A Century of American Labour

Review: Licht on Lichtenstein

Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. xi + 336 pp. $29.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-691-05768-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Walter Licht, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania.

"What is to be done?" Nelson Lichtenstein poses Lenin's famous question at the conclusion of his trenchant consideration of the fluctuating fortunes of American trade unions during the last century. Readers should forgive Lichtenstein for his ultimate pallid proposals for reversing the recent sharp economic and political decline of organized labor. The power of his book lies not in prescription, but rather in his acute, erudite and provocative historical analysis.

In the wake of the extensive strike activity of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the "labor question" loomed as the great challenge for Americans of the Progressive era. Social reformers and labor spokesmen promoted "industrial democracy" -- extending workers an authentic voice on the shopfloor -- as a panacea. The anxieties of Progressives and the ideal of a participatory workplace are spotlighted in Lichtenstein's brief introductory chapter. The eclipse of both the "labor question" and the vision of industrial democracy is a central theme in the thicker history he provides of American trade unions from the 1930s to the present.

As early as the 1920s, the notion of industrial democracy lost meaning with the institution of so-called employee representation committees by corporate managers. The acceptance of a new principle of labor relations during the New Deal and World War II periods, namely, collective bargaining, Lichtenstein argues, then distinctly supplanted the ideal. Lichtenstein attributes the rise of mass production unionism, under the banner of the newly-formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), to an encouraging political environment and the ability of radical labor organizers to mobilize workers across ethnic divides.

The industry and firm-wide agreements secured by the CIO afforded industrial workers great protections and benefits, but the stipulations embedded in lengthy contracts lifted conflict off of the shopfloor to administrative settings, thereby containing local activism. Direct representation by shop stewards, for example, gave way to drawn out, refereed grievance procedures.

The longstanding craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) offered a different model. In response to the CIO, the AFL engaged in aggressive organizing in the late 1930s, surpassing the CIO in membership. AFL leaders remained wary of the state; in fact, in union jurisdictional disputes, the new National Labor Relations Board established under the Wagner Act of 1935 favored the broad industrial unionism of the CIO. The syndicalist approach of the AFL sustained the ideal of a democratic workplace, but AFL unions with their exclusionary practices tendered a "voice" only to white, male skilled workers (who were largely of Irish, British and German descent).

With union recognition and collective bargaining, a historic accommodation had been achieved between capital and labor. Lichtenstein forcefully and persuasively argues that this was a surface accord, with the trade union movement a weak party to a social compact at best. Organized labor faced repeated attacks. Prominent firms adamantly resisted unionization, engendering the allegiances of workers through paternalistic benefit plans. The business community immediately after World War Two allied with congressional conservatives to force passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which limited union organizing; amendments that required anti-Communist oaths of loyalty of union officials left the labor movement in the hands of stodgy leaders. Highly publicized congressional investigations of union racketeering in the late 1950s further smeared labor -- with significant losses in public approval.

Trade unionists found few defenders in the 1950s and 60s. Liberal intellectuals heralded an end to ideology and class conflict; capitalism had been stabilized through government fiscal policies, with the unions functioning to bring order to the workplace. A different kind of critique issued later from the New Left: unions, in this view, stifled rank-and-file insurgency and perpetuated racial and gender inequities in employment through the protection of white male workers. Moreover, the trade union movement, by negotiating for health insurance and other benefits in contracts, contributed to the "privatization" of welfare provision; less pressure as a result was brought to bear on the state for programs of universal coverage.

Lichtenstein, controversially, also points to new rights-based principles that damaged trade unionism. The Landrum-Griffin Act, passed in 1959 in response to exposes of union corruption, provided workers with rights to sue unions and challenge decision- making. More critically, civil rights laws of the 1960s placed the courts at the disposal of racial minorities and women who sought both compensation for past and present discrimination in employment and affirmative action programs in hiring and promotion. Both companies and unions drew suits. Lichtenstein concedes that unions historically blocked occupational opportunities for African Americans and women, but he does not join other labor historians in recent blanket condemnations of organized labor. Radicals in the movement have continually forced outreach to minority workers whose economic interests have been advanced through unionization. For Lichtenstein, civil rights legislation (and related racial and gender identity politics) -- regrettably -- have cast unions to the sidelines, undermined "the solidarity principle" of class demand, and contributed to labor's decline.

The recent sharp losses in union power have long-term roots for the author and are not just to be found in either the contemporary rise of political conservatism or restructurings of the economy. He notes that unions have been broken and concessions demanded in economic sectors not plagued by plant closings or the effects of globalization. He concludes that the problem is not one of outside forces, but of will. Thus, his specific recommendations for "what is to be done" are: more militancy, more internal union democracy, and greater politicization of the movement. In this regard, he remains hopeful with the recent elevation of John Sweeney to the presidency of the AFL-CIO.

With such a sweeping work, there are ample opportunities to quibble with Lichtenstein. Unfortunately, his extended essay on the unsettled fortunes of the American trade unionism in the twentieth century also includes little in the way of social or cultural history; the attitudes, norms and attitudes of American workers -- which carry explanatory power -- are missing. Yet, this is a book to be greatly admired and recommended. Lichtenstein has tackled in forthright and keen ways fractious debates among scholars as well as historical and ongoing fractures of American society.

Walter Licht is Professor of History and Associate Dean at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has written a chapter, entitled, "Civil Wars: 1850-1900," in a forthcoming new history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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