When Republicans Didn’t Hate Unions

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.