That may seem counterintuitive, and certainly contrary to the direction the country has been moving in lately. But the reality is that when organized labor dug in its heels — as it did regularly in the United States until late in the 20th century — manufacturing companies thought twice about shutting a factory and transferring production to another country.
As union membership declined, however, so did the political leverage of once nationally-known leaders like John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, and George Meany, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s first president. Not since the Nixon and Ford administrations in the 1970s has a union leader served in a president’s cabinet as secretary of labor, or in a similar post.
Nixon was hardly a union lover, but he recognized the still significant role of organized labor and lifted Peter J. Brennan, a house painter in his youth, from the leadership of the New York City Central Labor Council to the position of labor secretary. And Gerald Ford kept Mr. Brennan in place after Mr. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. Rather than oppose the Vietnam War, Mr. Brennan rallied blue-collar union workers to support it. Some even clashed in the streets with antiwar protesters, many of them students.
From that day to this, no president of either party has appointed a union leader to a cabinet-level post. President Trump’s secretary of labor is R. Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University College of Law and a former United States attorney.
The position was supposed to be organized labor’s means of exerting influence in the inner circle of any administration. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, started the process by insisting that President William Howard Taft separate labor’s needs from those of commerce in general. President Taft finally split the Commerce Department in two in 1913, with one branch focused on working people and the other on commerce, broadly defined.