The Powell Memo and the war on workers

Forty-five years ago, on Aug. 23, 1971, Lewis Powell, then a well-connected conservative corporate lawyer in Richmond, Va., wrote a document that has changed all of our lives for the last 45 years.

At the request of his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., then education director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Powell – whom GOP President Richard Nixon would nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court two months later – looked at the political landscape facing business as a whole and authored the most-influential private memo ever.

It’s far more influential than any of Powell’s subsequent High Court rulings. And his clients, first in big business and then in the radical right, implemented and elaborated on Powell’s recommendations, creating the organized corporate rule that now permeates society.

In 1971, Powell’s clients were alarmed by what they perceived and feared: The New Deal – including the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security-was an accepted part of U.S. law. So were the key features of the Great Society, such as Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, and civil rights laws, notably the Voting Rights Act.

Consumerists, progressives and their allies were on the march, the corporatists feared. Even with a Republican president, Nixon, ruling, Congress had passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and, the year before, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, all over business opposition.

And the corporate elite feared and hated the Bill Kunstlers and Ralph Naders of the world, along with the consumer and environmental movements, for starters.

It was time to strike back, the infamous Powell Memo said. Some excerpts:

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism” of business and capitalism “come from perfectly respectable elements of society: From the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking…”

Powell accused business’ foes, in his words, of scheming “to sabotage the system.”

“The painfully sad truth is that business, including the boards of directors’ and the top executives of corporations great and small and business organizations at all levels, often have responded – if at all – by appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem. There are, of course, many exceptions to this sweeping generalization. But the net effect of such response as has been made is scarcely visible,” he declared.

So Powell set out a detailed plan, entitled “Attack of the American Free Enterprise System,” against its foes. In his memo, they’re radicals, the media, college professors and students, and intellectuals. Later, his readers, led by the chamber, would expand their universe of opponents to include workers.

“Independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is (in response), 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,” he declared.

The Powell Memo created a structure and tactics for the corporate class to use to achieve their hegemony and impose their agenda on the rest of the country.

The structure included establishment of think tanks to give supposedly intellectual justification to business biases, creation of media platforms – think talk radio – to broadcast their views and challenges to media licenses of networks and stations who defied them. It included a huge lobbying campaign including dedicating 10 percent of all corporate advertising to ads “that support the system,” and demonization of the opposition as radicals or worse.

And business must also play “a broader and more vigorous role in the political arena,” not just lobbying but in campaign financing and advertising, Powell wrote. And, oh yes, infiltrate the nation’s courts, too.

About the only item Powell’s Memo left out was unleashing the tsunami of corporate and right wing cash that has flooded our political system since the 2010 Citizens United ruling – a decision that came long after Powell left the court.

And while Powell’s Memo targeted “radicals”, “communists”, “leftists”, professors, consumerists, environmentalists, students and minorities, his readers in the Chamber of Commerce and elsewhere now extend it to women, to progressives, to minority politicians – notably President Obama – and to anyone who dares to question the corporate agenda.

And to workers. Especially to workers.

Need we tell you what the Powell Memo’s impact, as implemented by the Chamber of Commerce, its minions and its political puppets, has been in the ensuing years?

The corporate success in following his blueprint is a big factor in falling or stagnant incomes, weakened workers’ rights, a shredded safety net, Wall Street and other financiers running amok – and producing several crashes, notably the Great Recession – along with so-called “free trade” pacts, destruction of voting rights and on and on and on and on.

The War on Workers was implicit, if not explicit, in the Powell Memo.

That’s the legacy, to our society, of Lewis Powell, as carried out by his corporate clients. Its impact will take years – or more likely decades – to undo, and only if all the rest of us get together to work at it.

Photo: Official portrait of Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. Color negative by Robert S. Oakes – Library of Congress, Public Domain,


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.