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January 2003


Historians have been almost unanimous in condemning American organized labor's postwar relationship with the military-industrial complex.(1) Most follow Nelson Lichtenstein's assessment of a movement sacrificing militancy in favor of a junior partnership in a corporate state dominated by employers and the state. This capitulation legitimized managerial authority, validated a regressive economic system, and latched labor's wagon to a reactionary foreign policy and an emerging garrison state(2) This latter relationship, in particular, has galled critics of American organized labor. By the 1970s, they could assert, as did even "labor priest" Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, that labor had become a "lackey of militarism."(3) In the postwar period, most trade unions supported the overall contours of U.S. official policy--from trade liberalization, to the Cold War, to the expansion of the military-industrial complex--but this article argues that decisions made by organized labor leaders must be understood within the context of increasingly limited options. After World War II, organized labor faced a host of hostile forces. In the absence of alternatives, the mainstream of organized labor embraced defense spending for the jobs it provided and for the influence that labor might wield in the semi-public defense-sector economy. Beginning in the late 1940s, organized labor developed and promoted its own separate vision of the "warfare state," in which defense dollars, in the absence of other public funding, would be harnessed to address pressing social and economic needs. Trade unionists promoting these initiatives clashed severely with military officials and civilian businessmen recruited to streamline, systematize, and rationalize the emerging military-industrial complex. Ultimately, they met with only temporary, limited success. But in labor's actions and agenda can be found evidence of a realistic approach to shaping and humanizing the complex postwar economy--an approach aimed at addressing the human impact of capitalism rather than slavishly following the logic of the market(4) Students of labor history, it is hoped, will find in this study a realistic context in which to assess the actions of organized labor's approach to defense policy. For students of civil-military relations, it suggests something of the competing visions and forces shaping military policy and the emerging military-industrial complex.


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