Why the Left Should Ally With Small Business

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On September 5, 1955, the indomitable Walter Reuther, a prominent labor movement leader and leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), began his Labor Day message to Americans by commemorating all that the unions had achieved of higher wages to higher wages, greater dignity in the workplace. Reuther, who had been the architect of the sit-in strikes that unionized the auto industry and who became a key ally of Martin Luther King Jr., then turned to another issue: the conditions faced by the country’s small business owners. “Big companies get more and more from the market”, he complained.

The CIO wanted to fix this problem. The legislative platform during those years called for the tax burden to be reduced on small businesses, for them to be given more credit and for enforcement of antitrust law to be stepped up. In 1957, the union federation, which had now become AFL-CIO, welcomed a Supreme Court antitrust ruling against General Motors and DuPont. The decision, the association reported, set a legal precedent that would help small businesses not to “huddled mercilessly. “This year the AFL-CIO required a “thorough investigation of the monopoly and legislation protecting the legitimate interests of small businesses”.

Reuther’s support for small business wasn’t a strange anomaly in left politics. For much of the 20th century, working with small businesses was allied in the struggle for a fair economy. For decades, beginning in the 1930s, the Democratic Party counted organized workers and small businesses as a core component and made their welfare a central concern of its political agenda. This fact surprises many today because it is a story that has long been abandoned. The shift took place in the 1970sWhen the Democrats welcomed the rise of large corporations, they argued that these large entities would be easier to unionize and provide more for consumers. In return, the Liberals saw small businesses as not worth fighting. They have been irrelevant to the left’s vision at best and an obstacle to it at worst.

Around the same time Conservatives realized that they could lay claim to and reformulate small business policy to advance an agenda that serves the business elite: tax cuts, weakening of democratic institutions and dismantling of work and environmental protection measures. The dark irony of this platform was that it increased big business’s market share at the expense of small. But the right-wing small business rhetoric was so successful that many on the left believed in it, and it reaffirmed their notion of small businesses as inherently regressive, contrary to workers’ interests and against democratic values.

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