By the end of the '60s, the feeling was entirely mutual. New Left activists derided union bosses as just another tired bunch of white, establishment Cold War fossils, and as a result, the rupture of the Democratic Party that started in Chicago in 1968 became irrevocable in Miami Beach four years later. Labor leaders assumed that the hippies, who had been no match for either Richard Daley's cops or establishment control of the nominating rules, posed no real threat to their continued dominance of the party machinery. But precisely because it seemed impossible that this motley collection of shaggy kids, newly assertive women, and goo-goo academics could ever figure out how to wield real political power, the bosses simply weren't ready when it turned out they had miscalculated badly. Thus George Meany's surprise when he got his first look at the New York delegation at the 1972 Democratic convention. "What kind of delegation is this?" he sneered. "They've got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO people on that delegation!"
"What kind of delegation is this? They've got six open fags and only three AFL-CIO people!"
But that was just the start. New rules put in place in 1968 led by almost geometric progression to the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, and despite McGovern's sterling pro-labor credentials, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse him. Not only were labor bosses enraged that the hippies had thwarted the nomination of labor favorite Hubert Humphrey, but amnesty, acid, and abortion were simply too much for them. Besides, Richard Nixon had been sweet-talking them for four years, and though relations had recently become strained, he seemed not entirely unsympathetic to the labor cause. How bad could it be if he won reelection?
Plenty bad, it turned out—though not because of anything Nixon himself did. The real harm was the eventual disaffection of the Democratic Party from the labor cause. Two years after the debacle in Miami, Nixon was gone and Democrats won a landslide victory in the 1974 midterm election. But the newly minted members of Congress, among them former McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart, weren't especially loyal to big labor. They'd seen how labor had treated McGovern, despite his lifetime of support for their issues.
The results were catastrophic. Business groups, simultaneously alarmed at the expansion of federal regulations during the '60s and newly emboldened by the obvious fault lines on the left, started hiring lobbyists and launching political action committees at a torrid pace. At the same time, corporations began to realize that lobbying individually for their own parochial interests (steel, sugar, finance, etc.) wasn't enough: They needed to band together to push aggressively for a broadly pro-business legislative environment. In 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote his now-famous memo urging the business community to fight back: "Strength lies in organization," he wrote, and would rise and fall "through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations." Over the next few years, the Chamber of Commerce morphed into an aggressive and highly politicized advocate of business interests, conservative think tanks began to flourish, and more than 100 corporate CEOs banded together to found a pro-market supergroup, the Business Roundtable.
They didn't have to wait long for their first big success. By 1978, a chastened union movement had already given up on big-ticket legislation to make it easier to organize workplaces. But they still had every reason to think they could at least win passage of a modest package to bolster existing labor law and increase penalties for flouting rulings of the National Labor Relations Board. After all, a Democrat was president, and Democrats held 61 seats in the Senate. So they threw their support behind a compromise bill they thought the business community would accept with only a pro forma fight.
Instead, the Business Roundtable, the US Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups declared war. Organized labor fought back with all it had—but that was no longer enough: The bill failed in the Senate by two votes. It was, said right-wing Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), "a starting point for a new era of assertiveness by big business in Washington." Business historian Kim McQuaid put it more bluntly: 1978, he said, was "Waterloo" for unions.
Click here for more infographics on America's plutocracy.Organized labor, already in trouble thanks to stagflation, globalization, and the decay of manufacturing, now went into a death spiral. That decline led to a decline in the power of the Democratic Party, which in turn led to fewer protections for unions. Rinse and repeat. By the time both sides realized what had happened, it was too late—union density had slumped below the point of no return.
Why does this matter? Big unions have plenty of pathologies of their own, after all, so maybe it's just as well that we're rid of them. Maybe. But in the real world, political parties need an institutional base. Parties need money. And parties need organizational muscle. The Republican Party gets the former from corporate sponsors and the latter from highly organized church-based groups. The Democratic Party, conversely, relied heavily on organized labor for both in the postwar era. So as unions increasingly withered beginning in the '70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community. The rise of neoliberalism in the '80s, given concrete form by the Democratic Leadership Council, was fundamentally an effort to make the party more friendly to business. After all, what choice did Democrats have? Without substantial support from labor or business, no modern party can thrive.