C. Wright Mills, Labor and The Power Elite

It is with the third chapter of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, that things get more sociological and critical. This chapter is largely dedicated to Mills’s The New Men of Power – America’s Labor Leaders, published in 1948.

“The New Men of Power is not a book about the millions of industrial and service workers who swelled the ranks of organized labor during the turbulent 1930s. It does not purport to tell the story of the upsurge. Rather, it presupposes mass unionism and is concerned chiefly with the consequences of the integration of the labor movement into the political economy during the New Deal and the Truman administration. The New Men of Power resumes the tale at the moment when unions are in the process of institutionalization and when a more or less permanent labor bureaucracy is in formation, which, while still ultimately accountable to the membership, has given rise to a new type of elite. The labor elite tends to see the union as a military force in which the lower ranks, the rank and file, are subordinate to the union leaders and their staffs.


It is not a movement by, as well as for, its members and for working people as a whole. Most major unions, according to Mills, are run from the top by people who are part of a power elite. Thus, to grasp the present and future prospects of organized labor, the object of investigation is, necessarily, the labor leader, not the rank and file.” (104)

This emphasis on the consequences of institutionalization very much reflects Weber’s influence (combined with Marx) on Mills. Except that, for Mills, bureaucratization and institutionalization are not neutral processes of modernization or consequences of it. They are very much processes of power. And since Mills is very much a sociologist of the state, it is not surprising to see institutionalization as part of co-optation by the other branches of the power elite.

“Mills’s characterization of the labor leader as a member of the elite of power and far removed from the everyday lives of the workers he represents is a reflection not only of institutionalization but also of the labor leader’s penchant to hobnob with other members of the elites. The national labor leader tends to spend more time with members of Congress, officials in the executive branch of government, other top union leaders, and corporate counterparts than with the rank-and-file leaders of his own union.” (106)

This seems strikingly accurate still today, and, for Mills, this predicts the downfall of the labor movement (no longer a movement then, once institutionalized and bureaucratized).

“Mills concludes:

“If the CIO ideologists are not careful, the managers of corporate property will select only the reasonable concessions that are offered—that labor will not strike, that labor will help with the wars, that labor will be responsible, but they will reject labor’s pretensions to a voice in production, within the plants and in the planning of the U.S. political economy. (120–121)

The prescience of these remarks is all too apparent to students of current industrial relations: having cleared the “extremists and crackpots” from its ranks, labor rarely strikes, generally supports the wars, and has steadily lost power at the workplace. And demanding a voice in the larger political economy is as far from the minds of twenty-first-century American labor leaders as was the idea, in the immediate postwar period, that labor was a movement whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of capital. It took only a few more years after the publication of his study of labor leaders for Mills to consign organized labor to a “dependent variable” in the political economy”.


Mills’s main argument is that union power is doomed unless labor acquires an explicit ideology and has a series of ideas that are fully consistent with an assessment that, far from being benign, business and the political directorate are hostile, only occasionally tolerant of labor, and poised to wage full-scale class warfare on unions and their mass constituents.” (108 – 109)

“While large sections of the liberal center remained pro-union (at least in the general sense but often turning against union militants when they flexed their collective muscle by taking direct action), the tripartite alliance of labor leaders, capital, and the national political directorate forged elements of what the “mass public” perceived to be a new power elite. However, as Mills makes clear, labor leaders were junior partners, accumulating some concessions from the table of the main actors and playing an important part in stabilizing the political and economic systems, largely by controlling the wanton impulses of the rank and file—but never really sharing power.” (111)

Emphases mine.

Throughout the book, I have never being amazed at the prescience of Mills’s perspective on the labor movements, unions and their leadership in the context of late capitalism.

Labor leaders are prone to bemoan the apathy of the rank-and-file membership. Mills points out that their complaint carries little weight when they have committed the unions to supporting the two main political parties, which, in his estimation, offer little to the workers: “Such support only takes away their chance to organize politically and alert men to politics as live issues. The activities of these politics alienate people from politics in the deeper meanings and demoralizes those on the edge of political consciousness” (270). The alienation of many workers from politics and from their own union is not surprising; the picture Mills has painted is of a progressively tighter labor bureaucracy that privileges retention of power over a program of encouraging the rank and file to take over the union, let alone encroach on managerial prerogatives in the workplace.


Without the intellectuals and a new surge of rank-and-file involvement in the union, Mills foresees a grim future. As a slump deepens and mass unemployment eats into the moral fabric of society, large corporate capital and the state are likely to respond by inaugurating a major offensive against workers and their unions. Under present circumstances, workers and unions are poorly equipped to offer effective resistance and are likely to enter into a hopeless tailspin.” (115-117)

For Mills, there should have been a labor party in the US, one that would not depend on established political parties and that would have been truly (although non-communist, Mills had no time for them even though he was virulently anti-McCarthy, he did not disapprove of the purging of ranks of organized labor). To align itself with an established party has been a losing strategy and one can very clearly right now the efforts of the other political party to finish off the labor movements in the US, while the other party stands by and does close to nothing except come election time, expecting the union rank-and-file to fundraise and campaign based on nothing more  than “the other guys are worse.”

The state of organized labor today then, is the direct results, a few decades later, of the institutionalization of labor within the state and the structures of capitalism (a joint venture, despite illusions to the contrary). By joining the power elite, albeit in subordinate status, the leaders of the labor movement (the new men of power) basically signed the death warrant of a significant and radical component of the American society that had the potential to challenge the power elite.