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Published by EH.NET (August 2008)

Gerald Friedman, Reigniting the Labor Movement: Restoring Means to Ends in a Democratic Labor Movement. New York: Routledge, 2008. xviii + 195 pp. $130 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-415-77071-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Hoyt N. Wheeler, Department of Management, University of South Carolina.

This is a well-argued contemporary version of long-standing criticisms of American-style business unionism coupled with arguments for a broader socially conscious labor movement. What makes the book valuable is the timing of the criticisms and their application to the current situation. As the author argues, at this time it appears that traditional ?reformist unions? have declined to the point that one can reasonably question their viability. Indeed, union density in the American private sector and in France has fallen to miniscule levels, and declined substantially in virtually all European countries. The author believes that the institutionalization of unionism as a bureaucracy has come at the price of separating the unions from the workers, leading to a form of unionism that is currently unsustainable.

The author sees the roots of the Western labor movements in French history ? specifically the ideas of the French Revolution of 1789 ? not in the development of trade unions in the United Kingdom and the United States, as would most American labor historians. From this he draws the conclusions that the first principle of a labor movement is democracy in society, and that democracy in industry is essential to having it in society.

From the late nineteenth century to the 1970?s, the Labor Movement in many countries was able to transform capitalism by establishing social welfare programs, restricting the control of employers over workers, limiting the scope of capitalist property rights, and placing constraints on markets. This was accomplished by working out compromises with employers and governments, trading off labor militancy for concrete gains in wages and working conditions. However, since the mid-1970?s capitalism has ?gone from strength to strength? while the Labor Movement has been in an especially devastating retreat. Unlike previous retreats, in this one labor has lost its confidence and sense of mission, and there is little indication that it will revive. Employers and governments no longer see any reason to work out accommodations with a Labor Movement that is in decline.

Although attacking economic theories, such as those of Hicks, as wrongly seeing strike behavior as entirely rational, the author concedes, and several times states, that workers can always achieve more favorable economic outcomes acting individually than collectively. But how is a worker to bargain at all on an individual basis, let alone effectively, on such collective fringe benefits as health insurance and pensions in the American system, or even social matters such as holidays or hours of work.

A crucial point in the author?s argument is that ?Strikes … are the starting point for understanding the rise and decline of the Labor Movement.? The ability to withhold labor is seen as the workers? first weapon. This most dramatic aspect of the Labor Movement exposes the fact that it is about the distribution of power and the limits of authority in society. Strikes are the most visible expression of the conflict inherent in the employment relationship. They are all ?incipient rebellions against the capitalist system itself.?

The principal empirically-based argument made in this volume is that historically, looking across a group of sixteen developed countries, union growth has been much greater during years in which there were strike waves. His numbers are very clear in support of an association between strike waves and union growth. The author concludes that strike waves lead to union growth. Yet, one might argue with the direction of causation. Do unions grow because of strike waves, do strike waves result from union growth, or are both strike waves and union growth caused by some other set of phenomena? It does appear that the Friedman has some solid arguments in support of his conclusion that strikes lead to union growth, but this is a possible weakness in a central argument of the book.

The fundamental dilemma of the Labor Movement is that it arises from, and owes its existence to, worker militancy, yet it is accepted by employers and government only because it can control union militancy, trading this off for wages and working conditions. By serving as alternatives to popular unrest, unions ultimately turn against their own constituents who want ?a voice in management, power over capitalist property.? It is labor?s ?collective effervescence? that promotes the ?moments of madness? of irrational action that causes unions to grow. The author argues that unions can never grow based on rational arguments. Strikes can build a ?bridge of faith? for collective effervescence. ?And once people have marched together, stood together, sung together, they are united in a way that no calculation can justify.?

It is argued that labor can be a source of democratization of society only if it is itself democratic and contributes to the democratization of industry. Empowering workers should be the goal of the Labor Movement. Unions should be ?little democracies? that serve as training grounds for democracy. They are uniquely in a position to serve this function since they ?directly confront authority in the center of human life.?

The fundamental prescription for the Labor Movement is that it become internally democratic, facilitating worker militancy instead of suppressing it through bureaucracy, and that it democratize industry by gaining control by workers over traditional areas of management authority.

This is an interesting and important book. In addition to putting in modern terms some traditional socialist arguments on the Labor Movement, it makes a compelling case for the importance of worker militant action to its revival. Labor does need to find a clearer focus. Democracy as a central goal has great appeal. Clearly, unions must be internally democratic if they are to have any credibility as spokespersons for workers. This has been a long-standing problem for unions, and a source of constant struggle within them. However, it is not necessarily the case that business unions are incapable of democracy. One often finds different degrees of democracy in local unions and their national organizations, and among national organizations.

But is it the case that what workers fundamentally desire is control over the means of production? In fact, it is with regard to such mundane matters as wages and benefits that many local unions are most vigorously democratic. Although the author asserts that what workers most desire is democratization of industry through control over managerial decisions, it has been cogently argued by Wisconsin School economists, such as Jack Barbash, that the elected representatives of workers, who arguably reflect worker opinion better than do academic intellectuals, find themselves required to give priority to wages and working conditions. That said, it is true that the author?s arguments take on greater force when the Labor Movement is in decline as it is today. Perhaps there is currently more truth in the old argument that a vanguard of leaders must sensitize workers to broader goals. One mechanism for greater worker power is worker ownership in cooperatives or ownership of stock in their corporate employers. I believe that leading workers toward this form of power over the means of production is one promising strategy for industrial democracy.

Hoyt N. Wheeler is Professor of Management and Moore Fellow, Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Future of the American Labor Movement, Cambridge University Press, 2002. His email address is: hwheeler@sc.edu.