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“Discontented but not inevitably reactionary”: Organized labor in the Nixon years

Maria Graciela Abarca, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The present study examines organized labor's role in American political and economic life during the Nixon years. In the 1960s, most observers regarded American workers as economically secure and content. Events at the close of the decade, however, undermined the image of the affluent worker. Workers' support for conservative candidates George Wallace and Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign convinced many observers that blue-collar Americans had swung to the right. In the election's aftermath, analysts of various political persuasions tried to explain “the blue-collar blues.” According to the mainstream press, white workers had become more concerned with social issues—ghetto rioting, campus unrest, widespread anti-war protest, the breakdown of law and order—than about “traditional” economic issues. Richard Nixon hoped to capitalize on the Social Issue to woo white workers and fashion a new Republican majority. But the relationship between the Nixon Administration, a traditionally Democratic labor leadership, a radicalized student movement, and a volatile rank and file proved to be highly complex. Large-scale strikes against the General Electric and General Motors corporations in 1969 and 1970 showed that workers still considered economic issues to be of paramount concern. Workers and their unions did not uniformly support U.S. policy in Vietnam; indeed, during the Nixon years, unionists became more outspoken in their opposition to the war. Some unions even attempted a rapprochement with segments of the New Left. Organized labor denounced Nixon's attempts to combat the inflationary spiral the Vietnam War had triggered. Nixon nevertheless won substantial blue-collar support during his 1972 reelection campaign. He did so not by playing the social issues but by neutralizing the Vietnam War and economic concerns. Nixon's victory proved to be short lived, however. The economic recession of 1973 took its toll on the workers and their unions. The energy crisis launched a devastating round of de-industrialization. By 1974, Nixon's blue-collar support had collapsed. For all their discontent, white workers had not become members of the new Republican majority. They were displeased with their position in American society, however, and their votes were available for courting.

Subject Area

American history|Labor relations|Political science

Recommended Citation

Abarca, Maria Graciela, "“Discontented but not inevitably reactionary”: Organized labor in the Nixon years" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3027172.