SPEAKER: The following is a presentation of the ILR School at Cornell University. ILR, advancing the world of work.
MARY CATT: Good afternoon, and thank you so much for joining us today for this webcast from the Cornell University ILR School. I'm Mary Catt. I'm here today with Professor Nick Salvatore, who is a scholar of American history, a teacher of ILR students since 1981, and the author of three well-known, well-worded biographies.
Today we're going to get started by talking to you, Nick, about how you were intrigued by the choices these three men made, and how those men navigated in the world. Can you give us a sense of the people you biographied and what you learned from each one?
NICK SALVATORE: So, as you say-- but first of all, thanks for having me on. As you say, I've done three biographies. The first one was a biography of Eugene Debs, an American socialist leader. But he wasn't a socialist for the first half of his life. He was born and raised in Indiana, grew up in a rather conventional working-class lower-middle-class-- his father ran a grocery store, et cetera.
And he began to see the changes occurring in the late 19th century economy as corporations began to play a much more powerful role in the economy and also in determining the nature of the work for the people in their firms, et cetera.
And gradually, by the 1890s-- so, he was born in 1855-- he declares himself a socialist. But his socialism was really of a piece of American life. It's was not something that was alien or foreign. He ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. The best he got was about 6% of the vote, in 1912.
But what he did more than that is that he attempted to really engage his audiences in taking responsibility, if you will, for their lives. So his, perhaps, most famous stock paragraph or short paragraph in his speeches, over and over again, was something to this effect. He says, I'm not a labor leader. This is a large group of working people. I wouldn't lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, somebody else would lead you out. You have to use your heads as well as your hands and get yourself out of your current predicament.
Adopted to a different rhetorical approach, that's a Protestant preacher who's speaking directly to the individuals in front of him. And that was, in some fundamental way, the key of what success he had.
The other lesson to take away from Debs, I think, is that as indigenous as his message was, neither he nor the party-- the Socialist Party-- ever got anywhere near a working majority or even a working strong minority amongst American working people or amongst American voters in general. So there's something else in American political culture that's happening that he runs up against, and which-- so that's another lesson, in a sense, to learn from, I think.
Amos Webber-- my second book, We All Got History-- The Memory Books of Amos Webber, happened literally by accident. I was in the archives at the Harvard Business School. I was thinking of doing a short article on business-- excuse me-- on workers in the late 19th century. I was looking at business companies. That was my intent.
And I saw a title in the catalog that said, "record book and diaries." And it was in the collection of a large iron and steel company in Worcester, Massachusetts. So I figured, this has got to be a foreman. This is going to give me a lot of data about work, and maybe even the workforce. And so I open it up and I begin to read it, and it doesn't begin in Worcester, and it doesn't begin in a factory, but it begins at a religious revival in Philadelphia in 1854.
And I have no idea what I'm doing here, but I persist through the almost-two volumes before finally I figure-- and actually, he helped me. Because he kept on having these initials, the GUOOF. I had no idea what it meant.
And finally somewhere in the latter part of the second volume of the nine, he writes out The Grand United Order of Odd Fellows. Ah. So it's a Masonic-- and then he puts in parentheses-- the most important parenthesis for me in the whole nine volumes-- "colored." This is a black guy. It wasn't that he was race-neutral in the earlier stuff, but he never said, hey, I'm a black guy. He wrote about what happened to him that day and what-- et cetera.
So I went back to begin, and start all over again. And what I found was, both in his time in Philadelphia where he was born and in Worcester where he moved somewhere in the late 1850s, that this was a man who had been deeply engaged in the politics and in the issues in the black community, and reaching out when possible to those in the white community who might be helpful or be, I should say, willing to help. And the diary is some 2,000 pages of sometimes personal reflection, sometimes political reflection, sometimes-- a lot of accounts of what he did and what-have-you.
So I was able then to begin to put together his life. And he's a totally unknown individual, but in fact he was a central part of the black community in two cities in the Northeast beginning to coalesce and present a kind of unified approach to the largely-dominant white political community that ran the towns.
He was intriguing. And he was a veteran of the black troops in the Civil War, fought in the Fifth Mass. Calvary, was at Petersburg, later occupied Texas. And he was deeply, deeply a man of faith, of religious faith and of faith in the potential-- not the reality-- of the American experience. So there's so many powerful elements in Amos Webber in his life that I stumbled on, but then was able to really do something with.
The third biography, briefly, was a biography of C.L. Franklin. Many of my students didn't know C.L. Franklin, but if I mentioned his daughter Aretha they would say, oh yeah, yeah, we know who she is. Right? But he was really a most-interesting character.
A major, major preacher, a leader of the-- not the only leader, but a leader in the black Baptist community nationwide. Grew up in Mississippi. Grew up hard. Grew up in a Mississippi where lynching of African-Americans was-- certainly not a daily, but it was indeed a common occurrence. He felt at the age of 16 he got the call to be a preacher. And he did some schooling and he, as many did at that time, they also apprenticed themselves. They found mentors.
And ultimately he moves from the delta of Mississippi, as a minister, to Memphis. And then he moves to Buffalo, New York for two years. And then in 1946 he comes to Detroit at New Bethel Baptist Church. And it's there that he begins to put together-- and he's doing this, I would say, actually, in Buffalo as well.
And I think, in part, he learned it even-- began to learn it really seriously in Memphis-- the way in which religion and politics need to work together. The promise of redemption has both a religious meaning, and it means something about how we treat each other in this world. And so he became a activist in 1963, in June. He was the leader of a rally-- march in Detroit that had Martin Luther King, a good friend of his, as one of the major speaker of some 100,000 people coming down Woodward Avenue. And this was two months before the famous march on Washington in late August of 1963.
But Franklin was deeply involved. He believed that politics and faith worked with each other, or could work with each other. They weren't antagonistic.
MARY CATT: Do they still work with each other, in your opinion? You know, we're seeing race and faith and other issues play out today differently than they did with these three men you wrote about.
NICK SALVATORE: Mm-hm.
MARY CATT: But how is it different today than it was, say, in C.L. Franklin's time?
NICK SALVATORE: Well, the issues of both race and religion, I think, need to be taken a bit separately in the sense that-- one can make an argument that, if you look at many who espouse a very Conservative Political philosophy today and act it out in their voting and in their activities, who are also tied to Christian-- their version of a Christian understanding of what's proper and right, whether it be concerning abortion, whether it be concerning a whole host of other issues-- you could see where, indeed, there are still many Americans who are motivated by a religious faith belief that leads them to a certain kind of political activity.
What is also true though is that there are folks who-- and these tend to be more on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum-- there are folks who see religion as, perhaps, something of importance to individuals privately, but would really argue that it not only shouldn't have a place, it's dangerous for religion to interact with politics.
And so, in that sense, there's a-- and there were people like that in Franklin's day. In fact, in Webber's day, too, for that matter. But there's more of an obvious split, partly because, I think, the connection between what we think of as the, quote unquote, "the religious right" and the conservative element of essentially the Republican Party is rather tight and very important in influencing our politics today.
MARY CATT: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. We've got a number of questions coming in from our viewers, so I'll get to those. And one of the first is, "how would you summarize the significance of Eugene Debs for activists and concerned non-academics today, especially for young people now coming of age?"
NICK SALVATORE: I get asked this question often, and people are often not happy with my response. I think what you have to understand is the interaction of two realities. One is the ability of Debs to talk to people in a language and with a program, if you will, that made sense to many of them, even if they had disagreements about this, that, or the other. It was intelligible. It spoke to some of their concerns, et cetera.
That's different from saying that they all became socialists. The quote I referred to before about-- you have to use your head and your hands and get yourself out of your condition-- that was one of the central messages that people did take away from Debs, but it didn't necessarily translate into a socialist ideology. And, in fact, the overwhelming-- as his voting record, the voting for him, would suggest-- in fact, the overwhelming amount of American-- even American working people-- were not socialists, and were not going to become socialists in Debs's era. And, I think it's fairly accurate to say, since then as well.
So what you can take from Debs is his commitment to a more just and equitable society, his commitment to sharply containing the power of the corporations and of the elites who are doing quite well in their finances because of those corporations that they lead and are involved with. But I don't think that that's going to lead to some socialist revolution. So when I see folks thinking today that, well, what we need to do is to talk about socialism-- I'm not certain that that's really a very good starting point. And I fear that many will get discouraged, but there's a kernel in Debs and others as well-- a kernel that's really valuable. But I don't think it's going to be in the form of socialism.
MARY CATT: OK. Well, somewhat related from Mark. He says, "has there been another time in America's history, except for the Civil War, when there was such division and polarization as there is now?"
NICK SALVATORE: Well, yeah. I mean the 1880s and '90s, especially in the 1890s when the corporation was really beginning to begin to play a major and obvious role in not just the economy-- that had been true even earlier-- but now in the politics.
Think of the 1930s. You had-- OK. So you had Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a very sharp-edged, liberal, democratic approach, but you had Huey Long and the Father Charles Coughlin from two different perspectives really trying to build very explicit right-wing political forces in the United States. And they never reached the level-- Huey Long was governor of Louisiana. He never went beyond that in terms of his political successes, but his influence went well-beyond the people of Louisiana.
And you think about the 1960s, and we have these images of CORE and SNCC and et cetera, et cetera, and Students for Democratic Society, et cetera. All of that's true. But we fail to remember, often, that as the World Trade tower, which was being built in 1967-- and down beneath that tower a massive demonstration at the Whitehall induction center, which the idea was to shut it down-- the workers on the tower, including one of my boyhood heroes, Carl Furillo, the right-fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, are dropping bricks from high up onto the crowd.
So there's never been a simple, "these were our golden days, and boy if we could only get back to them." There's always been a sharp contest-- some times have been sharper than others. That's actually true. But there has always been a sharply-contested political arena that we live in. That would be my sense.
MARY CATT: OK. And your education in that sharply-contested arena, you've said, began in 1963.
NICK SALVATORE: Yeah.
MARY CATT: Can you elaborate?
NICK SALVATORE: Well, in 1963 I had-- don't let the children hear this, the younger kids. I dropped out of college.
MARY CATT: [LAUGHS]
NICK SALVATORE: And I was working as a messenger boy, actually, in a print shop. And later I'D get another job with the Teamsters. And it was Friday night and I was with a friend of mine who was a linotype operator. They don't exist anymore, but nonetheless they were central to the printing process at that time.
And he said, what do you want to do? And I said, I don't know. I mean, we're two young guys with money in our pockets, and it was 1 o'clock in the morning when we got off work. And he said, I want to go over to City Hall. I said, why? And he said, because there's a demonstration going on about Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, which I had not heard about. And he said, you know, they're not letting black or Puerto Rican workers even sign up to get onto the job. And I thought-- I was an innocent kid in a way. I said, the city fathers must not know about that, because if they knew about it they wouldn't allow that to happen. That was my essential attitude at the time.
So I went over, and figuring out if I sat in, maybe I would-- and that began my education. And I actually ended up at Downstate, and was arrested in one of those demonstrations. And I met a guy by the name of Bill Mackey-- and some of my students have heard me talk about him in class-- who was a Sergeant in World War II in a tank unit-- and they were in training in someplace in Mississippi. And some of his guys had gotten off on leave, were on leave in town, in the black section of town. And they were having trouble getting back. Whites were beginning to get just upset that these young black guys were actually just on the street.
And Mackey got a call, and he immediately-- on his own authority-- ordered his tank unit to roll itself to the front-- to the gates of the camp, of the Army base. And they were waiting for the next phone call, and depending on what it said they would roll or they wouldn't roll. Well, it turns out they didn't have to roll. But that was the kind of guy he was.
And at one point when we're walking in Brooklyn, we're leaving his house, and I said to him-- it was a hot, muggy day and he was by then a photographer. And I said, Bill-- I said, why do you got all this paper in your front shirt pocket? It's really an ugly day out here. And he looked at me and he said, boy, you really don't know anything, do you? And he proceeded to tell me about how many times-- as his words were-- I've been jacked up against a wall by cops, because if a black man is carrying an expensive camera he clearly had to have robbed it.
And that was part of the process. And I was involved with Brooklyn CORE and then with the Harlem Parents Committee at a later point. And so that was part of the process for me, of learning about race in America.
I grew up in an all-white working class, lower-middle-class neighborhood. The only black person I saw with any regularity was a guy by the name of Clem-- I never knew his last name-- who worked for some of the landlords, helped them when-- we still got coal. That was the source of heating-- When the coal trucks came to fill up the bank in the basement, and he would be the one who would be in charge of putting that together. That's all. That, and going to Ebbets Field after Jackie Robinson.
MARY CATT: And your fourth book is going to take a look at going back to Brooklyn. Right?
NICK SALVATORE: Yes, I am. Yeah.
MARY CATT: Taking a look at two neighborhoods. And the context is race. Could you tell us more about it?
NICK SALVATORE: Sure. Well, the themes I'm playing with are race and ethnicity. And I'm taking-- although this is not autobiographical, there'll be maybe a little biographical section at the very, very end-- but I'm looking at Bedford-Stuyvesant-- Bed-Stuy, as they call it in Brooklyn-- which is the Central African-American, and now African-American and Hispanic, community in Brooklyn. And it just expanded it's spatial dimensions enormously since the 1940s.
And Park Slope, which is where I grew up. When I grew up, below 7th Avenue was generally working-class and lower-middle-class. Above 7th Avenue in Brooklyn was a wealthier group of people. We lived below 7th Avenue.
Now, of course, it's the spot to go to and it's changed rather dramatically. And I walk by sometimes the apartment where we grew up, and it's now got its own security system and all this sort of stuff. And I'm curious-- I think my mother was paying $80 a month for a seven-room apartment, six-room apartment. Something like that. In any event-- yeah. So it's very different.
But I'm playing with those two as a way to kind of get at some of the changes in the post-World-War-II decades. And so it's in the relatively-early stages. So I'm still developing it, making trips to New York to do research and things like that.
MARY CATT: OK. Shannon Isaacs, who got part of her education here at Cornell-- she writes, "hi, Professor Salvatore. Since graduating I've seen many organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, that can afford to pay its lowest-level workers a wage where they can afford health care and a living wage, but choose not to. What do you think are the components to addressing this issue, and how do you think that current political and economic conditions would make solutions from history to this problem more or less viable?"
NICK SALVATORE: Well, the last part of that is complicated because one of the things I would urge, but is something that kind of goes against the grain of our traditions in a way-- I mean, I do think, for example, that there are some employers who have a handful of employees, et cetera, for whom the health care costs, for example, or even a-- as has been proposed in a number of places-- a $15 an hour wage is simply beyond what they can afford.
I do think that there is a role for the federal government to step in here aggressively on some of these important issues. I don't think that a major corporation should get a buy on $15 an hour. I don't think a major corporation should get a buy being a contributor to the health care system. But I do think that there is a central role as well for the government to play, but there will be cases where there will be individual organizations-- businesses, if you will-- that simply won't be able to do that. And if that's legitimate we should understand that. But that's where the government should actually come in and be helpful to the employees. Not so much to build any further profit level for the employer, but to take part of that burden.
We have in our country a really embedded sense of individualism that at times works to our sharp disadvantage in dealing with individuals who don't have the resources, be that because they never got the education that allowed them to move in certain ways in the economy, or for other reasons. And we tend to say, well, tough luck. It's up to the individual to make these decisions. It's up to the individual to get themselves out of their predicament. Well, Debs would have said that too, but not in the way of a stark individualism that has no support coming from other parts, other institutions.
So, you know, I say that because embedded in the question might be a concern-- as well as the obvious concern-- might be another concern of, might there not be companies or corporations that can legitimately can't afford standard A or standard B. And that could very well be true, but that doesn't mean that you throw the whole baby out with the bathwater.
MARY CATT: Here's a question from Cindy, one of our viewers, that goes beyond the nation and goes global. "I once heard a speech discussing the idea that in order for wages for American workers, especially those at low-wage jobs, we need to work for hire wages for people globally. Do you agree with this, and could you discuss the impact of the low wages paid to people in developing countries on the wages of people in the US?"
NICK SALVATORE: Well, you can see it actually with our current president's family. Ivanka Trump has a incredibly widespread, very profitable business selling all sorts of different types of clothing and shoes and et cetera, from high end to more middle-brow, if you will, in terms of price. I don't think there is an item that is sold as advertised and sold on the Ivanka Trump label that's made in the United States. They're made in Bangladesh, in Vietnam, in China, and two other countries now that I forget-- but in Asia.
So the question then is, how does an American corporation-- let's assume that a corporation actually wanted to change the economic structure of the country that it was working in. That's complicated to begin with, obviously, a foreign company coming in and saying, you're going to do it my way. Right? But let's assume for a moment they did. How are they going to affect the political-- how do you go about affecting the political structure of country X? You know? It's a very-- I'm not certain there's really a way to do that.
The other issue though is, as much as that is an issue-- and I think that this other part should be considered. A lot of American jobs are not being lost to foreign competition, but they're being lost to automation. They're being lost to the machine, if you will.
Again, as I see it, I don't think we should go back to the 18-teens and become a Luddite and break the machine. OK? I don't think that's a good policy. I don't think it's good for the country. I don't think it's good for us economically even.
But at the same time, what do we do then with the increasingly-large numbers of people who are in this transition? It's not a transition they choose. It's a transition that has been forced upon them. And you see it-- and this is the strangest thing of all politics.
To use just one example, you see it so vividly in West Virginia and Kentucky, in coal. And you also see so vividly the support that-- at least last November-- came from those states for Donald Trump. It's a disconnect. But nonetheless it's politically a reality.
MARY CATT: Yeah. And then I think many people are struggling to unscramble that reality right now. And Marty Lustig, a Cornell electrical engineering graduate, class of 1963, has a question somewhat related to that. He said, "throughout my younger life I had very little interest in history. Now, much later in life, I crave learning about what I've missed. Question, could you suggest a series of books I should read in sequence to learn what I so wish I learned so many years ago?"
NICK SALVATORE: [LAUGHS] There's a wonderful-- I mean, a place to start-- a wonderful biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the mid-19th century major economic forces in the United States. And I am currently right now blanking the author's name, but it won all sorts of prizes. And I know the name as well as I know my own, but I just I'm blanking it right now. So that would be one thing that would be of interest.
More recently there's are a number of books dealing with the changing nature of our politics, on the growth of conservatism. I mean, one person to understand in this, I think, would be Ronald Reagan. And there are a number of very good books out on Reagan, but especially about his appeal to people even as he was telling them that he was going to be taking from them some of the programs and benefits that, in fact, they had gotten quite used to.
But Reagan is important, I think, because he was able to-- in a way that was more effective than George Wallace, who also tried this in the 1968 election and had some important success with Northern workers-- trade union workers, actually, union members-- but Reagan was able to really translate this vision that he had and others had of this arch-conservative approach to economics and to the relationship of the individual citizen to the government. Translated into a language that resonated in a way that-- I mean, the last president before Reagan, I think, who had a similar, if very different direction, had a different impact, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And both of them were able to hold that pretty much over the course of their-- Roosevelt's was a longer presidential career-- but were able to convey that effectively across their time in office.
So those would be the areas. I'm blanking names and books, so I'm just going to-- it's OK. But those would be the areas I would begin to look at.
MARY CATT: Great. Thank you. Patricia [? Chiari ?] Howard Fitzgerald writes in. "Your seminars on the plight of black workers in the 19th and 20th centuries were life-changing for me. Do you have any reflections on challenges black workers as the world of work has changed in the 21st century? Do you have any suggestions for recent--" [CHUCKLES] once again, "recent books on this issue."
NICK SALVATORE: Right. Right. Well, I think what we are seeing is more people of color, first of all, moving into colleges, then from college moving into increasingly varied parts of the economy. So in that sense it's very different from what was the dominant approach or the dominant reality in the 1960s and certainly in the 1950s, where the numbers people of color who were involved in higher-level white-collar professional work were much smaller. So I think hopefully that will continue.
But at the same time what is also happening is that there is a large group of African-Americans now across a number of age groupings who don't have that education, who don't have some of those opportunities that others, both white, black, and what-have-you have.
And you see it in Chicago. You see it in various other cities where the tension within what are still the black ghetto communities, is still not an integrated community-- world. Are built around the absence of jobs, the absence of social service networks that are effective, and the presence of quick fixes, selling drugs. You know, you're in a gang for protection in part. And then the protection becomes, well, maybe we can also make some money out of this, and et cetera, et cetera. So I think that that remains a fundamental issue.
And finally the third thing that happens-- and the most important thing-- well, I can't say that. But one of the really important things that the movement Black Lives Matter has helped us understand more broadly is the way in which, when a policeman stops a black person it can be a situation of Russian roulette for the black person. I'm not attacking all policemen. I don't mean it that way. But what I mean is that, we have so many examples of being pulled over for driving while black, and then it goes it goes haywire after that or whatever.
So there are those issues that are-- I don't think it's time to start celebrating Emancipation Day or a new Emancipation Day, but I do think that there have been some real efforts to change the educational patterns that African-Americans and other people of color are allowed to get into. It's not a question of their not being interested. It's a question of actually having the resources to take advantage of them.
MARY CATT: Mm-hm. Here's a question from Rich Berkowitz. He wonders how the student body and your interactions with students have changed since you began at ILR.
NICK SALVATORE: Well, it's funny. I think-- I taught here for 36 years, and I think it's fair to say that the students have gotten more career-conscious than when I first began. And I don't mean that necessarily as a criticism because the demands of to, quote unquote, "make it" in a professional workforce-- the demands for entry are harder now than they were before. You know? So whether one wants to be a lawyer or one wants to go into human resources or one wants to do whatever, they-- '81 to 2017-- there's more of students now who really feel-- I would use the word-- they might not-- but I would use the word "oppressed" by the need to get good grades. And grades were always an issue for everybody at some point. OK? But nowadays there's much more, I think, an emphasis.
And my approach to teaching has always been-- and this happened with some of my students. You know, you can get a C in this course and really learn an awful lot. You know? So I'm never-- I've always been a hard grader, and I hope hard on myself as well in terms of preparation and delivery and what-have-you, and discussion.
But I think that that's really an important issue, that they come as freshmen or as transfers more worried already about, "I've got to do well. I just have to do well because so much rests on this." And, yeah, sure. That may be true. But you've got four years here to really explore and to find out not just new things but to find out about yourself, find out what it is you really want to do and where you want to go, and why.
MARY CATT: Did any students as individuals or as a whole influence you in those questions or in your own journey?
NICK SALVATORE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, no. No. I mean, I've had students who have actually given me-- because of our discussions, have given me ideas about something, either a turn that I need to take in something I'm working on or-- you know, that's an interesting idea. Maybe I should think about doing something on that.
What has happened for me more is, when somebody has really worked very hard, stretched themselves in a project, and in the exchange between us over the course of the semester in, let's say, writing a term paper or whatever it may be, to see them begin to trust themselves that if they do stop worrying about grades they may actually do some really fine work. And that's touched me. Not because I take credit for it, but because it has encouraged me to keep doing that.
To-- don't give into that pressure. Don't let it-- and don't let it pass by. Engage it with a student, because underneath that pressure often is somebody who really wants to learn and doesn't really know how to or is afraid if it's going to cost them vis-a-vis their future career in terms of grades and things like that. So that's my best sense of that.
MARY CATT: A few more questions I'd like to get in before our time is up in about 15 minutes, and some of them are not aligned, but here goes. "In the first two minutes you mentioned politics and religion. My question to you is why there is an existing electoral college in the 21st century? Isn't it way too old? And our democracy doesn't deserve to have such a place where our country has to choose from a biased, old electoral college system." That's from Ray.
NICK SALVATORE: Mm-hm. There clearly are other systems that work quite well, and can be quite small democratic and speak to those issues. We have a constitution, and I think-- this is my sense. I don't have any evidence for this. I mean, I haven't researched this, et cetera. But my sense is that, if we tried to change that the resistance from a broad swath-- not just from those who might be more conservative-- from a broad swath of-- no. This system has gotten us this far. With all of its difficulties, it's gotten us this far and, thank you, we're not going to change it now at this point. I think that would be the response.
It doesn't quite answer the question because, theoretically, yeah. I mean, you look at the Democratic societies of Europe. They don't quite have that kind of a system, but this is ours. And I would think twice before putting a lot of energy into wanting to change that. I think there are-- yeah.
MARY CATT: Hm. OK. Mark [? Jerajeni ?] writes, "Nick, US labor organizations have been under assault for the last 30 years. Membership is at a historic low point and both represented and non-represented workers have faced frozen wages, outsourcing and layoffs, and benefit cutbacks for years, and workers seem to accept this state of affairs. Is there anything on the horizon that might cause a labor resurgence? What would it take?
NICK SALVATORE: Mm-hm. You know, it's important-- to begin to respond to that-- I think, to remember the height of the labor movement, the organized labor movement in America. It reached about 36% of the non-agricultural workers. So that means that, what, 64 percent-- something like that-- of the American workforce, non-agricultural, at the height were not in unions.
Unions also have been-- and you can see the origins of this and understand the reasons for it back in the New Deal. I mean unions, as they began to organize and were still relatively-speaking weak, clearly and understandably began to look towards the political system. And with Franklin Delano Roosevelt as president and the liberal Democrats in a, if not a majority, in a strong minority within the Democratic Party, and then the president-- they began to look for help in that direction. It makes perfect sense.
But there was costs of doing that, as a number of critics of the-- labor people who are critical of the labor movement have made this point. The cost is that you begin to rely on your politician to be, in a sense, the negotiator for you and the source of, ultimately, the power that you might have.
So I think that that is-- you know, one of the painful things to think about-- I mentioned it briefly before. So at the height of the labor movement in 1968-- it's still growing but it's well into the 30 percent range and et cetera-- George Wallace is such a threat in parts of Illinois, especially Chicago, in Wisconsin and in Michigan-- all profoundly-union states and territory-- that the AFL-CIO has to, in late September of 1968-- OK. George Wallace, the segregationist former governor of Alabama, is running on an American Independence Party ticket, on his own ticket-- throw a humongous amount of money into the unions in those states and ultimately the Democratic Party in those states, to begin to do a push-back against what was supposed to be-- these are our certain voters. We have no problem with these polls-- so that the labor movement-- not only has the working class been very different than we tend to think-- and we think of the working class as if it's an entity, but it's not.
One of the biggest breaks you have, obviously, is 36% at the best in unions, the rest not. But you also have real breakdowns both on ethnicity and race, on gender. And so, you know, when you-- how to put this? Organizing working people really can't be a question just of slogans. It's got to be a question of understanding what the group that you're focusing on-- what they really want. Not what you want to give them. What they really want. And then see where the two come together. What's the opportunities for your group that's consonant with where that group of working people is. Because if you don't do that, you're kind of talking into the wind. So that would be my response.
MARY CATT: OK. Thank you. Mark [? Calser ?] writes in, and this is something you addressed a little bit before. But he asks if you could put today's political climate in perspective. "Please make us all feel better--
--by going over some similar times in American history where, perhaps, there were some outcomes that people today would be happy to see now."
NICK SALVATORE: Hm. Well, again, I mean, you think of the 1930s-- to use that as an example-- where you had a massive and-- the only word, really, is "ugly"-- depression that lasted, with a little break, into 1939, into the time when America began war preparation, war production for allies first and then for ourselves as well. And you had a very liberal president.
But that's not the pattern. OK? Or at least that's not the dominant pattern. When you think of Ronald Reagan, when you think of parts of Bill Clinton's policy on labor and on doing away with safeguards for organizing and other issues, and certainly when you think about George W. Bush and now Donald Trump-- and frankly, I mean, Obama was supportive of unions, but the unions weren't very much on his agenda. During his term in office he didn't cause this, but during his term in office unions are declining. And there's not any particular individual-- his Secretary of Labor tried to do certain things, but there was not very much that-- anyway.
So the point is that America, I think, has been and remains today in many ways a more-conservative country than those of us who find difficulty with some of that would often tend to want to acknowledge. The question then does not mean, OK, then everybody's got to roll over and play dead because there's nothing we can do.
It seems to me that what is really needed-- and I would point people today towards 2018 election. I'm going to be political here for a second-- is to get involved at the local level. You've got a Congressman who is a staunch conservative who doesn't believe that women should have access to birth-- doesn't believe Planned Parenthood should even exist. And you can go on.
You begin to find other people in your community, and you begin to work together. And you begin to say, OK, so who's going to run against these local people? Could be for a county commission or county legislature, or it could be for city councils. It could be on a number of different levels. Could be for Congress.
The point is that, you can't just simply wave a wand and expect things to change. But if you begin to take your focus, your discontent, your anger, and your sorrow-- all three of them-- and begin to focus it towards, OK, 2018 is coming. What are we going to do with that? Who can we get elected? How can we try-- how can we build an organization that is built around offering a sensible, solid alternative to what's being presented?
MARY CATT: Mm-hm. I'm going to ask one last question, if that's OK. And it comes in from Patricia [? Mascosa. ?] Hi, Patricia.
NICK SALVATORE: Hi, Patricia.
MARY CATT: Class of 2011. "With state and local governments doing more than the federal government on so many issues-- such as raising the minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 at the federal level since 2007, and more recently California Governor Jerry Brown traveling to China to preserve climate agreements-- what does this mean for federalism in the next century?"
NICK SALVATORE: That's a great question because it can clearly-- from a, quote unquote, "progressive" point of view, it can clearly play into the hands of a conservative meme that talks about decentralization, sending everything to the states, which is not what Jerry Brown, as I understand it-- or as Patricia explained it-- it's not what Jerry Brown is trying to do.
What he's saying is that there's a vacuum here, and we're going to set up a pathway for one of the largest states, economically-powerful states in the nation. So, I mean, I do think that that's a strategy that is positive, but it can have a kickback.
I mean, I could imagine a Vice President Pence-- were he to be running in 2020-- saying, you know, I don't agree with Jerry Brown on almost anything and I certainly don't agree with the direction of the state of California but, you know, they got a good idea on this. And I'm going to follow that. You know?
So I do think it's not a reason not to do it. It just is, politically, a way in which it can get played, is what I was thinking.
MARY CATT: Mm-hm. Well, thank you so much, Professor Salvatore.
NICK SALVATORE: Thank you, Mary.
MARY CATT: It's been a lovely conversation. I've learned a lot, and I hope our viewers have to. We really appreciate the time you took out of your days to join us, and we hope that you found this informative.
Please send us your feedback on the same forum you sent the questions in. We'd love to know what you think, what you'd like to hear more about in future webcasts. And thank you again, professor.
NICK SALVATORE: Thank you.
MARY CATT: Take care.
NICK SALVATORE: Thank you. Great. Thank you so much.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of the ILR School at Cornell University.
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A conversation with Professor Nick Salvatore, an expert on 19th and 20th century history. Salvatore is the author of several books, including "Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist," which received the Bancroft Prize in History and the John H. Dunning Prize. "We All Got History: The Memory Books of Amos Webber" received the New England History Association's Outstanding Book Prize. His third biography, "Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America," examines the life of an influential preacher.