Political Animal


November 29, 2012 4:30 PM When Republicans Didn’t Hate Unions

By Ed Kilgore

At the Daily Beast today, David Frum tells this story to illustrate the steady drift of American politics to the Right—and of the Republican Party to a position of open and active hostility to labor unions—over recent decades:

Here’s one data point I learn from Jean Edward Smith’s recent Eisenhower biography.
In 1950, Ike bought a Gettysburg farm with some of the proceeds from his World War II memoir. He proceeded to enlarge and renovate the farm house. The former D-Day commander was considering a presidential run. With his eye on his political viability, he insisted that all the work on the house be done by union labor.
Problem. There were few unionized building trades in rural Pennsylvania. Union labor had to drive to Gettysburg all the way from Baltimore - a trip that takes more than an hour now, after the building of the Interstate highways that were barely even imagined in 1950. Yet it had to be done. The alternative would have done Eisenhower real political damage when he did run for president in 1952.

Interesting. But you don’t have to go all the way back to Ike to find a GOP president with an exquisite sensitivity to showing respect for labor unions. Courting unions (the particular assignment of none other than future Watergate felon and then Christian Right leader Chuck Colson) was a big part of Richard Nixon’s strategy for not only getting re-elected in 1972 but for building a Republican majority nationally. With some help from George McGovern (and from a vengeful George Meany who really, really hated hippies!) he succeeded in keeping the AFL-CIO neutral in 1972. He made former New York building trades union leader Peter Brennan (a leader in inspiring the famous “Hard Hat Riots” of 1970 in which construction workers assaulted antiwar protestors) his Secretary of Labor in 1973. And in fact, his two most violent collisions with the labor movement involved his hard-core conservative policies of wage and price controls and affirmative action in construction hiring.

Nixon’s Presidential Labor Day Message of 1973 included this line, which I sort of doubt you’ll ever hear a contemporary Republican pol echo:

By working together, labor, management and government in America have achieved a standard of living and a climate of opportunity and individual rights unequalled in the history of man.

The same message referred to the United States as “the most prosperous, progressive nation in the world.”

Progessive? My, how far and wide the socialist conspiracy once spread its tentacles, even to the man who took down Alger Hiss!

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on November 29, 2012 4:58 PM:

    Even that feckin' idiototic old sc*mbag, Reagan, was President of SAG, before he decided to bite the union hands that once fed him.

    And most of our union-hating FUX Noise "personalities," are members of AFTRA.

  • martin on November 29, 2012 5:14 PM:

    All one has to do is go back to All In The Family. Archie Bunker was a union man and a right wing Republican.

    Growing up in a non-union environment, I always thought unions were right-wing based on the hard hat riots and Archie Bunker. Nonetheless, I joined a union at 18 and stayed in for 10 years. Would have stayed longer but left the trade.

  • TCinLA on November 29, 2012 5:36 PM:

    Eisenhower was hoping all those ex-GI union members would remember what a good General he'd been when they were out winning The Good War. Which they did in 1952.

    Always nice to be reminded how the AFL-CIO sold themselves out back then worrying about "culture war" issues rather than sticking with the ones who actually supported their issues, but I remember in 1967 having an argument with my cousin, then Secretary-Treasurer if the IAM local in Oakland, when he said that the Vietnam war was "good for employment." We never spoke again after I asked him if he thought his members didn't mind sacrificing their sons for their jobs.

    Now the same idiots whose "policies" back then led directly to their irrelevancy today, come around trying to act like it never happened. I for one have no trouble remembering the Hard Hat riots, and have no problem watching those assholes lose their jobs to immigrants who want to do more than check off an attendance sheet while they hand over their money to their Mafia "business agent" at the local.

  • HenryW on November 29, 2012 10:41 PM:

    This gets back to the Dixification of the GOP. The Virginia Republican Party threw away several thousand pieces of campaign literature it had printed up for some race in the 1980s when it discovered they had been printed at a union shop and therefore had a union bug on it.

  • mudwall jackson on November 30, 2012 1:26 AM:


    george meany died 32 years ago. i think it's time to let go ...