The Selling of Free Enterprise

Rochester General Strike, 1946

“It would be possible to write quite a history of the innovations made since 1830 for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.”–Karl Marx. Capital.

Oil workers remember history, 1945

Oil workers remember history, 1945

This is the story of how big business, governments, and groups of private individuals, used the techniques of science and technology to destroy the American working class over the course of the twentieth century. At least four million American workers went on strike from the winter of 1945 to the winter of 1946, participating in almost five thousand separate instances of collective labor action, the largest number before or since. From meatpackers in New York to fruit pickers in Hawaii, to longshoremen up and down the west coast, every industry seemed affected. To business writer Whiting Williams, of Factory Management and Maintenance, the situation in January, 1946, looked like “nothing less than a catastrophic civil war.” (Williams, p. 97)

War veterans march in solidarity, 1946

War veterans march in solidarity, 1946

Unlike previous large-scale labor actions, (like the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and or the West Virginia Mine War of 1912-13 and the Seattle General Strike of 1919) widespread popular support met the strikers of 1946. Politicians, clergymen, and small business owners turned out to support them at rallies in Rochester. War veterans marched in solidarity with them in Milwaukee. The United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther even had the gall to demand GM open its books to union officials, and sign a contract with a revolutionary clause tying workers pay to GM’s annual profit margins (Fones-Wolf, p.3). “[I]f you say, ‘No dice, we can’t give you a wage increase,'” Reuther told a GM director of personnel, “[the man in the picket line] says, ‘Let’s see your books to see why you can’t.'” (You can read the full exchange here.) President Harry S. Truman himself invited United Steel Workers of America union president Philip Murray and Benjamin Fairless, president of U.S. Steel Corporation, to the White House in January, hoping to settle the wage dispute that threatened to freeze the entire U.S. steel industry.

Truman was less inclined to mediate between railroads and their workers. When railway unions across the nation struck in sympathy with the United Mine Workers in May, threatening to halt shipping nation wide, the president threatened to use the army to seize the railroads and break strikes. When the railway workers rejected a settlement, Truman went before Congress, and in the midst of asking them to authorize his plan, received word that the strike had been settled on his terms.

“The general right of workers to strike against private employers,” he said, “must be preserved. I am sure, however, that adequate study and consideration can produce permanent long-range legislation which will reduce the number of occasions where that ultimate remedy has to be adopted.” (Read his full speech here.)

Here is a montage of news footage from the Strike Wave. The railroad strike is the subject of clip 2.

This long-term legislation emerged from Congress next year. It was called the Taft-Hartley Act, and among other things, it classified certain union activities–like wildcat strikes, solidarity strikes, and union donations to federal political campaigns–“unfair labor practices,” making them against the law. It also required unions to sign anti-communist affidavits, forcing anyone who refused out of the running for a union officer’s position. Any union who balked at this national loyalty test would loose its right to hearing before the National Labor Relation’s Board,  and thus cease to exist in the eyes of the federal government.It was time, the Republican-dominated Congress argued, to shut the Communists out of America’s labor movement. After all, what were they but enemy fifth columnists, enthralled to the godless ideology of Soviet Russia?

At the same time, Taft-Hartly (which passed over a Presidential veto) mandated that businesses run their firms in the most efficient way possible, leaving the definition of “most efficient” up to the business itself (Frum, p. 21). To business, this meant making the most money possible in the shortest amount of time by any (legal) means necessary.

The next year, puppet regimes, answerable to Moscow, seized control of eight eastern European countries. A CIA-inspired Civil War in Greece may or may not have prevented a ninth from coming to power. In any case, on March 5, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that “an iron curtain,” had descended across the Continent. Even the CIO purged twelve unions from its organization when they refused to sign Taft-Hartley’s anti-Communist affidavits.  The Cold War had truly begun. (See Walker, p. 32-58)

American businesses saw the new militancy of labor, no longer curtailed by the Democratic Party and the war-time necessities of patriotism,  as a direct threat to their power. They saw themselves opposing a strong labor movement, coupled with an activist state that believed government existed to protect people from the excess of capitalism. For some, such a ideology led inevitably to Communism. Millard C. Faught of Nation’s Business Magazine (the official Journal of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) warned American business leaders that “our present economic system and the men who run it have three years—five at the outside—to re-sell our so-far preferred way of life as against competing systems (Fones-Wolf, p. 37).” No need to imagine which “competing systems” he meant.

Stalin over Wisconsin

Stalin over Wisconsin, 1948

Using the latest advances in science and technology, American businesses–led by groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Advertising Council (formerly the “War Advertising Council”)–began a campaign to “educate” ordinary Americans about the dangers of “socialism” and the benefits of “free enterprise.” As the Employers Association of New Jersey said, in the promotional material for its managerial communications clinic: “[W]hat the people who work for you think about you and your company largely determines their opinions about industrial management as a whole, and consequently about the amount of economic freedom under which they think you should operate.” (Fones-Wolf, p. 78-79)

Anti-Communist Comic Book, 1960

Anti-Communist Comic Book, 1960

Over the next fifteen years, business groups and their affiliated institutions produced thousands of newspaper ads, comic books, radio programs, national speaker’s tours, television programs and, most entertainingly, films. Across the nation, businesses funded economics courses in private schools and provided communications “clinics” for managers. No longer the front line of a faceless, impersonal bureaucracy, managers were re-sold to themselves as the new, smiling face of free enterprise capitalism, then taught to go out into the world and sell everyone else.

These various types of media all sold the same message, claiming that the “American system of free enterprise,” to quote one, was solely responsible for the creation of the American town, the sustainment of the American farm (now recast as a business in its own right, producing for the town with tools sold to it by business), the wealth, power, and security of the American nation, and the perpetuation of American ideal of freedom, and thus progress, and thus freedom. Anyone who questioned this united vision of a classless, free, and (above-all) upwardly mobile society, was obviously a Communist agitator, deserving of communal censure.

One of these films was produced in association with Harding College, currently Harding University of Sercey, Arkansas. It was called “Make Mine Freedom.” In the film, cartoon figures representing American Labor, Business, Politics and Farmers are enticed to try a bottle of “Dr. Utopia’s magic formula: Ism.” All that’s required of the four figures is that they sign over their freedom, along with that of their children and their children’s children.

The Four Horsemen of America are harangued for this by a figure called John Q. Public, who proceeds to lecture them on the benefits of “our American system of free enterprise.” In the story he relates (a fictional account of a genesis of the auto industry) small-time tinkerers from the 1890s with money from family and friends grew and prospered into massive, technologically sophisticated industries. Industries that shape and direct every aspect of American life. The fate of those millions of small-timers who did not turn their hobbies into multi-million dollar fortunes, the role of labor in securing the benefits of capitalism for ordinary workers, and the role of government regulation in managing the socially-destructive aspects of capitalism, are not mentioned in the film. It is by no means a critique of Communist ideology, not even the faux-Communism of Stalin’s dictatorship. It is instead a commercial, a PSA for America, produced by a private educational institution with private money for public educational consumption.

(You can watch the entire film here.)

Make Mine Freedom

Make Mine Freedom

By the mid fifties, over twenty million American workers took time out from work to view these films and imbibe their message. Their children sat through many of the same films in school. Back then, education theory held that human beings were basically stimulus-response machines who’d imitate anything they saw. Praise them for imitating the correct things, and you can show them all the films your school district can buy. Many were shown over and over again until they literally fell apart.

One can do any number of things with this ideology: accept it completely, rebel against it, or attempt to work within it and survive. As the Red Scare of the 1950s destroyed the last of the American Communist party, and the growing battle over Civil Rights exposed widespread racial divisions in the American working class, its children, raised on these films, did all three and more. Politically weakened by Taft-Hartly Act, discredited by associations (both real and imagined) with Communism and organized crime, increasingly divorced from its next generation, unions entered the sixties already in trouble. They ended it even worse, openly opposing the radical social change movements that either changed the face of the twentieth century, or exposed its real face for all to see.

Richard Nixon resigns, 1974

Richard Nixon resigns, 1974

While the American political left tore itself apart, the American right consolidated behind President Richard Nixon. No friend to unions, Democrats or hippies (not to say same thing thrice), Nixon stoked the racial and generational fires underneath his political enemies whenever it suited him. Alan Matusow describes a typical example: “the Philadelphia Plan, issued by [Secretary George P] Shultz’s Labor Department in 1969, which sought to end racial discrimination in the building trades by establishing goals for black employment.” Sounds reasonable enough, until you realize (as Nixon surely did) that this would pit historically white union workers against new, nonunion African-Americans a company would be federally-required to hire. One or another of these groups could then persuaded to vote Republican, provided the negative effects of the Plan could be blamed on Democrats. “For Nixon, on civil rights as with every other domestic issue, political advantage was everything. Even when he did good, principle had almost nothing to do with it (Matusow, p. 745-6).” This attitude secured him one of the largest re-election margins in history in 1972, and brought about his resignation in ’74. But the American left had no time to celebrate.

No longer held together by class, left-leaning activists and thinkers around the country had, by the 1970s, splintered into self-conscious, adversarial communities of ethnic and consumer groups. This had a predictable effect, not only on union membership, but on the very idea of class solidarity. Increasing isolation and alienation became the norm in all but the highest America’s classes, which continued to reap the vast majority of the benefits of being the world’s premier capitalist superpower.

They remain so to this day.

Works Cited

1946 Strike Wave. <> Retrieved December 8, 2009. Video.

1946 General Strike of Rochester New York, The. Image from  <; Web. Retrieved 28 November, 2009.

Bernstein, Barton J. “The Truman Administration and the Steel Strike of 1946”  The Journal of American History, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Mar., 1966), pp. 791-803. Print.

Bits of News: The Great Strike Wave of 1946.  Image from Bits of News.  Web. <; Web. Retrieved 28 November 2009

Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Book.

Frum, David. How We Got Here: The ’70s. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Book.

“GM Rejects Reuther’s Call to ‘Open the Books’: The Post-WWII Strike Wave.”  History Matters. Web. <> Retrieved November 17, 2009.

Make Mine Freedom (Film.) Prod. John Sutherland Productions, 1948. Available at the Prelinger Archives. Web. <; Retrieved December 8, 2009.

Matusow, Alan J. Review of “Nixon’s Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy.” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Aug., 2003), pp. 745-746. Print.

Nixon’s resigns as president. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Web. <; Retrieved December 8, 2009.

Stalin over Wisconsin. Image from Meyer, Stephen, Stalin Over Wisconsin: The Making and Unmaking of Militant Unionism, 1900- 1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Book.

Two Faces of Communism, The. Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, 1961. Comic book.

Walker, Martin. The Cold War: a history. New York: Owl Books, 1995. Book.

“‘Word Has Just Been Received’: Truman Speaks on the Railroad Strike.  History Matters. Web. <> Retrieved November 17, 2009.


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