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‘The Irishman’ Remembers When Unions Gave Capitalism Its Ballast

The new Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman, has received strong praise from movie critics, less strong notices from audiences, and fared even less well on social media. The basic factual claims about the main character, Frank Sheeran—that he killed labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, among many others—are dubious.

Still, the mise-en-scène of the film is rich and textured, and the broad backdrop of historical events is lovingly realized. As such, The Irishman offers us time travel to a lost world—mid-20th century America.

Indeed, beyond the retro look—the cigarettes, the non-compact cars, the cat-eye glasses—is a retro civilization: one where, if you can believe it, labor was equal to capital. 

In this vanished realm, unions, strikes, and picket lines were part of daily conversation, for the simple reason that more than a third of U.S. workers were unionized, and strikes and picket lines were a common experience. 

As such, labor leaders were a big deal. The Sheeran character, played by Robert DeNiro, recalls, late in his life, at the turn of the century: “Nowadays, young people, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. They don’t have a clue. I mean, maybe they know that he disappeared or something, but that’s about it. But back then, there wasn’t nobody in this country who didn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.”

Hoffa was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America from 1957 to 1971. As the film tells us, he was as well known as Elvis. And it wasn’t just Hoffa who was famous; other labor leaders, too, were household names, including John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and Walter Reuther. 

In those days, as the movie makes clear, strong unions shaped society. Picket lines were not to be crossed, and work rules—detailing which worker could do which job—were strictly enforced (unless there was a payoff). 

To anyone much younger than a Baby Boomer, the impact of unionization is hard to comprehend, because over the last four or so decades, we simply haven’t seen incidents such as the one in 1956, when the Teamsters blocked all deliveries to the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan because of a jurisdictional dispute over the hotel’s barbers

Still, this Baby Boomer, who grew up near Chicago, well remembers what it was like to live in a strong union town. For instance, meat wasn’t for sale on Sundays. Why not? Because the butchers had work rules to prevent such selling—and that was that. Then there was McCormick Place, the big convention center that was a steady source of scandal-mongering newspaper stories: about union featherbedding, prohibitive labor costs, and the occasional disappeared load of cargo. 

Of course, sometimes, union matters got worse than that: incidents of union-related strong-arming, leg-breaking—even the occasional murder—were in the news. To be sure, the unions weren’t the only heavies. Management was oftentimes responsible for heaviness of its own, although typically it involved cash, not brass knuckles; businessmen could sometimes buy labor peace, enforced if need be by violence. 

Down these mean streets walked Frank Sheeran, a Mac Eire in a sea of Italian mafiosi. He is portrayed as a loyal Teamster, also as an on-the-job thief whose union pull gave him immunity for property crimes. And, oh yes, in his off hours, he was a vicious gangster. 

It’s this nexus—labor unions and organized crime blended together—that’s at the heart of The Irishman. If much of it seems repulsive to the modern eye, well, that’s because it is. However, it must also be recalled that the decades of union power coincided with America at its most powerful and in a way at its most cohesive. Pluralism among countervailing power blocsBig Labor versus Big Business—may seem messy, but it’s also societally healthy, keeping the nation’s humors in balance. 

In fact, for a time after World War II, America’s national political leadership was mostly reconciled to strong unions, abuses and all—because the alternative was deemed vastly worse. 

In those mid-century years, people remembered what it was like when unions were weak or nonexistent, when unfettered capital was free to grind the face of labor. Such immiseration was seen as a leading cause of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia—and nobody wanted that to happen here.

Moreover, the Great Depression was an even more recent memory. Thus the Keynesian wisdom held that it was vital to boost workers’ pay so as to keep purchasing power in their hands; they could, after all, be counted on to spend their money and thereby keeping the economy going. In those years, fear of a Depression-ish capital strike was far stronger than fear of a labor strike. 

As Republican Dwight Eisenhower said to American Federation of Labor on September 17, 1952: “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

Two months later, Ike would go on to win 39 of 48 states, and four years after that, 41 states. So while some unreconstructed reactionaries—including William F. Buckley, founder of National Review—saw unions, and even Eisenhower, as dangerous threats, most Americans were happy enough to stand pat with the status quo. 

Interestingly, the closest thing to an ideological credo of the Eisenhower administration came from Arthur Larson, who had served as Ike’s undersecretary of labor and would go on to work in the 34th president’s White House. In 1956, Larson published A Republican Looks at His Party. Having been personally endorsed by Eisenhower, the book, hailing pro-union “Modern Republicanism,” became a bestseller. 

Of course, no status quo is stable. In particular, Hoffa, played by Al Pacino in the movie, was so polarizing that he inadvertently helped bring down the House of Labor. Hoffa’s feud with Robert F. Kennedy, then a staff investigator in the U.S. Senate, inspired RFK to publish a book in 1960, The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee’s Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions, in which he described the Teamsters as the second most powerful institution in America, after the federal government. In that same year, Hoffa endorsed Republican Richard Nixon, running against John F. Kennedy. 

Soon thereafter, RFK, now JFK’s attorney general, organized the “Get Hoffa” team in the Justice Department. Most reporters and civil libertarians saw nothing wrong with this bill of attainder-type effort, so long as it was conducted by a Camelot Democrat. Hoffa was imprisoned in 1967, and he met his ultimate end, as dramatized in the movie, in 1975. 

In fact, Kennedy helped launch a trend that lasted even after his own death in 1968. The newer Democratic Party would be more in the mode of RFK: white collar, maybe even rich, as well as high-minded and reformist—even preachy. Onetime JFK and RFK aide Fred Dutton helped accelerate this new trend in 1971, when his book, The Changing Sources of American Power, advised Democrats to look past old-fashioned, old-thinking unions and look instead to more socially avant-garde groups, such as students, minorities, and professionals. 

Indeed, these new-model Democrats, led by Senator George McGovern, took over the party, shifting its focus from the lunch-bucket concerns of wages and hours to the new issues of abortion, pollution, and sexual expression. 

These matters, of course, were much friendlier to the rich; a fat cat didn’t have to be Jeffrey Epstein to benefit from more sexual freedom. 

In the meantime, as workers’ issues receded, so did their relative power—and their incomes. In 1970, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, wages as a percentage of the national output stood at 51.6 percent. Yet by 2014, that share had fallen to 41.9 percent—nearly a 10-point drop. (It has since ticked up to 43.2 percent.) 

So yes, The Irishman is a time machine, taking us back to a period when labor was equal to capital, when the working class was growing into the middle class. Yet over the last half-century, reformers have helped capital to triumph over labor, and, as a result, much of the middle class has been busted back down to the working class. 

But hey, you can have all the abortions you want, and you can even buy meat on Sundays.

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