Date of Degree

6-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

History

Advisor(s)

Joshua Freeman

Subject Categories

History

Abstract

This study examines the infancy of large-scale, coordinated public relations by organized labor in the postwar period. Labor leaders' outreach to diverse publics became a key feature of unions' growing political involvement and marked a departure from the past when unions used organized workers - not the larger public - to pressure legislators. The new recognition of the liberal public as an important ally and the creation of a program for targeting it signaled larger shifts in the American labor movement: the embrace of bureaucracy akin to other major postwar institutions; the promotion of politics over collective bargaining as the defining objective of the labor movement; the prominence of a new, educated class of labor leaders; and the deradicalization of American unionism in favor of the postwar liberal consensus.

The dissertation details PR approaches of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations' (CIO) at particular crisis points in the late 1940s and 1950s, after World War II and before the emergence of the civil rights movement and New Left. These campaigns were responsive and defensive and showed the difficulty labor leaders had in controlling the terms of debate, even as they were successful in maintaining rhetorical popular support. The case studies examined in this dissertation are: 1) the AFL and CIO's efforts to defeat the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947; 2) the role of politics - particularly the 1948 election and the third party campaign of Henry Wallace - in forcing CIO leaders to expel communist unions from their ranks; 3) the 1955 merger of the AFL and CIO and labor's efforts to counter the trope of "big labor" in a world in which large institutions and elite groups increasingly vied for control; and 4) the AFL-CIO's efforts to redefine itself in the face of accounts of union corruption during Congressional hearings on racketeering in organized labor from 1957 to 1959. In all of these cases, labor leaders positioned themselves and the union members they represented as part of a larger public committed to the same political objectives. Ultimately, this was a losing bet; they traded relevance for acceptability.

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History Commons

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