Unions have long been active in politics, and unions’ political influence once extended to both political parties. When labor was strong, even during periods of Republican ascendancy, elected officials could not afford to disregard union leaders’ advice when devising policy.
Take the case of W. J. Usery Jr. (pictured, center) Usery was a longtime labor activist who got his start as a cofounder of a local branch of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) in Georgia. For years he rose through the ranks of the IAM before President Richard Nixon nominated him to be assistant secretary of labor in 1969. While Nixon was no great supporter of the labor movement (and that’s our understatement of the day), he understood that labor’s assistance was essential for his legislative program. As he put it, “No program works without Labor cooperation.”
President Ford followed Nixon’s precedent, promoting Usery to secretary of labor in 1976. It would be as if a President Paul Ryan decided to tap Randi Weingarten – current head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – to be the Secretary of Education.
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