⚡ Some More Labor History

⚡ Some More Labor History

Including how Ronald Reagan's failing acting career shaped today's politics

In our last audio post, organizer Emma Kinema references some labor history as well as the film industry when discussing unions for tech workers. I’m super excited to share this interview with labor historian Joshua Freeman, who has a wealth of knowledge about the American labor movement over the last century or so. It’s a long, fun conversation, and I recommend listening to the full audio to hear everything.

Below, I’ve excerpted one of the chunks that was personally most mindblowing to me: that Reagan’s political career (and everything that followed) started because he was literally a “paid actor” to make free-market anti-union speeches.

Joshua Freeman is a labor historian and formerly a professor of history at Queens College, CUNY, and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of several books, most recently Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.

Maggie Pan (she/her) is a psychology student at Duke, where she is an undergraduate researcher at the ECC Lab, thinking about imagination, free will, and robots. She is currently designing at Hellosaurus and loves baking, Russian literature, and autumn.

Chris Painter is a Technology and National Security Fellow at the National Security Innovation Network. He's formerly worked as a machine learning engineer in the Bay Area at 4Catalyzer, as well as on AI alignment projects at OpenAI and the Centre for Effective Altruism. You can find him on Twitter or his Substack.

🎮 life is complicated

Joshua Freeman, interviewed by Chris Painter and Maggie Pan.

Here's a funny little anecdote. The way Ronald Reagan got into politics: Reagan was this actor who was kinda not that big a deal and his career was kind of going nowhere.

GE [General Electric] management in the 1930s, 40s, had learned to live with their union; they were even quite liberal. But there was a big strike in 1946, the result of which was that the company lost, and they really hated this and they decided they were going to gear up. They wanted to weaken and undermine their unions and they spent decades very successfully doing this, and part of what they did is they hired Ronald Reagan.

They created a TV show called GE Theater. It was like each week was a one hour little mini drama. And Ronald Reagan introduced the show, but then he'd go around to all these towns, where GE had factories or sometimes in the town, like the Chamber of Commerce. And he’d give these free market, free enterprise speeches which would be ghostwritten by GE, and the program was meant as a long term investment. And you know, in all these company towns, the residents all actually sided with the union.

So Ronald Reagan becomes this kind of circuit speaker in free enterprise, and local business types in California see his skill doing these things, and long story short he becomes governor and then president.

Reagan was the [President] of the Screen Actors Guild, right?

Life is complicated! He never shied away from that, and after he became president he used to say I'm the only President of the US who’s ever been the head of a union. Reagan actually starts as a New Deal liberal, even slightly on the left…. In the late 30s he begins drifting and it's Cold War anticommunism that pushes him to the right. And there's a big fight in the Guild, which had been a pretty left wing union, and Reagan is associated with anticommunist wing of the Screen Actors Guild. So while he’s active in the union he begins moving to the right. His acting career is going nowhere and then GE spots him….. Unlike being in the movies, he’s actually very good at these dinner speeches.

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Imagining an alternative history where Reagan was a better actor,

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