After the labor movement helped elect David Pryor, Dale Bumpers and Bill Clinton early in their careers, the three politicians took aggressive anti-union positions, Michael Pierce, an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas, writes in a recent piece on The Labor and Working-Class History Association’s Labor Online website. Pierce sees a connection between Clinton’s early work against 1978’s Labor Reform Bill (for the Pryor campaign), his later pro-business policies as governor and president and Hillary Clinton’s struggles with working class whites.
… once in office, Clinton and his allies turned their backs on the labor movement that had made their careers possible, largely in hopes of discouraging anti-union companies from funding potential rivals or to undermine potential rivals on the left. Although political commentators date the birth of Clintonian triangulation—i.e. adopting some of your opponent’s policies to distance yourself from your base, move to the center, and broaden your electoral appeal—to the aftermath of the 1994 elections, Bill Clinton along with Pryor and Bumpers began employing it in the 1970s and the Arkansas labor movement was the target.
There is no better example of this triangulation than the Labor Reform Bill of 1978. As anti-union enterprises found new ways to circumvent the National Labor Relations Board procedures—dragging out certification processes, illegally firing union activists and taking years to litigate challenges to these dismissals, and purposely violating laws knowing that the minimal fines would be a small price to pay to keep unions at bay—unions sought relief in the form of a new law to eliminate these practices. But Bill Clinton, Pryor, and Bumpers worked enthusiastically against the bill. Pryor made opposition the cornerstone of his 1978 senate bid. Bill Clinton, with the help of political consultant Dick Morris, wrote a series of ads for Pryor’s campaign warning that unions were “disastrous for the economy of Arkansas.” Bumpers joined the Senate filibuster that killed the bill.
Triangulation made Clinton and his allies nearly unbeatable. Work with liberals on social issues and gestures to the black community allowed them to retain the backing of much of the left (who really had no one else to support), and their labor policies attracted the support (with various degrees of enthusiasm) of business conservatives. Unable to counter employer aggressiveness during a period of rampant inflation and trade pressures, Arkansas’s labor movement and the liberalism that it did so much to sustain withered, and the state began a political shift to the right. The Big Three easily accommodated themselves to this shift, supporting free trade, economic deregulation, and other elements of neoliberalism.
Pierce is working on a book on the rise and fall of New Deal-style liberalism in Arkansas.