Monday, December 22, 2008

United Auto Workers and the Progressive Movement

Over at Kos, Trapper John explores the history of the United Auto Workers and the progressive movement in America. While he's right that the UAW has been more consistently progressive than any other union since World War II, he overplays his hand a bit. One of his subtitles in his piece reads, "The UAW Created the Progressive Movement."

Whoa there.

Walter Reuther's UAW consistently supported the civil rights movement and the Great Society, putting it much to the left of other unions. But to claim that the UAW created the progressive movement, or even played the most important role, is deeply problematic. Certainly, one cannot say that the UAW did more than the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, or gay rights movement for the current progressive movement. Moreover, the UAW took good stands but did a pretty poor job of educating their members on these issues. They might support affirmative action, but the big industrial Midwest states turned out Reagan Democrats in huge numbers. Part of creating a movement is making it more than the talk of leadership and the UAW didn't do a very good job on that, particularly concerning racial matters. Moreover, the UAW was quite wary of the student-led wing of the civil rights movement and Reuther played a major role in tampering down John Lewis' more confrontational speech draft at the March on Washington. Reuther's UAW also did very little to stand up to the redbaiting of the 1950s and the expulsion of the CIO's left-leaning unions.

Don't get me wrong--Walter Reuther was a great man. The UAW was a great union. They supported Cesar Chavez at an early date. They sponsored the Port Huron Conference. They supported the Equal Rights Amendment. They were far ahead of any other union on questions of civil rights. And perhaps most relevant for today, they pushed for nationalized health care harder than almost any organization in the United States. However, let's not be ahistorical here or make outlandish claims. The UAW did a lot of great things and should be lauded for them, but again, the leadership was far ahead of the membership on these issues and it was a lot easier to support civil rights than to convince GM auto workers to accept blacks working next to them.

The reality of course is that the modern progressive movement has many ancestors. Trapper John's piece screams of the old union advocate line that no progressive movement is possible without being led by unions. Maybe, but I'm not sure I believe it. I certainly think that economic considerations should be central to a progressive movement. I also think that, at least theoretically, unions should lead that part of the fight. But there have been great progressive movements in the past that unions have not led, or even been overtly hostile to, including the anti-Vietnam protests. I hope unions step up to the plate in the current movement and I hope the non-union parts of the coalition respect the experience and outlook of the unions. But I don't think it helps to claim that the UAW created the progressive movement. The evidence just does not add up.