With the coming of the New Deal, organized labor in the United States rejected both independent political action and the nonpartisan voluntarism of the Samuel Gompers era. Instead, it entered into a partnership with non-Southern Democrats that partially approximated the social-democratic party union alliances common in Western Europe.

As J. David Greenstone described it in his classic study Labor in American Politics, organized labor operates “neither as a working-class formation nor as a conventional interest group, but as an organized constituent interest of the Democratic Party.” The US labor movement was incorporated into the political system as one partisan political constituency among many others, not a class representative fighting for the interests of workers in general.

As Barry Eidlin makes clear in his excellent book Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, this divergence cannot be explained primarily by the many factors commonly used to explain the absence of a labor party in the United States. Canada’s higher level of union density, as well as the fact that it has a labor party, can only be understood as the outcome of struggles organized by the dominant political parties — Democrats and Republicans in the United States, Liberals and Conservatives in Canada.

The key moment in this process, according to Eidlin, was how the ruling parties in each country adopted different responses to the wave of worker and farmer unrest that swept North America in the 1930s and ’40s.

In Canada, the ruling party response was hostile and repressive. Liberals and Conservatives alike smashed strikes and imprisoned labor radicals, and refused to recognize labor’s political legitimacy until well into the 1940s. In contrast, important elements of the Democratic Party sought to co-opt and absorb the industrial union movement by incorporating it into the New Deal coalition.

North of the border, labor’s political exclusion led to labor’s political independence and its development as a class representative distinct from the two main parties. South of the border, labor’s political inclusion reduced its incentives for independent political action and led to its incorporation as a partisan-aligned Democratic Party constituency.

Eidlin’s work is crucial to understanding why US labor never formed its own party, and why this absence was not an inevitable by-product of American national character but the result of contingent political struggles. It makes clear why the only thing worse than having a perennially disappointing labor party like Canada’s NDP is not having one, and underscores the challenges US socialists will face in drawing organized labor out of its long-entrenched alliance with the Democratic Party. While it does not provide a fully satisfactory explanation for why the ruling parties took divergent approaches to Depression-era labor unrest, Labor and the Class Idea is indispensable reading for socialists and labor activists in North America.

Articles of Incorporation

US political culture does not suffer from any special allergy to independent left-wing or labor parties. Working people in Philadelphia, New York, and other cities formed some of the world’s first labor parties in the 1820s and ’30s.

In the 1840s, the Liberty and Free Soil Parties played a key role in building antislavery sentiment in northern and western states, which in turn fueled the development of the Republican Party in the 1850s. In the decades after the Civil War, workers and farmers around the country formed a wide array of insurgent political movements to give voice to their grievances: the Greenback Party, the Readjusters, the Socialist Labor Party, and, above all, the People’s (Populist) Party.

The Socialist Party played a minor but influential role in US politics until government repression broke its strength, and the Farmer–Labor Party (FLP) movement was a live political force across the country’s northern tier in the mid-1920s. The Minnesota FLP was the most successful expression of that movement, and succeeded in becoming the state’s first party before merging with the Democrats in 1944.

Realistic labor party possibilities remained open into the late 1940s. In The New Men of Power, C. Wright Mills found that roughly one-quarter of CIO leaders he surveyed supported the immediate formation of a labor party, while two-thirds supported its formation within the next ten years. Labor support for Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign was small but noticeable, and important elements of the industrial union movement, particularly United Auto Workers (UAW) activists around Emil Mazey, were prepared to launch an independent party of workers and farmers if Harry S. Truman lost his reelection bid. But Democratic presidential candidate Truman’s unexpected victory in 1944, plus liberal Democratic gains in Congress and at the state level, pushed preparations for a viable labor-led third party off into the indefinite future, where they have remained ever since.

Independent worker-farmer protest parties tended to receive significantly more support in the United States than in Canada prior to the 1930s, despite Canada’s parliamentary system and supposedly more collectivist political culture. The challenge, therefore, is to explain why support for such parties took off in Canada in the mid-1930s while simultaneously collapsing in the United States.

Eidlin explains this divergence through a “political articulation” framework that focuses on the role of political parties in articulating political coalitions. In particular, he focuses on the divergent approaches ruling parties in the two countries took to the structure of partisan conflict and the political use of public policy.

Franklin Roosevelt was never a full-throated supporter of the industrial labor movement. As a scion of New York’s Knickerbocker aristocracy, he brought all of the assumptions and prejudices of his class with him to the White House. This included a certain remoteness from the tumult of everyday life, and the deep frustrations and resentments that pervade working-class life in America.

Faced with the 1937 stalemate between the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and the “Little Steel” companies, Roosevelt declared “a plague on both your houses” instead of lining up with the embattled strikers. Roosevelt’s studied aloofness from this conflict spurred CIO chieftain John L. Lewis to issue his classic admonishment to the president: “It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.”

Lewis was well within his rights to complain. In 1936, Hillman, Lewis, and the CIO launched Labor’s Nonpartisan League (LNPL) to raise funds and mobilize votes for Roosevelt’s first reelection campaign, playing a key role in propelling Roosevelt and the Democrats to an historic landslide victory. Tensions between labor and the Democrats certainly remained, but by the mid-1930s it was clear that non-Southern Democrats in particular viewed organized labor not just as a legitimate political actor, but an important political constituency to court.

This operated first at the level of rhetorical appeals. Roosevelt and Democrats at all levels appealed to the “forgotten man” at the bottom of the social pyramid, and identified the Democratic Party as their friend and protector while attacking the “economic royalists” whose greed had plunged the country into ruin. But these appeals went beyond campaign rhetoric and into the realm of public policy. New Deal agricultural and labor policies certainly did not attack the foundations of capitalist property relations, but they did confer real material benefits on struggling farmers and workers.

While many New Deal agricultural policies privileged established interests and excluded many tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers (particularly African Americans and poor whites in the South), they also provided many small-time farmers with relief subsidies and a farm foreclosure moratorium to consolidate their support. In the realm of industrial policy, measures like the 1935 Wagner Act provided the legal framework for union organization and collective bargaining that US unions had lacked for decades. These and other policies drew small farmers and workers into the New Deal coalition while alienating certain sectors of the business class, deepening the Democrats’ dependence on working-class support, and cementing the alliance between the party and the unions.

What’s more, American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders thought that the Wagner Act favored the industrial unions of the CIO at their expense. This generated bitter internecine conflict that foreclosed the possibility of effective joint labor party activity at the local and state levels.

Taken together, these developments made the Democratic Party the only game in town and suppressed previously promising movements toward independent, labor-led political action.

In Canada, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals sought to entice discontented farmers and workers into their respective political coalitions. According to Eidlin, the Liberal and Conservative parties’ “responses to the crisis differed only in their degree of repressiveness toward farmer and labor groups.” Neither party sought to make a class-based appeal to workers and farmers, nor did they implement New Deal–style public policies to confer meaningful material benefits on either of these social blocs.

After re-entering the government in 1935, Liberals under prime minister Mackenzie King reversed some of the worst anti-labor policies of their Conservative predecessors. But they refused to implement a Canadian version of the Wagner Act, and continued to exclude labor and farmer groups from their political coalition.

As World War II approached, King realized he had to enlist labor’s cooperation in wartime production and issued an order recognizing collective bargaining rights for war production workers. But as Eidlin points out, that “order” was strictly advisory, lacked any enforcement mechanisms, and was ignored by the employers. Unlike Hillman, the UAW’s Walter Reuther, and other American labor leaders, Canadian labor was also excluded from wartime planning agencies and played no meaningful role in the industrial side of Canada’s war effort.

In the long run, political exclusion actually benefited the Canadian labor movement. The unwillingness of the Liberals and Conservatives to absorb or co-opt labor allowed the CCF to step into the vacuum that pro-labor New Deal Democrats filled in the United States. The relative hostility of the Canadian state produced greater unity in labor’s ranks and attenuated the internal conflicts that made common political action more difficult to achieve in the United States.

And because Canadian labor was politically incorporated as a class representative rather than a partisan-aligned interest group, this helped create a tripartite labor regime that, for all its flaws and limitations, has allowed Canada’s unions to maintain a higher level of density and political strength than their American counterparts. The absence of a United States labor party matters, not just for the unions who would constitute it but for everyone who would benefit from a stronger welfare state and a more representative political system.

Eidlin’s account of the marked divergence between the Canadian and US labor movements is compelling and does a better job of answering the questions it addresses than most competing accounts. It focuses on the right time period and the most salient dynamics for explaining why a viable, labor-led third party has never developed in the United States, and contextualizes why American unions have fared so much worse than their counterparts elsewhere.

But the biggest weakness of Labor and the Class Idea is that while it correctly identifies contingent partisan conflicts as the main factor driving labor regime divergence, it does not provide a fully satisfying explanation for exactly why Canadian Liberals and New Deal Democrats actually adopted different strategies.

Suffrage Matters

We can begin to answer that question by comparing the histories of suffrage extension in the United States and Canada. As Alexander Keyssar argues in his monumental history The Right to Vote, class and property have played a leading role in shaping the boundaries of suffrage rights in the United States. While the right to vote has been limited in many ways down to the present, the United States was unique in its early extension of suffrage rights to propertyless white men. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of adult white men were eligible to vote as early as 1790, and by the 1850s turnout in various American locales reached 80 percent of all adult males.

Of course, suffrage was still far from universal, and the right to vote continued to be contested. There were subsequent unsuccessful attempts to strip industrial workers of their suffrage, women did not win a constitutional right to vote until 1920, and the voting rights of many African Americans were violently suppressed until well into the twentieth century. Even so, the United State was an international outlier in terms of the speed and scale at which it extended the right to vote to certain members of the “lower orders.”

The main political parties wasted little time in fighting to incorporate them into their respective political coalitions. Democrats and Whigs (and later Republicans) fought for the allegiance of poor white men as early as the 1820s, before the development of industrial capitalism, a permanent wage-labor class, and mass working-class organizations like trade unions. By the time the idea of a mass workers’ or socialist party could even be conceived, large sections of the working classes had already been sorted into the two main parties along regional, racial, ethno-religious, and other lines.

In that sense, the incorporation of the industrial labor movement into the New Deal coalition was part of a long-standing pattern of partisan conflict and coalition building in the United States. As Greenstone put it in Labor in American Politics, this process of incorporation “depended on realigning many long-enfranchised workers into one political party, itself traditionally capitalist, which then through the New Deal helped create a friendly industrial-union movement.”

The extension of the suffrage played out quite differently in Canada. In the United States, the lack of a powerful landlord class in the northern and western states meant that there was no major social group with both the power and interest to block the extension of voting rights in these areas. The situation was different in much of Canada, where, as Göran Therborn observes, “small settlers were no match for the wealthy mercantile bourgeoisie of the Saint Lawrence river, the Tory squires of Ontario and the traditionalist French community of Quebec, closely shepherded by the Catholic hierarchy.”

Universal suffrage in federal elections was not attained until 1920 (though First Nations people did not win the right to vote in federal elections without losing treaty rights until 1960), and property and poll-tax restrictions on voting rights persisted at the provincial level in Quebec and Prince Edward Island until after World War II. In Canada, mass suffrage came later than it did in the United States and was more circumscribed by restrictions related to class and property ownership. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives had a strong tradition of absorbing lower-class voters into their ranks, and Canadian workers had not yet developed the attachments to either of the two main parties that many of their American counterparts had already formed decades earlier.

Eidlin is correct to argue that contingent political struggles shaped the divergent ruling party approaches to labor’s political incorporation in the United States and Canada. But by neglecting to situate these approaches in the larger and longer context of suffrage rights and partisan competition, his account doesn’t offer a clear explanation of why those strategies were adopted in the first place.

Party in the USA?

Despite this gap, Labor and the Class Idea is one of the best available guides to making sense of “American exceptionalism” and the labor party question. Among other things, it shows how US labor’s marriage to the Democratic Party hasn’t exactly been “barren,” as Mike Davis has argued. The labor movement did make meaningful gains through the New Deal coalition, even if it was also constrained by the conservative coalition of racist, anti-labor Southern Democrats and Republicans.

And while labor in the private sector has eroded to the point of near oblivion, labor’s relatively strong position in the public sector has been maintained to a significant extent, for better or worse, through political alliances with Democratic Party officeholders. The marriage may not be barren, but it has given us some rather disappointing children.

The New Deal order has been dead for decades, but US labor is, with very few exceptions, still committed to the party-union alliance it struck with the Democratic Party in the 1930s. Despite the diminished returns, it will continue to be very difficult for the socialist movement or anyone else to draw labor out of the Democratic coalition and into a new and untested political formation. The relative openness and flexibility of US political parties is what drew labor into the Democratic Party’s orbit in the first place. So long as unions can exert influence and protect their organizations through alliances with Democratic officeholders they will continue to do so.

None of this to suggest that the formation of a mass independent labor or working-class party is an impossible task. But there are good reasons why the Republican Party is still, almost 170 years after its founding, the only third party in American history to become a major party. If the new socialist movement does manage to get a viable new party off the ground, expect the unions to be among the last to get on board with it.