It is an irony permeating foundations’ early interaction with the labor movement that the first organized philanthropies were established by Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, and others like them who had supposedly earned their fortunes from the exploitation of labor. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that early attempts by these foundations to deal with labor issues of any kind were viewed with suspicion.
The most famous instance of this dynamic, according to author Richard Magat, occurred early this century when state militia set fire to the tents of evicted striking miners of the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, resulting in the deaths of two women and eleven children in Ludlow, Colorado. The Rockefeller Foundation responded by providing a grant to investigate the causes of and scientific remedies for industrial unrest. (The Foundation also made a $100,000 gift to alleviate suffering among the striking miners and their families.)
The report led to a company union that apparently was successful at reconciling labor and management disputes for about 20 years until it was replaced by the United Mine Workers during the Great Depression. Yet, according to Magat, the grant also brought foundations under severe scrutiny by the federal government over charges that they could not successfully be separated from the fortunes that had established them.
Other early attempts to establish a foundation-union nexus proceeded by fits and starts. One early effort occurred at the Russell Sage Foundation (established after the death of its benefactor who Magat terms “an unsavory speculator and financier” and a “miser and convicted usurer”). In 1908, the foundation established its Industrial Relations Department, headed by Mary Van Kleeck. Van Kleeck and the Industrial Relations Department established a reputation as an “honest broker,” of sorts between the interests of business and labor. But in time, Van Kleek’s “increasing radicalism had become an embarrassment to the foundation,” and by the late 1930s the foundation had “begun to place disclaimers on her published work.” (In 1948 Van Kleek was eased out and the Industrial Relations Department was allowed to “expire.”)
Foundations also managed to alienate many in the labor movement by funding research into alternative organizing structures for labor. Said American Federation of Labor (AFL) founder Samuel Gompers: “God save us from our intellectual friends [at foundations]. All I ask is that they get off our backs.”
Yet, in spite of the unions’ often hostile attitude, organized labor and foundations have actually experienced remarkable success in many of their collaborations. For example, the staff of the Twentieth Century Fund, established by department store tycoon Edward A. Filene (and recently renamed The Century Foundation), helped draft the most important piece of labor legislation in American history, the National Labor Relations Act, legislation for which Filene personally lobbied. Passage of this Act in 1935 meant that employers for the first time had to bargain with unions representing a majority of their employees. The Act also declared it illegal for employers to interfere with their employees’ right to organize and bargain collectively.
Magat’s work also candidly reveals the more radical side of foundation-union collaborations. The most noted of these is the Garland Fund, established by Charles Garland with an inheritance from his Wall Street broker father and midwifed by the ACLU’s Roger Baldwin. The Garland Fund supported communist-leftist causes including The Daily Worker, the International Labor Defense Fund, and the radical Vanguard Press, and was far enough to the left that the AFL described it as “Bolsheviks in patriots’ clothing.” The Fund, later known as the American Fund for Public Service, failed in its overall mission, but Magat believes that it was instrumental in educating a group of young labor leaders who would emerge to head the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
A few other foundations have supported uniformly radical left causes, including, according to Magat, the Rosenwald, Field, and New World foundations. The latter was established with the McCormick spices fortune. The McCormicks were ardently anti-union, but, according to Magat, heiress Anita McCormick Blaine originally established the New World Foundation to promote labor-business reconciliation.
But this is history. What of the prospects for future collaboration between unions and foundations?
Magat advances the rather commonsense argument that only by continuing to fashion cooperation on issues of mutual concern will unions and foundations join forces to forge some greater good. The first such issue is research—Magat sees advances coming in initiatives by Russell Sage and the Alfred P. Sloan foundations. More broadly, he sees foundations and unions coming together in areas such as the rights of black and female workers, farm and southern labor, education, health, industrial safety, the environment and “environmental justice,” and union organizing. Magat sees unions building coalitions with “progressive” advocacy groups and obtaining additional foundation support through these coalitions.
Magat carefully traces historical roots in each of these areas and sets forth some likely scenarios for future cooperation.
Only in passing does Magat make references to “conservative foundations,” which he nonetheless believes have been enormously successful in creating an ideological vision. He also quotes David Callahan, resident scholar at The Century Foundation, complaining that the “left is suffering from a massive strategic planning void” and that liberal foundations have “poured money into activist groups and community programs unconnected to a national ideological vision.”
That lack of vision, it’s fair to say, probably troubles Mr. Magat. In the introduction the author states “that I am on the side of closer contact, improved mutual understanding, and more common effort between organized labor and philanthropic foundations.” And if Magat, himself a former long-time foundation staffer, ever holds back from being unabashedly pro-union it is only because unions have often been unenthusiastic in their approaches to the “enlightened” social policies that Magat apparently favors. For example, most unions at first opposed minimum wage legislation and much environmental regulation. These “lapses” by organized labor seem to discomfort the author, who also seems uneasy with much of organized labor’s staunch anticommunist stance of the Cold War period.
Still, Unlikely Partners delivers a well-documented account of the public record of foundation-union interactions during this century. It demonstrates that while these interactions may have been limited by both design and circumstances, they have probably been far-reaching. To pick just one example from among many, who knows how the National Labor Relations Act would have turned out absent Twentieth Century Fund support and Edward Filene’s lobbying efforts?
William Alpert is a special advisor to the William H. Donner Foundation in New York City, associate professor of economics at the University of Connecticut, and managing partner of Foundation Services, LLC.