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Calling Joe Hill

STATE OF THE UNION: A Century of American Labor, By Nelson Lichtenstein, Princeton University Press: 298 pp., $26.95

September 08, 2002|STANLEY ARONOWITZ | Stanley Aronowitz is author of the forthcoming "How Class Works," which will be published by Yale University Press in spring. He is the Green Party candidate for governor of New York.

In the face of the Bush administration's threats to impose sanctions against West Coast dockworkers under Taft-Hartley and the Patriot Act provision, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is prepared to mount a coast-wide strike against stevedoring companies that are demanding steep concessions from workers.

The union will most likely defy the president and close the ports, an action profoundly reminiscent of the strike by the United Mineworkers, under the leadership of John L. Lewis, who in 1943 stopped digging for coal. Lewis drew jail time, and maybe James Spinosa, the ILWU president, will too.

In the aftermath of the organizing campaigns that brought millions of industrial workers into American unions during the Great Depression and World War II, sociologist C. Wright Mills announced that labor leaders had become "new men of power." During World War II, Sidney Hillman, president of what was then called the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, was one of the most powerful figures in the Roosevelt administration. The Democratic Party prospered on the basis of labor's vote and, most important, unions established what became known as the American standard of living which, among other benefits, brought to workers a level of consumption of goods and services previously unknown in American history.

But by the 1960s, union power had begun its long slide. In 1953, one of three workers in private sector enterprises were in unions; today only one in 10 working in private firms belongs to a union. Except for the dramatic rise of public employees' unionism, organized labor has lost so much ground that many economists believe unionism is fated to return to the margins.

In "State of the Union," a richly documented and well-written book, Nelson Lichtenstein, who teaches history at UC Santa Barbara, traces the rise and decline of American labor, primarily since the Great Depression. He begins the story with the New Deal's struggle to overcome the economic crises of the time. From 1934 to 1936, workers conducted general strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco, a national textile strike and sit-down strikes (factory occupations) in Cleveland and in the Akron, Ohio, rubber industry. In fact, the famous General Motors sit-down strike occurred before the New Deal Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which established a series of procedures to determine whether a union had the right to represent a particular group of workers and barred so-called "company" unions because they were controlled by the employer.

Without the benefit of legal protections, workers had to resort to militant action to gain a foothold in the American workplace. But following the conventional wisdom, Lichtenstein believes unions were able to overcome stubborn employer resistance to independent labor organizations only when the government stepped in to protect their rights. Lichtenstein holds that during the 1930s, unions looked to the state for solutions to their problems and that this dependence on government action was desirable and necessary.

He does not consider the argument that the National Labor Relations Act was a response to significant evidence that--working outside the New Deal framework--union organizers, including many communists and socialists, secured the right of workers to form "unions of their own choosing," free of management interference and manipulation.

But organizing workers in America's largest corporations meant that the most impressive aspect of labor's struggle for recognition was that it challenged management's unilateral right to control the shop floor. The unionization victories were first steps in labor's quest for full citizenship beyond the right to vote. Lichtenstein argues that unions sought to establish a new "industrial democracy," which acknowledged the worker's voice in all aspects of production and corporate functions.

Indeed, in the first decade of labor's insurgency, unions demanded, and won, the ability to contest workloads, have a say in the introduction of new technologies and prevent management from firing activists and other workers without cause. Union power grew through World War II: Its ranks swelled by more than 4 million members, largely because of the labor movement's ability to pressure the Roosevelt administration to bring such longtime anti-union companies as Ford Motor Co. and the so-called little steel producers into line.

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