What happened to organized labor in the 20th century? At the start of the century, organizing labor was seen as a way to impose discipline on a chaotic situation in the United States. Faced with numerous labor disruptions, some employers were not opposed to an "organized" labor movement that could tame the chaos resulting from disaffected workers. When the Great Depression of the 1930s arrived, "organized" labor again appeared as a disciplinary force, this time as a force needed to bring about structural changes in American business. From that point on, during the next two decades, labor unions grew until reaching their membership peak in the 1950s. Since then, union membership as a percentage of total employment has declined to the point that, at the end of the century, scholars are asking whether unionized labor is irrelevant in American society.
State of the Union attempts to answer the question of what happened to organized labor and where it went wrong. It is a history, but a history written with a specific point of view. Lichtenstein sees the failure of organized labor as the failure of a movement to understand and capitalize on its importance to society. Beginning with the Depression, he outlines organized labor's successes in the 1930s as political leaders saw the value of unions. Unions offered the opportunity to protect and encourage higher wages, resulting in increased consumption, and a stronger economy. Where the Depression was seen as the failure of American capitalism, labor unions offered a countervailing force, both economic and political. At a time when workers were fervently searching for answers to their problems, some saw either communism or fascism as a solution. Industrial democracy re-enforced political democracy and so unions were seen, especially by the Roosevelt Administration, as important pillars of the American identity. This sharing of interests can be seen in the passage of the Wagner Act, a codification of the mutual interests between New Deal politicians and the unions.
While chronicling their successes, Lichtenstein writes extensively about the divisions in organized labor throughout this period. He re-emphasizes to the reader that even when they were successful, labor unions never spoke with one voice. Divisions ran deep, between skilled and semiskilled crafts, political radicals and moderates, whites and blacks, and men and women in the movement. Often unions disagreed on legislation, as the AFL did when it opposed the Wagner Act and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board. Despite these internal conflicts, organized labor grew because it met the larger needs of society, encouraging democracy and raising living standards for workers, both union and nonunion.
If the Wagner Act marks a high point of unions' political strength, the Taft-Hartley Act marks the beginning of unions' decline. Although union membership continued to grow after the law's enactment in 1947, the author feels that organized labor's withdrawal from the political arena in favor of firm-based negotiations led directly to its present weakness. Once unions turned inward, focusing on winning wage and benefit improvements for their members rather than working for the general improvement of all labor, he believes that unions began a slide from which they have never recovered.
From the author's perspective, there was nothing inevitable about this turn of events. Unions did not have to surrender their responsibilities to society to focus on gaining advantages for their members. Workers themselves did not give up fighting for more rights and power. As evidence, Lichtenstein cites the civil rights movement. Beginning in the 1960s, straggles for individual rights for blacks and women eclipsed the struggle for collective workers' rights. Unions could have fostered this movement, re-inventing the straggle for individual rights into a movement to improve the rights of all workers. Instead, while they recognized the relevant issues, they did not embrace them, thus erring at a critical juncture in U.S. history.
While supporting the resulting legislation that gained individual rights for workers, the author regrets the loss of collective rights, arguing that collective action offers workers opportunities not afforded by courts and government enforcement agencies. It is this premise, offered in the introduction and latter chapters, that buttresses many of the book's arguments. While not wishing to turn back the clock on individual fights, he advocates that unions re-awaken to their society-wide responsibilities through political action and, when necessary, labor-management confrontation rather than labor-management accord.
Nelson Lichtenstein writes a thought-provoking book on labor. He is highly critical of labor leaders and their shortsighted vision during the height of the labor movement. While he recognizes the political realities that limited organized labor's successes in Congress, he does not think that those realities are an excuse for the resulting political failures. Rather, he bemoans the lost opportunities that came with labor peace during the second half of the century. One may criticize him for underrating the role that the anti-Communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s played in eroding the power of radical union leaders. Those more radical leaders may have avoided the errors committed by more conservative union leaders later in the century, but this is a small criticism of an otherwise fascinating account. State of the Union is a history written with a purpose--to encourage and energize a struggling labor movement, and to remind its leaders, and the reader, of the power of big ideas.
--Michael Wald Bureau of Labor Statistics, Atlanta Region
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|Title Annotation:||State of the Union: A Century of American Labor|
|Publication:||Monthly Labor Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2002|
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