Published by EH.NET (November 2008)

Lawrence Richards, Union-Free America: Workers and Antiunion Culture. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008. x + 245 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-252-03271-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

What accounts for the weakness of the American Labor Movement, the small proportion of workers who belong to unions in the United States? For over a century, the question of ?American Exceptionalism? has been central to the field of labor history, indeed to the whole of the social sciences and the project of understanding popular unrest in capitalist societies. And it is of much more than academic interest; the weakness of the American Labor Movement is associated with the weakness of the American welfare state and with the unequal distribution of income in the United States.

In the past, the debate over American Exceptionalism pitted radicals who attribute Labor?s weakness to bad union strategy or to repression, against others who associate exceptionalism with popular individualism and the strength of liberal values in what Seymour Martin Lipset dubbed ?The First New Nation.? This has been a sterile debate between opposing views supported by evidence that while often incontrovertible has been irrelevant to the other interpretation. Lawrence Richards, of Miami University of Ohio, now brings something new. Approaching exceptionalism from the left, he focuses on the attitudes of the workers concerned. He associates exceptionalism with popular resistance to unions; but he does so by citing a paternalist ethos rather than liberal individualism. Richards divides his study into two parts. The first, the weaker half, attempts a global evaluation of what he calls ?America?s Antiunion Culture.? In 82 pages he uses newspaper accounts, cartoons, and the views of selected commentators to review the place of unions in American culture. He then states a fairly conventional conclusion that unions were unpopular because they threatened individual rights. Preaching an ideology of ?collective advancement,? they violated ?[t]he ideal of individualism, of getting ahead on one?s own? (p. 83). Frankly, this argument is as unpersuasive as it is unoriginal. How, I wondered, should one evaluate the place of unions in a culture that produces both On the Waterfront and Salt of the Earth in the same year that Joseph McCarthy was censured by the Senate? (Both movies are now in DVD special editions.)

Fortunately, the second part of Union-Free America is much stronger. Richards reviews three case studies, including two union drives and the conflict between a trade union (the American Federation of Teachers) and a professional association (the National Education Association). Richards provides a detailed and specific analysis of the troubles unions have had in organizing workers who often did not want to be organized. And, getting down to details, Richards drops talk of liberal individualism; instead, he shows that popular anti-unionism came from an attempt to forge alternative collective identities.

Richards reviews union drives at Frank Ix and Sons textile mill (in Charlottesville, Virginia) and at New York University (in New York City). Both drives failed but not, Richards reports, because of repression, nor because workers saw themselves as individuals whose free expression was threatened by a paternalist union. On the contrary, the title of Richards? chapter on the textile drive expresses the book?s central finding: ?Union Outsiders Versus the Ix Family.? In Virginia and in New York, workers were less concerned with protecting their individuality than defending their identity as members of a productive community, a group identity threatened by the unions? insistence that workers and their employers were adversaries. Workers, Richards found, were neither proto-Marxists nor proto-Smithians. They ?wanted a work environment that was friendly and cooperative. … They harbored a Mayoist vision of the workplace.? Workers, Richards finds, wanted to believe in ?a mutuality of interests between themselves and their employers … a friendly, cooperative work environment? (p. 91). Unions, Richards notes, are built on distrust of employers; but the workers trusted the Ix family and NYU management. Or, perhaps, they wanted to trust them, they wanted to believe they were part of a working family.

Workers seek meaning from work that is more than a means to a wage but has significance because it joins them to a group with a common social purpose. Harnessed by employers, this becomes a powerful weapon against unions, the real cultural source of ?union-free America.? Seen from this perspective, the most important element in the photograph of anti-union activists on the cover of Union-Free America is not the American flag, but the Nissan shirts these workers are all wearing. These are not isolated individuals; they belong to a community, albeit one that spans the class divide and inhibits unionization.

Once he drops Lipset and explores the Frank Ix family, Richards develops a story that challenges the received wisdom of both union advocates and opponents. For those who support unions he rejects the widely-held idea that membership will explode once labor law is reformed, On the contrary, his analysis suggests that union weakness goes much deeper. American unions are weak because they present instrumental arguments to workers who want something bigger, something spiritual: a sense of belonging to a productive community.

Nor should union opponents rest too comfortably on Richards? work. Pragmatically, semi-paternalist employers who defeat unions by building productive communities put hostages to fortune. Their promises to protect their work-families, to maintain wages and working conditions, cannot be maintained in a market economy. These paternalists may be only one serious economic downturn away from a successful union drive built on a sense of betrayal fostered by the employers? failure to care for their families.

But the importance of moral economy and productive communities goes beyond these pragmatic considerations. As a society, we want to foster a sense of belonging; but as a democracy, we want to foster participation, honest and open public discourse, and a wide diffusion of power. The workplace communities described by Richards are not democratic, do not foster meaningful participation, and are not built on honest discourse or the spread of power. At Frank Ix, management rules a workplace run as an autocracy. The workers may get t-shirts; their managers and share-holders get wealth and power. These workplaces are the very antithesis of the type of small-group self-government that Alexis de Tocqueville and others saw as the basis of lasting democracy in America. Should a decent democracy allow them to stand? Or should it impose institutions for popular empowerment even in the face of worker disinterest?

Lawrence Richards has written a challenging and important book that should be read by all interested in the American labor movement. More, it should be read by all interested in the evolution of America as a culture and a democratic society, by all of us.

Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Gerald Friedman was born in New York City to parents who believed that anyone who said they lived elsewhere was really ?only kidding.? In addition to his books, State-Making and Labor Movements. The United States and France, 1876-1914 (1998) and Reigniting the Labor Movement (2008), he has written numerous articles on topics in the labor history of the United States and Europe, the evolution of economic thought, and the history of slavery in the Americas. He is currently writing an intellectual biography of Richard Ely.