• Facebook - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle

Why is the "welfare state" and the Left so different in the United States?

May 26, 2019

Edited by Nuevo Curso


U.S. state capitalism has given unions a quite minor role in the institutional and political architecture. Unlike the fascisms - from Italy to Argentina - and the postwar models - from Stalinist to the so-called European "welfare states" - it hardly even gives them a secondary role. To understand the cause, which is in turn the origin of so many differences in political discourse and the justification and form of distribution of welfare, we have to go back to the crisis of 1929 and the imperialist Second World War.


The crisis of 1929


The fastest-growing industries - automotive, mining, iron and steel - still did not have "industrial" organizations with the capacity to enclose the workers within the framework of the state in the way that their European counterparts have done. The American bourgeoisie, which had already begun to evolve at full speed towards state capitalism with Hoover, was speeding up the process with Roosevelt and his New Deal. The effort would trap the workers into "representative" unions that were empowered and inflated by the government". In 1933, collective bargaining was legally established. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (known as the "Wagner Act") enshrined Rooseveltian "harmonism" forcing companies to negotiate "in good faith" with any union supported by the majority of their workers. The new framework encouraged unions to massively recruit unskilled workers and, as a result, strikes became normalized during the 1930s and until the beginning of the second imperialist war. Everything seemed to indicate that the U.S. was heading towards state capitalism in a similar way as that of the European countries.



World War II


The first major blow to trade union power would come in the midst of an imperialist war, in 1943, with the War Labor Disputes Act of 1943. The law had been sponsored by two Democratic congressmen but was supported mainly by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which hoped to put a halt to the strikes that had been occurring. The law also banned unions from funding candidates in elections, and although it was repealed six months after the end of the war, this particular provision was incorporated into the Taft Hartley Act of 1947, which remains in force to this day. This prohibition did not affect the AFL, the large craft union, since it refrained from any political action, but the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). 


The CIO was a union linked to the Democratic Party and committed to defending the New Deal. For example, it supported the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the state body created by the New Deal and responsible for enforcing wage agreements in each industry to prevent "unfair competition" between companies. The AFL, on the other hand, opposed it because it saw how the homogenizing tendency of working conditions, inherent in state capitalism and accelerated by this institution, led to the annulment of agreements based on craft that only held validity for a single company, signed by its affiliated unions.


The CIO had already created in 1942 -a year of legislative elections- a PAC (Political Action Committee) to channel union funds to Democratic candidates without directly donating to them, a path that would serve to avoid the legal prohibition of financing campaigns from 1943. The result of these elections was interpreted as a blow to the New Deal along with the CIO. The abolition of the National War Labor Board (NWLB) in 1945 was another blow. The unions had been a mainstay of the war effort and the Labor Board represented the pinnacle of that collaboration. Its dissolution relegated the unions to a much less relevant role in the reconversion effort. The president of the union, Philip Murray, after the NWLB was abolished, stated in exasperation, "there was nothing you could do with the Government, you were pushed right back to where you were before the war".


Despite the legal prohibition and the trade union effort to avoid strikes, the years '44 and '45 saw a new awakening of independent strikes. Faced with union powerlessness to contain it, President Truman - who had succeeded Roosevelt - threatened a direct offensive against labor rights: "Subversive attacks upon essential production are the gravest threats to the permanent success of the Labor’s Bill of Rights [the Wagner Act] ". The Wagner Act guaranteed the right to strike and this was an obvious danger to war, unsustainable without a submissive and well-disciplined proletariat.[1]


The working class was hit hard by the post-war period. The mass demobilization and the end of the war demand increased unemployment month by month. The government pushed inflation to free itself from the burden of the tremendous amount of debt issued to finance the war effort. The daily life of the workers ranged from unemployment, instability, precariousness and falling real wages. The discontent was not limited to the government but was beginning to spread to a trade union apparatus debtor of a New Deal whose promises never seemed to be fulfilled.



Trade union researchers had concluded that a 30% wage increase was what workers needed to compensate for reduced hours worked and inflation. As a result, they were to hold it up as a demand. As soon as the National War Labor Board was abolished, they appealed to the government and pushed for a wage increase in exchange for a yearlong no-strike pledge. But the government refused. The CIO then reacted to the growing discontent of the workers towards their conditions and the union, by putting itself at the head of the strikes, even though many broke out without its help. One of the strikes that broke out during the strike wave was the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike that lasted from 1945-1946, in which 320,000 General Motors workers went on strike demanding a 30% increase in wages. In addition, 750,000 steel workers went on strike for 25 days. And 400,000 workers in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) ended up shutting down the coal industry. In addition, 250,000 engineers and trainmen went on strike for two days, precipitating a national crisis. Throughout 1945 and 1946, there were no small number of additional wildcat strikes.[2]


In 1946, Congress won a Republican majority. A new war was imminent for the American bourgeoisie, then with Russia, and believed that the time had come to "discipline" the workers again. Strikes were castigated as a product of "communism" and the "New Deal" was criticized for giving too many "privileges" to unions that created more problems than they could fix for capital. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed: the right to strike was restricted, and wildcat strikes, closed shop agreement were prohibited, strikes by one union against another, and solidarity strikes, among other things, were banned. The same law reinforced the ideological control of civil servants under the new parameters of the Cold War: members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were obligated to pledge loyalty each year and sign a noncommunist affidavit.[3]


This whole offensive was directed against the workers, whose struggles have put on the defensive an increasingly war-oriented capital. But, within the state, the blow was dealt to the trade unions. Their inability to keep the workers disciplined in the final years of the war and their wage activism had made the bourgeoisie consider the role that they played under the Roosevelt administration as no longer necessary. Seen from the eyes of the American bourgeoisie, the unions did not guarantee "social peace" in times of war because they did not have real control over the workers of all productive sectors and, when they tried to obtain it, it was on the basis of exacerbating a conflict that the bourgeoisie was also not about to permit in the period of reconstruction.


Of course, state capitalism did not retreat one iota, it was only the Rooseveltian shell of social "harmonism" that became obsolete. The omnipresence of what will end up being called the Cold War would only become more and more important. These were years of crazed development of militarism to the point that power over the political apparatus of the "military-industrial complex" managed to frighten President Eisenhower himself.


The final result would differentiate the discourse of the American political apparatus from that of the European one. In Europe, the central role of trade unions in the state would attribute to the "social dialogue" the "conquests" of the "welfare state" raised during reconstruction. It is the famous "social democratic consensus". In the USA, however, the absence of "strong unions" in the state apparatus during the years of reconstruction would lead the democrats to replace the discourse of "welfare" with the "defense of minorities" as the discursive articulator of the system of income distribution among the working class. The Republicans, for their part, would make the rejection of the unions an essential part of their politics. 

















[1] Irving Richter, Labor’s Struggles, 1945- 1950 A Participant’s View (United States: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1994), 1-46


[2] Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, Immanuel Ness, The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2009), 216-219


[3] Irving Richter, Labor’s Struggles, 1945- 1950 A Participant’s View (United States: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1994), 47-59

Please reload