Dispatches from the Front: The Powell Memo & Assaults on Labor and Education

Editor’s Note: The following remarks were delivered at the APSCUF Legislative Assembly on February 8, 2013 in Gettysburg, PA. Glenn Richardson is an APSCUF-KU delegate and the Chair of APSCUF’s Legislative Committee.

Good Afternoon APSCUF! It is always an honor and a pleasure to speak with you!

As some of you may recall from time to time I have spoken with you about the nature of the challenges we face.

You know I have spoken to you about the challenges we face in a governor whose policies have ripped a tear through our Commonwealth, and even though from some distances and some angles that tear in our very fabric may not seem large, yet how when the light shines through, that tear becomes clear, and how it is our duty to be that light.

And you know that our challenge is not just this governor. He is but one of many across the nation who sing from the same hymnal. And we have spoken about the challenge we face from groups like ALEC whose great contribution to our civilization has been to secure the passage of stand your ground gun laws, voter suppression measures, and various and sundry assaults on the rights of organized labor including the dreadful right to shirk laws that lurk in our midst.

And I am here to tell you today, APSCUF, that our challenge is not just this governor or ALEC and their many legislative lackeys across our great land. APSCUF we are in the midst of a decades long hostile takeover of the American middle class launched coldly and deliberately by the corporate class who has benefited the most from the promise of America.

US_Supreme_Court_Justice_Lewis_Powell_-_1976_official_portraitSome of you may be aware of the genesis of this assault. I would direct you to what has become known as the Powell memo, penned by one of America’s leading corporate lawyers in 1971, just months before he, Lewis Powell, would be named to the Supreme Court by President Richard M. Nixon.

In his memo, Powell urged the business community to get political, to go to war with labor, go to war with consumers, to go to war with the media, and to go to war with intellectuals.

He wrote,

But independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.

Powell specifically targeted colleges and universities for their role in undermining the public’s unquestioned faith in corporate ideology. He wrote,

… a priority task of business — and organizations such as the Chamber — is to address the campus origin of this hostility.

His agenda for reforming higher education included plans to address staffing, mandate “equal time” for the corporate perspective, and a call to subject to review the textbooks we use in our classes.

Perhaps more significantly, Powell also directed the business community to get political. He described the woeful state of corporate ideology in America as he saw it.

Yet, as every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of “lobbyist” for the business point of view before Congressional committees. The same situation obtains in the legislative halls of most states and major cities. One does not exaggerate to say that, in terms of political influence with respect to the course of legislation and government action, the American business executive is truly the “forgotten man.”

Powell went on to issue a clarion call to action:

There should be no hesitation to attack the Naders, the Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the system. There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.

He continued, by offering something of a backhanded compliment to our predecessors in the organized labor movement. I quote:

Lessons can be learned from organized labor in this respect. The head of the AFL-CIO may not appeal to businessmen as the most endearing or public-minded of citizens. Yet, over many years the heads of national labor organizations have done what they were paid to do very effectively. They may not have been beloved, but they have been respected — where it counts the most — by politicians, on the campus, and among the media.

The impact of Powell’s memo was dramatic. As Hedrick Smith notes in his 2012 book Who Stole the American Dream?, the number of Washington offices maintained by US companies leapt from 175 in 1971 to 2445 a decade later.

And corporate America got religion. As GM CEO Tom Murphy put it,” if you do not know your senators on a first name basis you are not doing an adequate job for your shareholders.”

As Smith notes by the late 1970s business had amassed 130 lobbyists on Capitol Hill for every single member of Congress.

The legacy of this business call to arms has roiled the very fabric of our nation. Our once mighty middle class has been eviscerated, and the spoils of the labor of the nation have been increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. At the time of the Powell memo, the top one percent of earners claimed ten percent of the nation’s income. Thirty-five years later, that share had risen to more than a third of the nation’s income.

Harrisburg Public Union Sign Featured ImageSo it is that we might want to contemplate what it is that we have lost. Smith described what he called a virtuous circle where the consumer demand of empowered workers contributed to the economic growth that raised our standard of living.

This virtuous circle was nurtured by three key elements. Strong unions. Higher taxes on the wealthy. And perhaps most importantly, the political support of a mobilized people in the form of the great labor and civil rights and consumer and environmental movements of the mid-twentieth century.

You know that I have frequently reminded you that we are heirs to a great legacy, the beneficiaries of the labors of those who have come before us to advance the causes of labor rights and human dignity. Of those like A. Philip Randolph, Delores Huerta, and Walter Reuther. But we are also the heirs to the efforts of countless of thousands of ordinary men and women who gave their time their heart and their soul to the great task we have remaining before us.

And so it is today that we must educate, we must demonstrate, and we must participate, and then we may re-create that golden promise of democracy and equality that truly represents the better angels of our nature.

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About Glenn Richardson 4 Articles
Glenn Richardson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kutztown University and author of "Pulp Politics: How Political Advertising Tells the Stories of American Politics."

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  1. Slow Train to Destruction of Public Higher Ed in PA?: First Defund, then Divide and Conquer | Raging Chicken Press


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