In 1952, John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard professor with a specialty in agricultural economics, had his hands full. Namely, a best selling book. It was called American Capitalism, the Concept of Countervailing Power. In it Galbraith made a case for a uniquely American solution for economic stability and progress. It entailed a grand bargain and balance between corporations, unions, and consumers. It contrasted with the rapidly emerging European efforts that focused on nationalization, central planning, and heavy regulation.
A key element in Galbraith’s view was the power of organized labor. In 1952 more than a third of the U.S. workforce were union members, despite the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act (over Truman’s veto) in 1947. Moreover, most union members worked for private companies, with only a fraction of union members working for government organizations. Union membership provided a key force by which the “balance” was maintained. Corporate moves toward oligopoly, he argued, were restrained by labor unions.
Today, only 8% of the workforce is unionized-and what growth has occurred is largely in public sector unions. Meanwhile corporations have grown ever larger and more linked, with ever more power and sophistication to shape consumer behavior. The balance is broken.
Looked at from this long perspective, proposals such as the Employee Free Choice Act are restorative, not radical. Galbraith’s book was attacked in 1952 by the right-wing with particular fervor. The Chicago Tribune called it “Fair Deal trash in a Respectable Package.” The same attacks are happening now.
We’ve all been steeped in anti-union rhetoric for decades now, so it’s often difficult to see how this one bill can help restore a healthy balance to our system-and just in time, too. Everyone with progressive inclinations should support the Employee Free Choice Act.