Labor Day is not an occasion that typically prompts appreciative reflection from conservative bloggers. But we at The Giving Review have a somewhat-unusual relationship to labor unions, as our readers know.

We have frequently discussed an approach to philanthropy called “other-side” giving. It’s rooted in the tenacious resistance organized American labor put up against Soviet imperialism at the onset of the Cold War, well before the U.S. government itself grasped the danger. American labor leaders like Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown quietly funneled dollars, advisors, and other resources to left-leaning but independent labor unions in West Germany, France, Italy, and other European nations, where Communist front unions were pressing for their absorption into the Soviet bloc. In time, the American government and some private foundations would come to back this effort, as well as providing funding for leftist journals, writers, and artists who knew that free intellectual life was impossible under Communism.

“Other-side” support was essential in these circumstances because there was no substantial conservative or libertarian counter-force to Communism within those nations, even had funders sought it out. At any rate, the non-Communist left at the time, having experienced Soviet methods directly or seen them up close, arose within the house of labor itself, and spoke with an authenticity and passion that no free-market theorist could approximate.

This history has been largely forgotten today, both by libertarian foes of unionism as such, as well as by progressives embarrassed by the unions’ anti-Communist fervor at the time. And though under George Meany and Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO continued to support free labor around the globe against totalitarianism, things changed dramatically in 1995.

Lane Kirkland

That was the year John Sweeney took the helm at the union, determined to revive labor’s flagging fortunes by throwing its weight entirely behind the left-most, post-materialist tendencies within the Democratic Party. Instead of focusing on traditional issues like wages, hours, and working conditions, the AFL-CIO suddenly found itself sponsoring college teach-ins, as Matt Labash noted, featuring panelists like “Katha Pollitt, Betty Friedan, and Cornel West, who discussed such sheet-metal-worker favorites as ‘Race and the Wages of Whiteness’ and ‘Culture, Identity and Class Politics.’”

Sweeney was even a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, before it was cool. As a final insult to the anti-Communist heritage of American labor, the AFL-CIO repealed its long-standing ban on Communist membership.  Gus Hall, chairman of the Communist Party USA, repaid Sweeney by proclaiming that “the radical shift in both leadership and policy is a very positive, even historic change.”

Anti-Sweeney standing

It was in these circumstances that The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where my two co-editors and I worked at the time, undertook some “other-side” giving of its own. Bradley began funding the Foundation for Democratic Education (FDE), founded by Penn Kemble, an ardent social democrat who had been a national leader of the Socialist Party’s youth branch and acting director of USAID under President Clinton. Kemble provided a rallying point for left-leaning, but anti-Sweeney labor activists, just as the union had once supported anti-Communist labor leaders in Europe.

Kemble accepted the then-emerging global reach of business, but argued that it should be accompanied by the global spread of free unions as well, which would strive to improve working conditions in low-wage regions of the world. At home, he believed that the revival of labor fortunes was not to be found in political alliances with the left-most wing of the Democratic Party, but rather through making union membership more relevant within the new economy, with a focus on educating workers in the new skills it demanded.

As Kemble noted in Workforce Development and the New Unionism, a book he edited with contributions from such notable labor leaders as Gus Tyler, Morton Bahr, and David Kusnet, “many unions still retain a capacity to establish communities of support among certain categories of skilled workers, to set up systems of credentials and licensing for such workers, and to press employers to hire workers with these proven qualifications.”

We understood full well that Bradley’s support of FDE fell outside the customary ambit of conservative grantmaking, since it did nothing to challenge unionism itself. But comfortably right-wing efforts like “right-to-work” laws or paycheck-protection initiatives did not seem likely, at the time, to provide any sort of effective push-back against Sweeney’s radicalism.

A moderate bloc within labor itself, however—comfortable with both capitalism and union-organizing—could speak with standing and moral authority against the dangers of Sweeney’s far-left politics. Bradley and FDE could agree to work together for success in that struggle, while bracketing the myriad differences around labor policy that otherwise still divided us.

The continuing quest for community

Beyond the immediate objective of countering Sweeney’s radicalism, though, there was a larger understanding behind our mutual strivings. As Kemble noted in Workforce Development, by going beyond just mobilizing votes for Democratic candidates, but in fact engaging in intensive education and skill-building, unions could help forge a genuinely democratic citizen, fully able to participate meaningfully in every aspect of civic life.

“The discipline and pride that workers develop in the process of acquiring knowledge and mastery can be powerful democratizing forces,” Kemble wrote.  “The workplaces of skilled workers are always very different from those of mere ‘hands.’ Those present have a sense of empowerment.  They are usually more confident of their abilities to participate effectively in broader areas of decision-making.”

That was very much in line with the Bradley Foundation’s objective at the time: to cultivate a “new citizenship” among Americans, which would move them from being sporadic voters or passive, helpless recipients of professional social services, to being active shapers and molders of their own community life, wherein they could live according to the moral and spiritual principles that compelled their belief.

In that effort, we drew on the wisdom of conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet. He argued in his 1953 masterpiece The Quest for Community that totalitarianism always came first for the labor unions, because in their encouragement of self-organization among the “masses,” free unions obstructed the essential shift of allegiance away from local associations toward the centralized, omnicompetent state.

New edition in 2010

Free-market champions, in turn, were profoundly mistaken in their hostility to unions, Nisbet believed. “Not to the imaginary motives of the individualist but to the associational realities of the labor union, the cooperative, and the enlightened industrial community must we look for the real defenses against political invasions of economic freedom,” he wrote.

But unfortunately there are still large areas of the economy and large segments of public opinion that are inclined to treat such associations as these as manifestations of collectivism, all of a piece with the authoritarian State. The mythology of individualism continues to reign in discussions of economic freedom. By too many partisans of management the labor union is regarded as a major obstacle to economic autonomy and as partial paralysis of capitalism.

As many contemporary writers about societal disintegration have noted, the great task before us today is to reconstruct those immediate, intense communities—among which must be “the labor union, the cooperative, and the enlightened industrial community”—that can once again draw us out of individual isolation and passive resignation, into a larger and more-vigorous civic engagement.

On Labor Day 2019, we would do well to reflect on any potential ways that conservative funders and labor organizers might work together again to fulfill the promise of associational life.

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