Reply to Paddy Quick’s comments by Richard Mcintyre and Michael Hillard

We first want to say we appreciate Paddy Quick reading and responding to our piece, and we welcome and hope for more discussion and critical engagement. We do find her response odd, in that she is quite critical of things that are peripheral to our main line of argument but she doesn’t address our central point at all.

Our argument was that no “accord” between capital and labor ever existed in the post World War II era, at least not in the way it has been portrayed generally by radical political economists. Our goal was to synthesize recent work in labor history to demonstrate that the broad acceptance of the concept of the accord by political economists was an empirical mistake with profound political consequences. Given the general acceptance in the URPE of the accord concept and the extent to which it has been discredited in the relevant literature we looked forward to and still hope to have a discussion of why the concept of an accord was so easily and widely accepted by radicals.[1] Reinterpreting the Depression and the New Deal era seems important to us if radical political action is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, this time as farce rather than tragedy.

This is not what Quick wants to talk about. Instead she indicts us for our treatment of race and our criticism of individual rights consciousness. She claims that “The limited but significant gains made against racism by African-Americans and other minorities were achieved against the power of the state.” While we mostly agree, before 1963-65 at least, it was of course the military that moved against discrimination earliest and most thoroughly. Moreover, it is not especially relevant to our argument. Quick seems to want us to talk more about the genesis of racism and discrimination. We certainly agree that both racial and gender discrimination are historically and socially constituted in different ways, but this did not seem relevant to our critique of the idea of an accord between capital and labor. What we did discuss, briefly, was the nature of the remedies for discrimination and some of the negative political consequences of these remedies. To the extent that liberals moved away from working class issues – which they did from the 1970s onward – while championing anti-discrimination they did contribute to the loss of the white working class from progressive politics. Though there are many local variants, for the national Democratic Party there is no question that this was the case.

As Judith Stein demonstrates in Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies, at the Presidential candidate level Humphrey was the last gasp of working class liberalism, McGovern did not think very seriously about economics or class issues, and neither Carter nor Clinton demonstrated any interest in issues of primary importance to workers as workers (Stein, 2011).[2]  Perhaps Quick just misunderstands what we are saying or what many labor historians have been saying for some time now. We do not see the movement for individual rights as “inherently in opposition to the movement for the rights of the working class” (emphasis added.) Our argument is conjunctural – as the Democrats abandoned class and embraced rights consciousness something important was lost.

Nancy MacLean shows in her Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace that it was unionism alongside civil rights legislation that was responsible for the economic gains of African-Americans in the 1960s and 70s. Dating back to the 1930s, African Americans have been the most dedicated group of union members – reflecting a recognition that collective workplace action is essential to address the issues of poverty and discrimination they face in employment. Martin Luther King’s increased emphasis on economic and not just civil rights at the end of his life was an attempt to address this, and is what led him to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers in March and April of 1968.  

In State of the Union: A Century of American Labor Nelson Lichtenstein identifies four problems with individual rights consciousness: legal rights are hard to enforce in the absence of unions; rights measures are overly reliant on experts, making “participatory, democratic problem-solving by the individuals directly involved” virtually impossible; it provides no means for dealing with collective structural crises, such as those caused by deindustrialization and globalization; and it has not produced conditions that generate strong unions or temper managerial authority.  It is worth quoting Lichtenstein at length because he is very clear on this:

“… a rights-based approach to the democratization of the workplace fails to confront capital with demands that cannot be defined as a judicially protected mandate.  In too many cases, workers have used the new work rights that emerged out of the civil rights movement to democratize gender and racial hierarchies only to see their real security and opportunities undermined by the dramatic transformation of their working environment, over which they had no control… These complaints are not designed to add yet another voice to contemporary assaults on the American welfare state and its civil rights laws.  The emergence of a vibrant sense of rights consciousness – whether it be held by second-generation Slavic workers in the 1930s, by African-Americans in the 1960s, by middle-class women in the 1970s, or middle managers in the 1980s – remains crucial to the construction of a democratic polity.  It’s a good thing that Burger King and so many other companies have put the EEOC nondiscrimination declaration at the top of their employee applications.  But collective action, institution building, and rights consciousness are not mutually exclusive, and we need to quickly redress the balance if the American system of work rights is not to devolve into an ineffective formalism.  The best way to make sure that does not happen is to return to an autonomous, democratic unionism to the workplace” (Lichtenstein, 2002, 210-211).

Quick is critical of what is frankly a gesture by us in our conclusion toward what a new pro-worker coalition might look like. But she also writes “One encouraging development in recent years is the beginnings of support of mainstream (white?) unions for the rights of immigrant workers, and the recognition that discrimination against (both documented and undocumented) Latinos is harmful to the working class as a whole.” As this is exactly how we conclude we cannot really understand her criticism of our speculation about that nascent coalition. Moreover, suppose immigrant workers get citizenship rights from legal reform.  In and of itself, this is a good thing, not in small part because it does expose their employers to those labor standards that have some hope of enforcement (e.g. FLSA).  But what “rights” do these workers gain?  Effectively, they join the existing citizen labor force (of white, black, and other people of color, men as well as women) that does not have protection or support for freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Our argument was that the capital-labor accord was largely mythical, that capitalists as a class never accepted the (limited) intrusion on their authority represented by the Wagner Act, and that they fought a largely successful class war beginning in the 1940s to reverse that intrusion. If we are correct, then there are certainly implications for how we understand race and class, though for us these involve a critical attitude to individual rights consciousness that Quick likely does not share.[3]

We think a generation of radical economists and some trade union leaders have been misled, or misled themselves, into believing there was some kind of Garden of Eden to return to. The weight of recent scholarship is clear that the largely individualistic rights consciousness of the new social movements was fairly easily co-opted by capital. Certainly there was a collective moment to these movements. As we wrote, “these movements sought both individual rights and struggled for collective economic reforms, most famously Martin Luther King’s Debsian push for structural economic solutions to economic inequality across race lines. But individual rights consciousness increasingly won out in the political arena.”

The success of individual rights consciousness may be judged by the wage stagnation, rising inequality, declining opportunity, and weakness of collective organization that characterizes the US today.  The assertion of individual rights has been mostly ineffective in the face of a massive and ferocious class war – economic, political, ideological – from above.  Understanding the exceptional nature of the American capitalist class was the goal of our work in this article and we look forward to more discussion and research on that exceptionalism.


Lichtenstein, N. 2002. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.).

Maclean, N. 2006. Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McCartin, J. 2011. “Probing the Limits of Rights Discourse in the Obama Era: A Crossroads for Labor and Liberalism,” International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 80, Fall 2011, pp. 148–160

McIntyre, R. 2008. Are Worker Rights Human Rights? Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

_______, 2011. “From Workers’ Rights to Worker Appropriation: A Response to Joseph A. McCartin,” International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 80, Fall 2011, pp. 176-183

_______, forthcoming. “Labor Militance and the New Deal: Some Lessons for Today,” in Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stein, J. 2011. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[1] In a forthcoming paper one of us demonstrates that the so-called accord of the late 1940s, grounded in the “treaty of Detroit,” was actually a defeat given the goals of the labor movement from the mid-1930s onward (McIntyre, forthcoming.)

[2] More recently George McGovern opposed the Employee Free Choice Act on the grounds that the card check clause violated workers’ individual rights. (McCartin, 2011; McIntyre, 2011). This should not be taken as an isolated spat between 70s era liberalism and the labor movement. In fact McGovern’s position is quite consistent with the predominantly individualistic view of human rights in the USA (McIntyre, 2008, especially 53-79).

[3] See McIntyre, forthcoming, for some elaboration of this, especially on the labor based civil rights movement of the 1930s and 40s and its non-reproduction in the face of the capitalist offensive of the late 40s.