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State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America)

4.1 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691057682
ISBN-10: 0691057680
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Does anyone still look for the union label? Apparently not, to gauge historian Nelson Lichtenstein's history of the rise, heyday, and long decline of labor unions in America.

In the Progressive era, Lichtenstein writes, the "labor question" lay at the heart of a whole complex of political ideas governing the social betterment of working people and the development of a more equitable society. These ideas flourished through the course of the early twentieth century, as unions attained more and more influence and as Keynesian notions of organized labor being "essential to boost mass purchasing power and thereby sustain economic growth" became established. After World War II, however, unionism began a slow collapse, helped along by the rise of conservative, antilabor politics. Although ideas of workplace justice and the extension of civil rights into the private sector remain strong, organized labor has not--with the result, Lichtenstein argues, that many American workers are worse off today than they were a quarter of a century ago. Lichtenstein's narrative capably summarizes trends in modern labor history, and it provides much fuel for activists seeking renewed labor-based politics. --Gregory McNamee

From Library Journal

Lichtenstein (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit) presents a history of American unionism in the 20th century and argues convincingly that a thriving labor movement is an essential safeguard of American democracy. He chronicles the struggle for economic citizenship and security that led to the burst of organizing during the Depression and World War II. After the war, even as unions reached new highs in membership and political activity, their strength was sapped by corporate resistance, their own bureaucratization, legal restrictions, and ideological attacks from the Right by anti-Communist conservatives and from the Left by disenchanted intellectuals. Throughout, Lichtenstein examines both the positive and the negative sides of American labor unions have been champions of civil rights and equal pay and racially exclusive and economically self-interested clubs. But, Lichtenstein argues, as the only organized counterweight to the power of rapacious corporations, unions play an essential role in preserving American ideals. Today, the labor movement faces political, economic, and organizational problems, but it has overcome equally large challenges in the past and remains a vital force for social progress in the United States. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Duncan Stewart, State Historical Soc. of Iowa Lib., Iowa City
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691057680
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691057682
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #621,097 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Nelson Lichtenstein's Sate of the Union is a superb study of the current crisis of American labor. If it is not as finely researched or as densely rewarding as his biography of Walter Reuther or Steve Fraser's biography of Sidney Hillman, it is an excellent introduction to the problem and to possible solutions. Lichtenstein demonstrates the vital necessity of trade unions. The average wage of American young families stands at only two-thirds of the their counterparts in 1973, "even though their total working hours were longer and the educational level of the head of th ehousehold higher than a generation before. In the first years of the new century median wages and family incomes were still below their 1989 level." In the decline of civic committment and political life, the untramelled sway of corporate hegemony, the failure to confront health insurance, public transportation, and childcare in the United States and basic civil liberties in much of our brave new globalized world, the decline of American trade unionism truly is an injury to all.
Lichtenstein, notwithstanding his title, starts with the thirties. He tells the story of how mass industrial unionism boomed during that decade. The story he tells is not particularly new, concentrating on the famous struggles, as well as the fatal limitations of the CIO on race and gender. But he also goes on to point out that the partial welfare state, far from creating the dreaded dependence of conservative rhetoric, actually gave millions of workers the opportunity to exert civil rights and real power that they did not under the mythology of a producer's republic.
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Format: Hardcover
Nelson Lichtenstein's new book, "The State of the Union," gives a history of labor unions in the United States by way of arguing for the need to restrengthen them, and I think the case is very persuasive.
Lichtenstein weaves together a number of themes to explain the decline in union membership and power. One is increased reliance on individual rights and legal protections. Federal laws ban all sorts of discrimination, endangerment, and abuse, but the federal government does not do an effective job of protecting workers from retaliation for asserting their rights and almost nothing to maintain other important elements of the workplace, such as wage levels or the prevention of mass layoffs.
We have learned to think of ourselves as individuals protected by laws, rather than brotherhoods and sisterhoods protected by our strength in numbers. We have a long list of rights, including - most notoriously - the "right to work." So called Right to Work laws clearly hurt unions but are not too far afield from modes of thought that labor supporters have engaged in themselves.
Unions are now seen as ways to protect individual jobs and proper grievance procedures following individual wrongs, not as cross-company efforts to lift the wages and benefits of entire industries. If the purpose of a union is simply to protect me from specific injustices, surely I ought also to respect my coworker's right to not be coerced to join, right?
But if the purpose of a union is to change society and improve the lot of all workers, then clearly the "right" of my coworker to be a freeloader and drag us all down is not to be respected.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The backdrop for "State of the Union" is the "labor question" that the author finds Progressive Era reformers confronting. They regarded the disproportionate power that corporate capitalism wielded relative to citizens and workers as unjustifiable in a democratic society. Changes in workplaces were most troublesome. Skilled workers were bypassed by work-simplifying machinery, an autocratic foreman system enforced Taylorism, or speed-up, and wages hovered at subsistence levels. But American workers, drawing upon a republican legacy, seized upon the WWI rallying cry of making the world safe for democracy to insist that industrial democracy be established within workplaces. Even President Woodrow Wilson recognized "the right of those who work, in whatever rank, to participate in some organic way in every decision which directly affects their welfare." Interestingly, the author does not take note of the fact that Wilson's call for workers' participation did not mention unions. But it is the relationship of unions to this "labor question" and to the notion of industrial democracy that most concerns Lichtenstein.
The lack of a legal and institutional basis for industrial democracy virtually ensured that industrial democracy would fizzle in the post-WWI era. But the major slip-up of American capitalism in the 20th century, that is, the Great Depression, opened the door for a tremendous, pent-up surge of American worker activism. In the Wagner Act, the most significant piece of New Deal legislation, workers were given the right and even encouraged to self-organize or select a representative to bargain with employers. In unionized workplaces, vibrant shop-floor steward systems ensured that workers' concerns received an expeditious hearing.
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