The Kalmanovitz Initiative’s director, Joseph A. McCartin, spoke at the headquarters of the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC, on January 13, 2010. The title of his talk was, “Labor’s Great War: Then and Now.” In it he drew parallels between the unsettled state of present-day US labor relations and the tumultous years of the progressive era and World War I when the outlines of 20th-century US labor policy first began to take shape.
McCartin argued that parallels many observers have recently drawn between the New Deal era and the present make less sense than parallels that can be drawn between the present and the tumultuous period when the United States was adjusting to the impact of industrialism in the early 20th century. Then, as today, workers saw their jobs and workplaces redefined by new technology and new methods of production as well as by the impact of global trade and immigration; then, as today, the labor movement was divided and marginalized; and then, as today, reformers agreed on the need for a national labor policy, but could not agree on its proper outlines.
Out of that early period of tumult and conflict, McCartin argued, the foundations for what became the New Deal’s Wagner Act were laid. Reformers in those formative years eventually gravitated to the ideal of “industrial democracy” as the vision that ought to inform an American approach to industrial relations. Reformers today will need to find an equivalent ideal around which to rally, McCartin suggested, if they are to update and transform US labor relations for the 21st century. And since US labor law has remained basically unchanged since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, such a rethinking is long overdue.