Labor and Progressives in the Progressive Era
March 10, 2012

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is generally one of the more thoughtful political theory blogs out there, so this post was a disappointment. Basically, in the course of accusing Corey Robin of badly mischaracterizing libertarian views, author Jessica Flanigan herself badly mischaracterizes the historical relationship between unions and the progressive movement. She writes:

But I also suspect that there’s a deeper, more fundamental anxiety about libertarians that goes beyond politics. Internal to progressivism there is a tension between its historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots and its avowed concern for the worst off. In practice, it looks like direct governmental intervention and union support no longer works to the benefit of society’s worst off. Progressive opposition to policies like voucher programs are a great example of this tension, as is the current health care mess and the regressive social security system. In a lot of cases, market solutions do a better job of furthering progressive aims than the state run policies that progressives favor, and even the worst off value economic liberty.

Let’s table any questions about the relative merits of school vouchers and social security for now, since it’s not in my wheelhouse and argument-by-links is generally an indication that we’re supposed to take pronouncements like “vouchers are awesome” and “social security is regressive” as premises. I’m willing to do that for the sake of this particular argument. But there’s a very curious omission here: after going on about the “historical pro-union and direct governmentalist roots” of progressivism, Flanigan goes on to talk about only the latter root-category. It’s almost as if she had to get in a casual swipe at the labor movement before moving on to what she really wanted to talk about.

The counter-argument, I suppose, is that progressive opposition to vouchers is all about unions, specifically the teachers’ union. But A) no, and B) you can’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone with any interest in organized labor if you choose to treat the labor movement as just another interest group whose primary goal is to lobby the government for goodies. Being “pro-union” means a hell of a lot more than just endorsing legislation that some unionized workers might like.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with the above passage (at least from a labor perspective) is its blithe reference to progressivism’s “historical pro-union roots.” Yes, the interests of early 20th century progressives and organized labor did often align, but there were also serious philosophical clashes between the two parties. In particular, the progressives had a technocratic rationalist streak that led to some rather authoritarian views on the proper role of labor in society. Some of the era’s most prominent progressives even endorsed Frederick Taylor’s systematic assault on workers’ control over their own labor. From David Montgomery’s classic Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles:

Thus Taylor roundly denied even “the high class mechanic” could “ever thoroughly understand the science of doing his work,” and pasted the contemptuous label of “soldiering” over all craft rules, formal and informal alike. Progressive intellectuals seconded his arguments. Louis Brandeis hailed scientific management for “reliev[ing] labor of responsibilities not its own.” And John R. Commons considered it “immoral to hold up to this miscellaneous labor, as a class, the hope that it can ever manage industry.”

“Historical pro-union roots,” indeed.

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