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State of the Union: A Century of American Labor

Author(s):Lichtenstein, Nelson
Reviewer(s):Licht, Walter

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

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


“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.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII