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NPR’s Labor Day History Removes Radicals from Labor History, Recasts Milquetoast Liberal Reformers as Lone Heroes
Labor rights were forged in blood and rebellion, but one wouldn’t know this reading NPR’s typically sanitized version of events.
From the glossing over the Black Panthers’ communism to the erasure of the anarchist and socialist currents behind the West Virginia coal miner rebellions of the 1910s, we need a much broader analysis of the ways in which publicly-funded, ostensibly progressive media outlets minimize radical elements of American history and recast liberal reforms as the primary movers of justice and political change. (And indeed, such an analysis is forthcoming at Citations Needed at some point.) But NPR’s recent historical recap of labor history is worth drilling down on, because it presents a useful case study in how American public media institutions function as boring ideological gatekeepers in service of incrementalism.
In NPR’s Sept. 4 article “Here Are 3 Pivotal Moments In Workers' History To Remember This Labor Day,” we are told “[these] three moments in labor history, in particular, are central to U.S. history, the modern labor movement, and today's workplace, according to history and labor scholars.” This is a curious framing, since nowhere in the article do the words “socialism,” “anarchism,” `syndicalism,” or “communism” appear anywhere, nor are any unions of the major timeframe covered—the early 20th century—mentioned at all.
Instead, one is given the distinct impression that the history of labor achievements in the U.S. is primarily the work of good-government Protestant liberals inside of government who are, presumably, responding to a vague feeling of social welfare, rather than pressure from any particular segment of society.
In the article, the first pivotal moment starts where most American labor history starts—the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The narrative does the standard recap: There was an antecedent but vague labor movement, then a fire—brought on by negligent, greedy owners that killed 146 mostly women laborers—then progressives in New York responded to the popular outrage by passing reforms. This is the entirety of how and why labor reforms began on the state level in the early 1910’s:
“The horror of the fire led to legislation meant to improve factory safety standards in New York. It also helped establish a watchdog agency with powers to investigate labor conditions. Frances Perkins, who later served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's labor secretary, would lead this agency.”
No mention of Local 25 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which actually organized the preceding New York shirtwaist 1909 strike—the largest strike of women workers in the United States that had ever taken place up to that point. No mention of labor leaders like Pauline Newman, a Jewish immigrant from present-day Lithuania who had worked in the Triangle factory since the age of 13 and not only helped organize the strike, but was inspired by working-class poetry in socialist Yiddish publications and went on to organize for the Socialist Party. No mention of upward pressure from any other contemporary labor movements, such as the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World or the Western Federation of Miners, which led a series of strikes in Colorado in 1903 and 1904, facing harrowing violence from employers. Instead of examining these hard-fought battles, NPR leads the reader to believe that reformist legislation emerges a priori from the good hearts of rich progressive reformers.
The next “pivotal” movement we are given is the passing of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which we are told was the “Magna Carta of labor.” While there was, of course, a great deal of good in the NLRA (as well as criticism), again we are given a sanitized reformist reading of history, where change is not forced on power by mass movement and organizing, but appears to simply come out of nowhere. No mention is made of the preceding threats to capital that pushed for these reforms: the foundation of and agitation from the all-black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union the decade prior; the unrest and working-class unity that emerged from the Great Depression; or the 1934 massive longshoremen strike from workers in Washington, Oregon, and California shut down trade on the West Coast for 83 days, and San Francisco workers organized a general strike.
In our third pivotal moment, instead of a victory, we get a labor loss: a recap of President Reagan’s crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association’s 1981 strike, in which the president fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers and prohibited the Federal Aviation Administration from rehiring strikers. The article cites Ileen DeVault, a labor history professor at Cornell University, who notes that, as NPR paraphrases, “this was one of the most devastating blows to organized labor.” This framing is both accurate and appreciated, as Reagan's actions did send a message to corporate America to wage all-out war on the labor movement. While Reagan’s devastating blow was, indeed pivotal, it is just one part of the vast and vicious anti-labor forces in America, that extend far beyond the tenure of a single Republican president. Capitalism—or the rapacious industrialists that murdered, spied on, ran disruption campaigns on, and framed labor leaders—are not mentioned. All of labor history appears to fall upon a pat partisan narrative of good Democrats and bad Republicans, rather than the more accurate framing of mass popular and radical movements meaningfully threatening the power structure, reformist—and often racist—liberals responding to placate these movements, and consistently reactionary Republicans and industrialists conspiring to cut them down.
We want to include an important caveat that the shortcomings of this piece should not fall alone on the shoulders of the journalist who wrote it. It’s the broader pattern at NPR, of which this is just one example, that we are concerned with, one also captured in a recent piece about the history of Labor Day that nowhere mentions it was formally recognized by President Grover Cleveland as an alternative to the more radical International Workers Day, or May Day. As we enter year three of a crushing pandemic, during which there’s been a tremendous wealth transfer from the poor to the rich, it’s important to understand that labor’s gains in this country have not been granted by benevolent people in positions of power, but forced by workers who have made tremendous sacrifices, sometimes giving their lives.
This isn’t to say that reformers deserve zero credit. Indeed, we now know Roosevelt's administration did contain fellow travelers who pushed for—rather than simply reacted—to popular demands for change. But these currents are a minor player in the broader arch of labor history, one rich in radical strategies and world views, defined less by legislation and more by armed rebellions, bombings, mass strikes, sabotage, counter espionage, jail breaks, pamphleting, and organizing under difficult conditions. Any recap of labor history that only mentions reformist politicians and no radical organizations, parties, or ideologies—much less even naming any unions—is like telling the history of the NBA without mentioning Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Michael Jordan, but instead focusing only on the important team owners. Were they noteworthy? To some extent yes, but were they what made it what it was? Were they the primary diver that defined its legacy? Were they pivotal? Absolutely not.