on February 21, 2005
Dr. Clawson, a leading sociologist, has failed to make a convincing case for a revival of the labor movement in the United States. He sees the working class as a secondary force in social movements and does not say how an upsurge will emerge. Clawson lists a litany of familiar cases of labor revitalization, each in themselves are important examples of organizing, but as a whole they don't amount to the basis for a labor revitalization. The only way Clawson sees labor as advancing is through glomming on to new social movements that are appearing today. This revisionist perspective does not provide any historical substantiation for a labor upsurge, despite ample evidence the labor movement became dominant when class conflict had been on the rise. This post-modernist perspective is the most absurd effort to demonstrate how labor will grow by eliminating class conflict from the calculus. More important are other social movements based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation. While the identity movements are important, Clawson, in true post-modernist form, removes the working class from any upsurge. No new case studies that can be found elsewere are provided in this book, nor does Clawson provide a systematic approach to students seeking to understand the enigma of American labor activism and the absence of labor power.
The central premise of this book is that a progressive "political-social-economic reversal" is likely to occur in the United States and will be driven by a transformed and advancing labor movement. This contention is made against the fact that the unionization rate of private sector workers in the US has dropped from 39 to 9 percent in the last fifty years. The author's optimism is based on some recent organizing successes and on the possibilities of drawing upon a social movement paradigm. However, it is problematical that the author does little in the way of exploring the ideological or political basis for any such upsurge.
In the 1990s some unions took advantage of the community support systems of "ghettoized" Latinos and blacks doing low-wage service work to apply militant pressure and win labor contracts for such workers as janitors, nursing home attendants, and dry-wall workers, etc. In a different vein, Harvard clerical workers were able to develop a potent solidarity over the course of fifteen painstaking years of developing relationships resulting in a unique and cooperative contract with Harvard University. However, few workers now live in small urban communities where many may work for the same or similar employers. Suburbanization has undermined that key basis of worker solidarity. The focus on immigrant communities and unique organizing situations seems to write off the vast majority of American workers.
The author casts a longing eye on the civil and feminist movements of the past as possible paradigms for a renewed labor movement. But he does not acknowledge the fundamental difference between movements trying to exercise basic political rights and one that is cast as infringing on private property rights, which is exactly how corporations view unionization drives. The Civil Rights movement led to general public pressure to stop the deprivation of basic rights to all citizens. Any number of other movements such as the 1960s anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and more recently the anti-sweatshop movement has successfully illuminated various flaws or hypocrisies in our political and economic systems. However, none of those movements has posed a fundamental challenge to the capitalistic economic system.
In the decades prior to WWI, before the resurgence of labor in the 1930s, sizeable segments of the American working class were well aware that capitalism took away control of their economic destinies. The Knights of Labor, the IWW, and the socialists all contested this loss of control. But their influence had largely disappeared by the late 1920s. It was, in fact, the extreme excesses of capitalism, coupled with the fact of an urbanized working class, which led to the resurgence of labor in 1930s. Despite unemployment rates of 30 percent, the state and economic elites were able to contain discontent by creating a labor relations system whereby unions partnered with management in a social accord where adequate wages and benefits were the quid pro quo for restraining worker activism. The grievance systems found in most bargaining agreements were elementary forms of workplace systems of justice. However, in no sense, did workers achieve democracy within workplaces.
What is to be learned about the labor upsurge of the 1930s? As noted, a sizeable minority of the working class gained mostly material benefits along with some job security. But a majority of the working class was not included in this compact, especially blacks and women. Was there a transformation in the political thought of the working class? At best, this labor upsurge resulted in a short lived, mildly social democratic slant in the larger political system. In the last 30 years the American working class has supported politicians who have constructed a global neoliberal system that has been highly detrimental to their interests.
A key theme in the book is that had the labor movement joined with social movements over the past decades, the economic terrain would now be favorable to workers. But the constituencies and relationship to the remainder of society of unions and single issue movements are sufficiently different to call into question any synergistic joining together. The author continues this theme by calling for a "fusion" of labor with progressive movements. Other than a few isolated instances of labor-community actions and some middle-class college kids smearing egg on the face of some oblivious college administrators, the nature of how this fusion would work is not addressed. Actually, some critics see serious shortcomings in emphasizing the mobilization of close-knit communities in union campaigns, calling it "militancy without democracy." Worker democracy to many is no less than the full participation of workers or elected representatives in most workplace decision making.
This author, like most labor advocates, does not address whether American labor unions effectively serve the interests of the working class. The labor-friendly institutions of European social democracies provide one measuring standard. A combination of labor-influenced political parties, works councils, and active employment policies surpass the minimalist American system. Furthermore, those bodies and structures serve the entire working class and not the small minority found in American unions. European unions operate within the confines of this system.
In addition, labor commentators seldom comment on the political sophistication and participation of the American working class. Given the fact that economic and political elites have generally constructed a political and economic system that immensely benefits them, it is difficult to understand a labor strategy that does not directly and substantially attempt to transform that system. Ad hoc organizing or single issue mobilizations are unlikely to substantially alter the status quo.
The reader is left wondering what is the basis for any sort of progressive upsurge. The forces and thinking for such an upsurge simply do not exist. The labor movement has not in 80 years led a radical challenge to the current economic system that favors the few over the many. Of course, if unemployment ever reaches 30 percent again, there will be an upsurge of some type. But the author's suggestion of an upsurge is not based on that occurring.
on July 11, 2005
The book will not tell you how new forms of organizing will recreate the labor movement. It isn't even clear that the author is able to define what he means by labor movement or that workers matter at all. They are a derivitive force for him, and this book will misinform most students seeking to understand union organizing and the centrality of the working class in any campaign. The examples are shallow. Does one really think that Students Against Sweatshops are the basis for a new labor movement? Do we really think that outside forces will generate new militancy? This book is reminiscent of liberal academics in the last century who found it comfortable to watch from the sidelines--without getting into the fray. One may wonder if this perspective and approach led to the irrelevance of SAWSJ and other organizations seeking to tell workers what's best for them without actually understanding what it's like for us to work on the job. I need a book that does not offer canned strategies but one that will show me that organized labor is willing to support my own organizing on the job. We know how to organize here in Boston and we're not getting help from outside "movements."
on December 5, 2004
This book takes a long-range look at the problem of how to revive the American labor movement. It rejects quick-fix solutions and argues that: (1) Labor movements grow mainly in relatively brief periods of upsurge, as at the beginning of the 20th century and during the 1930s; (2) Upsurges happen in unpredictable ways due to a confluence of factors many of which are beyond the control of labor leaders and organizers; (3) During upsurges, workers develop new forms of solidarity that extend across boundaries of craft, industry, race and sex - often in defiance of official law. So what should labor activists be doing between now and the next upsurge? Most of the book is directed toward answering that question. Clawson analyzes a number of organizing projects and campaigns. He is especially anxious to highlight successes, but does not shy away from criticizing failures. His tone throughout is supportive and respectful - both of professional organizers and worker activists. The book is indispensable for anyone who is sincerely interested in helping to revive the labor movement.