blank.gif (51 bytes) Goose-Stepping Ghosts
by Steven Miller

littery Las Vegas of the ‘90s doesn’t seem to have much in common with 1920s Italy and its swaggering, black-shirted fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

But when it comes to issues of federal labor law, some independent Nevada casino workers have discovered more similarities than they like.

It’s not that they’ve suddenly spied National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) agents in knee-high boots and little Il Ducé caps, goose-stepping down the Las Vegas Strip. But they have personally discovered the hostility toward individual rights that is built right into the fabric of the NLRB. And that hostility largely comes directly out of the explicitly fascist and socialist enthusiasms held by the two men who played a dominant part in the agency’s birth.

The totalitarian infatuations that were instrumental in the formation of America’s federal labor law are an interesting and important story, long suppressed. While many leaders in the 1920s and most of the 1930s clearly considered themselves the very acme of political sophistication, many were, by today’s standards, quite naïve about totalitarianism. Union leaders such as Sidney Hillman sang unselfconscious rhapsodies to Lenin, calling the Bolshevik dictator "one of the few great men that the human race has produced, one of the greatest statesmen of our age and perhaps of all ages." And big business partisans like former general Hugh Johnson, with equal smugness, wanted America to imitate the "dynamic pragmatism" of Benito Mussolini.

Significantly, Hillman and Johnson were the two individuals most responsible for shaping the long-term tenor of the National Labor Relations Board. Representing the two main wings of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, both men, though differing on the details of just who should be supreme, shared a collectivist and authoritarian aversion for historical American principles of individual rights. Their common hostility, given free reign by the Great Depression’s crisis atmosphere, became incarnate in the National Labor Relations Board.

Today, over five decades later, Nevada workers—and workers all over America—are still finding to their surprise that the system of federal labor law they thought was supposed to help them live and work is actually rigged against them. What they learn instead is that the primary purpose of the National Labor Relations Board is to foster unionism—not the historical common-law rights of working men and women.

The NLRB is quite candid about this. For example, a 1985 publication of the agency, NLRB: The First 50 Years, notes that the National Labor Relations Act "implements the national labor policy of … encouraging collective bargaining as the best means of maintaining industrial peace."

There are three significant admissions in this statement:

  • The nationalization of "labor policy,"
  • The collectivization of employee-employer relations, and
  • Implicit recognition of the historical link between unions and violence.

Given the NLRB’s mandate and the fact that the entire board and its powerful general counsel are political appointees armed with a great deal of discretionary power, it would be surprising if such an agency were anything other than an additional hammer for union bosses to use.

Thus here in Nevada last year, workers at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas submitted almost three dozen sworn affidavits to the NLRB reporting the rampant use of threats and intimidation by Culinary union organizers seeking card-count signatures [see "Justice for the Working People?", Nevada Journal, March 1998]. But the NLRB’s regional office—supervised by the agency’s politically appointed general counsel in Washington—came up with a Catch-22.

"We had 35 [affidavits]," says Bruce Esgar, "and they laughed at us because our people didn’t sign [the cards]. Well, my question is, ‘So what if they didn’t sign?’ They were still being threatened."

Esgar, a porter at the MGM and also president of Nevada Employees for the Right to Work, points out that the employees willing to go public about the intimidation attempts "were the strong ones." Being such, they had also refused to knuckle under to the union organizers and sign the cards. But to the regional NLRB, that was a loophole.

If the attempted intimidation was resisted, said the agency, then the worker was not intimidated, and therefore the attempt should not count as an unfair labor practice.

"It only counts [in the view of the NLRB] if they signed," says the six-foot-plus Esgar. Thus the agency essentially declared that only workers fearful of the union were acceptable to it as witnesses against that same union!

"That’s not the way it should be by law," he points out. "If [unionists are] doing it to one person, they’re doing it to how many more?"

The discrepancy between how the NLRB treats reports of misbehavior by unionists and how it treats complaints from those same unionists is remarkable, says Esgar.

While affidavits by the non-union workers are ignored, complaints by union members are made the basis of NLRB actions.

While non-union workers only get one year in which to contest a union election, said Esgar, unions get to use old union cards, once signed, forever.

And the NLRB allowed no representatives of the MGM’s large contingent of anti-Culinary workers to participate in the card certification process. Instead, only the union, MGM management and the NLRB were allowed to look at the cards.

This kind of NLRB bias against non-union workers who want to remain non-union was structured into the agency at its very beginning. Foremost is the agency’s already-mentioned mandate to "encourage" unionism—a huge thumb on the scales. Like modern "preferences" that privilege certain politically correct interest groups, this particular bias written into federal labor law implicitly creates not only a class that is advantaged, but another class—one implicitly discriminated against. In America, paradoxically, that latter class is the great majority of workers and businesses—those which are non-union.

Considering their experiences at the hands of the NLRB, many of the independent Las Vegas MGM workers no doubt sometimes wonder how such a regime ever came to be imposed on Americans. The answer, essentially, is Sidney Hillman—the shrewd strategist and boss of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW) union over the first four decades of the 20th Century.

The title of a massively researched book about Hillman, Labor Will Rule, captures in his own words the one-time immigrant Lithuanian socialist’s lifelong personal obsession with amassing power. Sometimes called the "Lenin of American Labor," the extremely intelligent and often self-effacing Hillman was always ready to form any alliance that showed promise of greater power over American economic life for himself and the activist labor socialists he led. And rarely was he picky about the allies he chose.1

In terms of the history of the National Labor Relations Board, however, most significant was Hillman’s conscious alliance of convenience, during the early years of the New Deal, with an often-rambunctious American enthusiast for Mussolini’s fascist state, Hugh Johnson.

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General Hugh Johnson, admirer of Mussolini and head of the New Deal's National Recovery Administration, often gave a suspiciously fascist-like salute.  Here, he presents President Roosevelt to industrial leaders in Washington, D. C. in March, 1934. (Granger Collection, N.Y.)

Johnson not only personally wrote the legislation for Roosevelt’s notorious National Recovery Administration—eventually held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because of the dictatorial powers it awarded Roosevelt—but also served as its first administrator. It was in Hugh Johnson’s NRA (the symbol for which was the eventually infamous "Blue Eagle") that nearly all of the elements of the National Labor Relations Board first emerged.

Johnson was a former U.S. Army general who had held a major role on the World War I War Industries Board that had harnessed American businesses to the war aims of the Woodrow Wilson administration. Johnson had emerged from the experience a committed advocate of corporatist national planning and soon, an admirer of Benito Mussolini. After World War II was over and Roosevelt had died, Frances Perkins, FDR’s labor secretary, divulged some 13 years after the fact that while Johnson headed the NRA, he had carried about with him an adulatory account of Mussolini’s fascist Italy.2 One day he gave Perkins a copy of the book with the enthusiastic comment that "this idea of code committees3 is good. Read this book and you’ll see they’ve got the idea of the committees here." When Johnson eventually resigned his post as head of the NRA, his highly emotional farewell speech invoked what he called the "shining name" of Mussolini.

At first blush, of course, it sounds odd that Hillman, coming from the traditional Marxist socialist left, would fight —passionately and angrily, the record shows—for the same objectives as the corporate fellow travelers of fascism. But Hillman too had been intimately involved with the war aims of the Wilson administration, and had seen the ACW almost triple in size during the war, when the federal apparatus regularly pressured industry on the union’s behalf. Hillman, therefore, was eager to permanently harness the federal state to implement his goals. While Johnson wanted all workers put into unions so that they could thus more easily be harnessed to the ends of government planners like himself, Hillman wanted all workers herded into unions so they could be more easily harnessed to the attempt of his own camp to re-engineer society through compulsion.

Thus the seeming paradox of latent socialists collaborating with latent fascists is entirely superficial. It hinges on the largely successful effort by the left to suppress the historical truth that fascism originated in Marxist socialism. Because of those origins, fascism and socialism share an immense amount in common and, historically, have often collaborated.

Most often that collaboration, as in the case of the formation of the NLRB, has been in service to both ideologies’ common aversion to liberty of the individual—the opportunity for men and women to make their own choices, free from the control of self-appointed elites.

Because all the Marxist socialists—not only those who became fascists, but those who kept the orginal name—have, by definition, been intent on being those elites and controlling their fellow human beings, they all have similarly shared the goal of destroying "bourgeois" democracy and "atomistic" individual freedom.

It was during the decades around the turn of the 19th Century to the 20th, that socialists began to disagree on just how to accomplish that end. At the time, especially in Europe, they were increasingly unable to evade the fact that Marx’s supposedly scientific analysis had proven itself essentially bogus. Events had failed to take the path he had predicted. Not only were Western European workers not being driven into the ground, their standard of living was unmistakably improving. Not only were workers not becoming a desperately alienated and volatile revolutionary mass, they clearly were identifying ever more strongly with their national communities.

Capitalism was not coming into any sort of crisis, and Marx’s supposedly revolutionary working class was uninterested in revolution. It was therefore clear to many socialist theoreticians that any destruction of the "bourgeois" political systems that guaranteed individual liberty could only proceed by other means. It was this issue of means—how best to destroy "bourgeois" liberty—that eventually split Marxist socialism in Western Europe into two revisionist camps.

One camp4 increasingly argued for the path being pursued already somewhat successfully by the English Fabians—active involvement in democratic politics to gradually destroy private property rights through salami-slice tactics. The other camp5had no stomach for any accommodation with "bourgeois democracy." Instead, to save the goal of revolution, these socialists sought to identify the errors in Marx’s theory of violent revolution and find other ways to accomplish the same end. As this group proceeded—criticizing Marx’s economics, searching for revolutionary agents to fulfill the role Marx had thought workers would accomplish—their revisions departed further and further from the "orthodox" revisions of the other socialists. Impressed with the high-flown propaganda and violence of French labor unions,6 the "non-orthodox" socialists integrated new theories about the effectiveness of violence and social/political myths into their theoretical account of how the necessary revolution could be accomplished. Soon, French and Italian enthusiasts for these view had taken the logical next steps—forming alliances with the zealots of nationalist mythologies and taking to the streets to beat up political opponents. And in Russia, Lenin—so admired by Sidney Hillman—had used elements from the French heterodox faction as the basis for his own theoretical revision of socialism: Marxist-Leninism. Even before Mussolini and Hitler, Lenin’s practical implementation of that thought had produced the first telltale squads of Gestapo-style state-employed killers clad in black leather.

Thus in the autumn of 1914, when Hugh Johnson’s hero, Benito Mussolini, officially took on the fascist label,7 he was actually just one more revolutionary socialist baying down the trail of the long-sought revolution. He still considered himself a Marxist, but hoped that some of the intoxicating currents of nationalism would hasten the day when bourgeois democracy and its detested emphasis on individual rights and freedoms could be overthrown. Upon that day of revolution, he believed, both varieties of socialism—nationalist and non-nationalist—would again link hands.

In the New Deal corporatist confection that was the National Recovery Administration, Sidney Hillman and Hugh Johnson—the intellectual legatees of those two strands of socialism—did indeed link hands. Though the National Recovery Administration itself would be declared unconstitutional in 1935, its labor provisions—the famed section 7(a)—reappeared almost immediately, coupled with added enforcement powers, in legislation introduced by New York Senator Robert F. Wagner. In 1933 Wagner had been named by FDR, on the recommendation of Johnson, to serve as chairman of the NRA’s national labor board. Wagner had been a Hillman ally for over a decade already, and shared the Hillman and Roosevelt goals of overthrowing the old national balance of power, not only within the national Democratic Party but also between unions and corporations generally.

Today workers in Las Vegas and every city in America are still discovering that they live under a federally institutionalized bias which has its origins in the minds of men who were intent on uprooting the principles of individual rights and freedom upon which this country was founded.

Until the agency that incarnates that bias, the National Labor Relations Board, is itself subjected to serious reform, it will remain an instrument of government injustice. NJ

At the time this was written, Steven Miller was managing editor of  Nevada Journal; he currently is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Endnotes

1 Beside pacts of mutual support formed throughout his life with "progressive" proponents of increasing state socialism, Hillman also formed both short and long-term alliances with Russian communists (Lenin and Trotsky), American communists (William Z. Foster and Earl Browder) and mob enforcers (Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, of the infamous Murder, Incorporated).
2
Rafaello Vigone's The Corporate State.
3 Under the National Recovery Administration, tripartite boards composed of business, labor and government representatives were to set, for each industry, rules, called "codes," covering all kinds of behavior.
4 Led by the Frenchman Georges Sorel.
5 The French word for unions, syndicats, thus became part of an expression -- anarcho-syndicalism -- denoting a certain doctrinal strand of socialism that, in both Italy and France, often merged over the ensuing years into fascism.
6 It was at that time that Mussolini left the editorship of Italy's official socialist paper Avanti! and joined a contingent of nationalist socialists on an organization called the "Revolutionary Fascio for Internationalist Action."

 

News to Use
The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution by Zeev Sternhell, with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, translated by David Maisel, princeton University Press, 1994.

Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor by Steven Fraser, The Free Press, 1991.

General Hugh S. Johnson and the New Deal, by John Kennedy Ohl, Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Steven Miller
sm@npri.org   

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