May 2, 2012

Remembering When (and Why) I Had Great Hope for Our Nation's Future

A week or two ago, I saw a new documentary, Brothers on Line, the story of the Reuther brothers and the 40-year chronology of their establishing the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the 1930s. Together, they created one of the most influential unions ever, winning unprecedented quality-of-life enhancements in the 1950s and '60s, and assuming an active role in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Walter Reuther, president of the UAW for nearly three decades, was a visionary negotiator and statesman. His brothers Roy and Victor advised him on community, political and international affairs.

The Reuthers, the Labor Movement, and Me
The history depicted in the film was also a big part of my history. I graduated in 1952 from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. My first three college semesters were spent in Cornell's liberal arts college, but I ran out of money to pay the tuition there. Fortunately Cornell, though primarily a privately endowed (i.e. high tuition) university, also has several colleges subsidized by the state of New York. When I considered transferring into one of these tuition-free schools, my curiculum choices were agriculture, home economics, veterinary medicine, and labor relations. The choice was easy.

Soon enough, I developed a genuine interest in labor relations. After getting kicked out of Cornell Law School in March, 1955, a few months shy of graduation (another story for another time), I lucked out, landing a job as a starting labor editor at BNA (now Bloomberg/BNA), a leading publisher of labor relations information. I began a career at BNA -- in labor and employee relations -- that lasted for forty years.

The Labor Movement and the Rise of the Middle Class
The period from the end of World War II (1945) to the early 1970s is generally regarded as the Golden Age for American capitalism. The Reuther film's depiction of those years reminded me of the two factors that probably contributed the most to this:
  • The "GI Bill"  Passed in 1944, this law provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (GIs). These included low-cost mortgages, loans to start a business or farm, cash payments for tuition, and living expenses to attend college, high school, or vocational training. By the end of the program, roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the bills's education benefits to attend colleges or universities. Most of these men and women were the first in their families to get a higher education. This provided the well-educated work force essential to the postwar economic boom. And, combined with its subsidy for home buying, the GI Bill created the large new middle class whose appetite for goods and services fueled much of this economic growth.
  • The Labor Movement  Union membership as a percentage of non-farm workers peaked at nearly one third of the workforce in the early and mid '50s. During the 50s and 60s, the wages and benefits negotiated by the major unions -- such as the Auto Workers and the Steelworkers -- set the pattern not only for other unionized companies, but also for non-union companies who realized they had to provide similar benefits if they wanted to remain non-union. As a result, the growth during the postwar economic boom was distributed fairly evenly across economic classes, unlike today. Innovations negotiated during those years included employer-paid holidays and vacations, pensions, life and health insurance, and supplemental unemployment benefits.
My employer (BNA) was a small company that negotiated with a weak unit of the American Newspaper Guild. As a result of bargaining set by the "Big Boys," my colleagues and I expected pay increases every year and significant improvements in employee benefits every two years when our contract was renegotiated. Since the economy was strong, most of us also expected merit increases every year or two, and regular promotions.

This was one of the reasons why I suggested my generation should be called "The Lucky Generation" in a post last fall.

The Labor Movement and Civil Rights (and Me)
The Reuther documentary also shows how the Auto Workers and other major unions marshaled their resources to support the burgeoning civil rights movement during this period.

Shortly after arriving in Washington in 1955, I participated in picketing the Wardman Park Hotel to protest its refusal to admit blacks to its swimming pool. But the beginning (and high point) of my lengthy list of Washington protest marches came in August, 1963, when I joined the huge March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that culminated with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

One of the things I've enjoyed about living in Washington is the opportunity to be a bit player in the many protests and marches here. My old photo albums -- and my more recent computer photo file folders -- are filled with pictures of events for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, anti-war protests. Name one of these DC happenings and the chances are pretty good I was there (often astride my bike). I liked feeling that I was an eyewitness to history in the making.

So Much Reason for Hope Then, and So Little Now
When the Reuther film got me thinking about those years, I recalled my real hope for "progress, not perfection" back then. Sadly, I no longer have the same feelings about positive progress in our nation's values and well-being. 

The marches and protests then were accompanied by changes -- not as many or as fast as we wanted -- but still, discernible progress was being made. Civil rights are so improved these days for blacks, women, and gays that it's almost difficult to believe how things really were just a few decades ago.

Take women's rights as an example. Can you believe that in my lifetime women reporters were not admitted to the main floor of the National Press Club when world leaders appeared to deliver major addresses? These women professionals had to cover the events from the balcony! When the White House Correspondents' Association held its annual black-tie event last weekend (an event women reporters couldn't even attend until JFK forced the issue in 1962), the WHCA official presiding over the gala was a woman -- Caren Bohan from Reuters.

Similarly, I remember enjoying two (or more) martini lunches at the Cosmos Club -- probably Washington's most prestigious private social club -- with my friend Penny, whose husband was a club member. I would enter the club through the grand main entrance, but Penny had to enter through a small side doorway marked "Women's Entrance." It wasn't until 1988 that women were admitted to membership. Today, a woman neighbor of mine is vice president of the club.

Moreover, as I've already mentioned, most of us had cause for hope in our personal lives because the economic progress in those years seemed evenly distributed. And progressive legislation was being enacted by bipartisan majorities. I certainly wasn't a big fan of Richard Nixon, but because he was willing to work with leaders of the Democratic majority in Congress, his presidency saw the enactment of the Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. He also added "gender" to the executive order prohibiting discrimination by government contractors.

Those leaders in Congress -- both Republican and Democratic -- look like giants compared to today's pygmies. 

I've been a political junkie virtually all my life. Four years ago, I spent countless hours watching and listening to the talk shows, reading the political news and columnists, and talking politics with friends because I still had hope for positive political change and economic progress. No longer. I'm certain the gridlock of the past four years will continue, whether Obama wins or Romney wins.

Fortunately, I still see great hope for progress when I look at my family and close friends. To maintain my usual sunny, upbeat outlook, that's where I need to focus my attention.  


Dorothy Pugh said...

John, great article.  I'm sending it on to my neighbor who met Walter Reuther years ago, and to a Wisconsin friend, who is constantly picking on the Obamas.  She believes everything Fox puts out and won't listen to any other opinions.  (There's probably no help for her.)  She calls Michele Obama a "diva" and says they have spent 25 million on parties at the White House, plus lots of $500 bottles of wine, etc.  She faults Michele for buying designer clothes, but ignores Nancy Reagan's wardrobe.  She thinks the Bushes were "classy!"  Anyway, thanks for this.  Very interesting.

Larry said...

I am guessing you were not really filled with hope when Nixon won that election in 1972, but you can look back now and see some good things happened even during that period.  When MLK and RFK were killed in 1968, I was not feeling good about my country . . . .   With some time, we shall feel better even about this time.  None of out institutions (not just the useless politicians) look good now, but we will get through this period.  Life goes on and dental care keeps getting better . . . .   When are having lunch?  

Mmundew said...

John: A great column. Also after WWII a man could work at a job.  The wife did not have to work. They could buy a home and a car and enjoy the good life.  No more.  I remember a statement from Walter Reuther.  He was being shown through a new auto plant and the exec. was proudly showing off all of the robots. Reuther's response was "Who is going to buy the cars."