- Series: Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America
- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 17, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691116547
- ISBN-13: 978-0691116549
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 10.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #810,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America)
Use the Amazon App to scan ISBNs and compare prices.
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Customers who bought this item also bought
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
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. Many labor activists from the Progressive Era were in the forefront of this politicized offensive to push for legalized industrial democracy. In addition, some of the Progressive social-democratic platform such as unemployment insurance, social security, and fair labor standards were part of the New Deal package.
The backlash against this resurgence of worker empowerment began immediately. Conservative justices, hostile corporate managements, racist Southern oligarchs, and anti-statist AFL unions - all opposed state intervention in the private domain of workplaces. But with the onset of WWII, the labor movement was drawn even more tightly into the state web as a participant in peak-level bargaining with the War Labor Board and industry leaders for the purpose of stabilizing industrial relations. For example, to curtail the spontaneous and disruptive strikes that were a part of the self-help tradition on the shop floor, multi-level grievance arbitration systems became standard sections in most bargaining agreements. But that tripartite bargaining did not extend beyond WWII. Some of the agreed to provisions proved to be more debilitating than helpful to trade unions and workers in later years.
With the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, conservatives were finally able to accomplish the dilution of the Wagner Act. Unions suffered major setbacks in that legislation. Communists and radicals were purged from union rolls, "right to work" laws were enacted in some states; employers could now denounce unions in organizing drives; and secondary boycotts were mostly prohibited. The author refers to the exclusion of supervisors and the subsequent exclusion of tens of millions of professional and technical workers in today's workforce as the "ghettoization" of the union movement.
As the author indicates, Taft-Hartley guaranteed that collective bargaining would be both limited and firm-based. A variety of barriers and penalties now existed to derail broader, classwide mobilizations. Negotiated contracts did not venture outside "mandatory" subjects of wages, hours, and working conditions. The prerogative of management to make virtually all corporate decisions regardless of any impact on workforces was a privileged topic. Industrial democracy received scant consideration as the courts generally held that a grievance clause in a contract overrode the statutory right of workers to strike.
The author takes particular care to debunk the widely held notion that the post-Taft-Hartley industrial relations era through the 1970s was a time of labor-management accord. A companion idea was that collective bargaining represented "industrial pluralism" in action. But classes with opposed interests and distinct ideologies could no longer exist; society now was defined to consist of competing interest groups who engaged in "non-ideological conflict." It was a theory that eschewed the idea that "alert citizen-workers" were the basic political actors of society. Industrial pluralism required that "competing elites bargain, compromise, and govern." Labor unions were only fulfilling their legitimate role when led by unassailable officers of long tenure. In addition, capitalism was now a benign force; it had been transformed into a rational planner for industrial society.
Global economic forces beginning in the 1970s undermined this supposed labor-management accord. Increased global competition, OPEC, inflation, and reduced corporate profits triggered new assaults by businessmen, conservatives, and various pundits on unions, casting them as "self-aggrandizing interest groups." Meanwhile a new rights consciousness, fueled by the civil rights movement, coupled with a loss of credibility and trust for unions persuaded workers to look to state regulatory legislation for workplace protections. But it was a pursuit for protection of individual rights based on gender, race, age, etc and not collective rights to industrial democracy. It was a focus that left unchanged the basic power structures in workplaces. Worker solidarity and workplace democracy no longer resonated with workers.
The author clearly regards the collective bargaining regime of American industrial relations, as it has evolved, to be a "product of defeat, not victory." Obviously material gains were made by many through collective bargaining, but the trade union movement has mostly failed in facilitating the democratic voice for all of the American working class.
What does the author suggest? It is a simple list: militancy, internal union democracy, and politics. There really is no assessment of the feasibility of the labor movement solving the labor question and establishing industrial democracy. Unlike the 1930s, there is no pent-up demand for workplace democracy. Consumerism seems to be the operant ideology of the American working class. This is an important book that leaves little doubt as to the state of unions. One is left wondering about the future of trade unions in the U.S.
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. Although he is scathing abou the flaws of the AFL's short sighted and often openly racist stratgey he duly notes that their craft unionism did have some advantages in some places.
The next two-thirds of the book are much more interesting. Lichtenstein denies that there was ever a "Labor-Management Accord," the belief that labour problems were essentially solved held in the sixties by complacent liberals and confused leftists. Lichtenstein points out the exceptional qualities of American management that differed them from their European counterparts and made them less amenable to compromise. He points out the continent wide nature of their businesses, the absence of cartelization and self-regulation, the increased power of big businesses, who were not tained with collaborationism, and the increasing stress placed on smaller companies which made them blame the federal state. He points out the dead weight southern segregation had on trade unionism and other liberal hopes, He notes how Taft-Hartley legalized right to work laws, as well as banning supervisory unioism making the unionization of many service industries like insurance or engineering "virtually impossible."
Lichtenstein goes on to discuss the increasing complacency of the AFL-CIO, under its spectacularly unimaginative leader George Meaney, as well as the calcification of the grievance system, the dissipation of shop-floor pressure, and the strategic disaster of supporting a private welfare state via union contract. This would not stand the ruptures of the eighties and which dissipated efforts to create a national social wage for all. He also reminds us that Kennedy's Keynesianism was the most conservative form on tap, while LBJ's war on poverty failed to confront the structural roots of poverty and thought that if could be fought on the cheap with training programs.
Lichtenstein then goes on to discuss the decline of the union ideal among liberal and leftist thinkers, and notes how even the Warren Court hampered trade unions. Lichtenstein is most helpful in discussing the limits of "rights consciousness." He is unflinching on the complacency and bigotry of many trade unionists that made this necessary. But he quite properly notes that it cannot be a substitute for trade unionism. First off, the legal-regulatory system is not self-supporting and it needs a coherent voice from workers themselves--ie a strong trade union, to support them. Secondly, rights discourse puts the emphasis on regulators as opposed to the workers themsleves, an unhealthy sign. Thirdly, rights consciousness does nothing to change or alter managerial authority. Finally, rights discourse by itself cannot solve the structural crisis that confronts American society. Lichtenstein provides the example of the steel workers where African-Americans challenged and beat Jim Crow, only to end up with fewer steelworkers as the industry collapsed.
Lichtenstein's book is concise and well documented, if largely based on secondary sources, and it contains useful apercus about globalization, the disaster of concession bargaining, the fraud of "quality of life" initiatives, and about the folly of the construction workers. Tthey supported Nixon, beat up anti-war protesters, but were still shafted by him anyway). He also discusses the health insurance debacle, and notes some promising signs of renewal in the last few years, especailly among Hispanic Americans. One might feel he is trying too hard to end on a positive note, but one can only agree when he says that "At Stake is not just an effort to resolve America's labor question but the revitalization of democratic society itself."