WaPo | In other countries, workers organizing to defend their rights not only formed unions to protect them on the job, but also labor or socialist political parties to protect them as a class — the working class. Building off surges of worker protest, these parties won pro-labor reforms, either by winning office or posing enough of a political threat to get ruling parties to act. More broadly, they expanded notions of democratic citizenship to include many of the social welfare benefits like health care and old age security that are now taken for granted. Overall, this wove workers’ rights more tightly into the fabric of democracy, making it harder to unravel them.
This didn’t happen in the United States. More precisely, it didn’t happen in the same way. American workers fought for labor rights for decades, in some cases tying their workplace struggles to broader political movements and parties. Despite the many barriers to third parties in the U.S., these parties managed to capture a small but significant part of the vote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even holding some state-level offices.
But that changed in the 1930s. Although he came into office as a budget-cutting deficit hawk, President Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors convinced him that responding to growing worker and farmer protest with reforms could bring these groups into the Democratic Party coalition. FDR’s rhetorical appeals to the “forgotten man” and policy offerings like the National Labor Relations Act absorbed key parts of these protest groups while dividing and excluding others. On the one hand, this consolidated the liberal coalition that characterizes the Democratic Party to this day. On the other, it decisively undermined any left alternative to the Democrats.
Again, looking at Canada is instructive. Despite fewer barriers to third parties there, they had limited success until the 1930s. At that point, both the mainstream parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, responded to worker and farmer protests not with reforms, but with repression. This drove the excluded groups to form an independent party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, which took root and lives on today as the New Democratic Party.
U.S. unions seemed to get the better deal at the time, but the New Deal coalition was ultimately a “barren marriage.“ As a junior partner within the Democratic Party, labor focused on its “inside game” of influencing sympathetic allies to win reforms. Whatever bargains it could win thus appeared not as broad gains for workers, but as payoffs to a narrow Democrat “special interest.” By contrast, Canadian labor’s electoral threat combined with worker mobilization created a bargaining process to enforce industrial peace, one that even labor’s opponents understood the value of maintaining. This ensured a more legitimate Canadian labor law regime that strengthened over time.