Between Classes: The Rise and Fall and Rebirth of the Labor-Intellectual Alliance

Monday, March 8, 2021 - 1:00pm
Steve Fraser

The New Deal saw the emergence of a progressive alliance between intellectuals and unions. Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” designed policies and programs responding to popular demands from organized workers. This shaped the political landscape of the U.S. up into the 1960s. But this alliance was broken by the 1970s as capital’s offensive against unions weakened their countervailing power and neoliberalism replaced social liberalism as the dominant political ideology.

Historian Steve Fraser will recount this trajectory and the effort to reconstitute an intellectual-labor alliance after the election of John Sweeney of SEIU to the presidency of the AFL. Fraser was one of the organizers of a day-long "Teach-In With the Labor Movement" at Columbia University in 1996. The teach-in was a big event at which Cornel West, Betty Friedan, Richard Rorty, and of course John Sweeney all spoke. After years of decline in unionism, Sweeney’s ousting of the AFL’s old guard had aroused hope for a rejuvenated labor movement. Nevertheless, in spite of the new leadership's commitment to militant organizing of the unorganized, including especially women and workers of color, labor continued to decline in the face of the class war of advancing neoliberalism. By the time Sweeny retired some fifteen years later union membership had declined by another three million. [Sweeny died just last month at the age of 86. ]

As the U.S. enters a new political period with a Democratic White House and Congress, hopes are renewed for progressive change to address accumulated problems. Steve Fraser will share his insights on the prospects for an intellectual-labor alliance today drawing on his experience with such an effort 25 years ago. What can be done at the leadership level depends heavily on how active and well organized citizens are. Key among these are organized workers, labor organizers and Left intellectuals. A rejuvenated progressive labor movement with class consciousness and solidarity at its core is central to progressive politics today – as it has been through much of our history.

Steve Fraser is a prolific historian who has chronicled the impact of wealth and power on American democracy. He has told the story of the rise and fall of the New Deal order as well as the more recent rise of the Right. His The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power is a stirring account of the militant resistance of workers in the Gilded Age and the contrasting acquiescence we see today.