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State of the Union: A Century of American Labor
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),
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
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.