May 2002, Vol. 125, No. 5
Book reviews from past issues
State of the Union: A Century ofAmerican Labor. By Nelson Lichtenstein. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2002. 352 pp. $29.95.
What happened to organized labor in the 20th century? At the start of the century, organizing labor was seen as a way to impose discipline on a chaotic situation in the United States. Faced with numerous labor disruptions, some employers were not opposed to an "organized" labor movement that could tame the chaos resulting from disaffected workers. When the Great Depression of the 1930s arrived, "organized" labor again appeared as a disciplinary force, this time as a force needed to bring about structural changes in American business. From that point on, during the next two decades, labor unions grew until reaching their membership peak in the 1950s. Since then, union membership as a percentage of total employment has declined to the point that, at the end of the century, scholars are asking whether unionized labor is irrelevant in American society.
State of the Union attempts to answer the question of what happened to organized labor and where it went wrong. It is a history, but a history written with a specific point of view. Lichtenstein sees the failure of organized labor as the failure of a movement to understand and capitalize on its importance to society. Beginning with the Depression, he outlines organized labor’s successes in the 1930s as political leaders saw the value of unions. Unions offered the opportunity to protect and encourage higher wages, resulting in increased consumption, and a stronger economy. Where the Depression was seen as the failure of American capitalism, labor unions offered a countervailing force, both economic and political. At a time when workers were fervently searching for answers to their problems, some saw either communism or fascism as a solution. Industrial democracy re-enforced political democracy and so unions were seen, especially by the Roosevelt Administration, as important pillars of the American identity. This sharing of interests can be seen in the passage of the Wagner Act, a codification of the mutual interests between New Deal politicians and the unions.
While chronicling their successes, Lichtenstein writes extensively about the divisions in organized labor throughout this period. He re-emphasizes to the reader that even when they were successful, labor unions never spoke with one voice. Divisions ran deep, between skilled and semiskilled crafts, political radicals and moderates, whites and blacks, and men and women in the movement. Often unions disagreed on legislation, as the AFL did when it opposed the Wagner Act and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board. Despite these internal conflicts, organized labor grew because it met the larger needs of society, encouraging democracy and raising living standards for workers, both union and nonunion.
If the Wagner Act marks a high point of unions’ political strength, the Taft-Hartley Act marks the beginning of unions’ decline. Although union membership continued to grow after the law’s enactment in 1947, the author feels that organized labor’s withdrawal from the political arena in favor of firm-based negotiations led directly to its present weakness. Once unions turned inward, focusing on winning wage and benefit improvements for their members rather than working for the general improvement of all labor, he believes that unions began a slide from which they have never recovered.
From the author’s perspective, there was nothing inevitable about this turn of events. Unions did not have to surrender their responsibilities to society to focus on gaining advantages for their members. Workers themselves did not give up fighting for more rights and power. As evidence, Lichtenstein cites the civil rights movement. Beginning in the 1960s, struggles for individual rights for blacks and women eclipsed the struggle for collective workers’ rights. Unions could have fostered this movement, re-inventing the struggle for individual rights into a movement to improve the rights of all workers. Instead, while they recognized the relevant issues, they did not embrace them, thus erring at a critical juncture in U.S. history.
While supporting the resulting legislation that gained individual rights for workers, the author regrets the loss of collective rights, arguing that collective action offers workers opportunities not afforded by courts and government enforcement agencies. It is this premise, offered in the introduction and latter chapters, that buttresses many of the book’s arguments. While not wishing to turn back the clock on individual rights, he advocates that unions re-awaken to their society-wide responsibilities through political action and, when necessary, labor-management confrontation rather than labor-management accord.
Nelson Lichtenstein writes a thought-provoking book on labor. He is highly critical of labor leaders and their short-sighted vision during the height of the labor movement. While he recognizes the political realities that limited organized labor’s successes in Congress, he does not think that those realities are an excuse for the resulting political failures. Rather, he bemoans the lost opportunities that came with labor peace during the second half of the century. One may criticize him for underrating the role that the anti-Communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s played in eroding the power of radical union leaders. Those more radical leaders may have avoided the errors committed by more conservative union leaders later in the century, but this is a small criticism of an otherwise fascinating account. State of the Union is a history written with a purpose—to encourage and energize a struggling labor movement, and to remind its leaders, and the reader, of the power of big ideas.
Bureau of Labor Statistics,
Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs? America’s Debate over Technological Unemployment, 1929–1981. By Amy Sue Bix, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 376 pp.
The displacement of workers by advancing technology has been a concern of thinking people since the beginning of the industrial revolution during the second half of the 18th century. The intensity of this concern grew during the 19th century, and in time involved government agencies and commissions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor was created in the early 1880s at the behest, not least, of trade union leaders often representing craftsmen whose income and status were being diminished by low-skilled or unskilled men and women operating industrial machinery. The Bureau of Labor’s first report in 1886 dealt with business fluctuations that had been experienced in the United States as well as abroad over the past 50 years. It found that mechanization was the essential reason for the unemployment characteristic of depression.
In Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs, Bix does not dwell on theoretical issues. Rather, she seeks to tell "the intellectual history of an idea, the notion that Americans must come to grips with the human consequences in introducing powerful machines into the workplace." She limits her discussion to the worker displacement effects of machines, and in this respect presents a thorough work.
As Bix shows, the Great Depression vastly magnified the public’s concern with the displacement effects of technology, which spread over a broad range of manufacturing industries and their communications and transportation infrastructures. Quoting from or citing numerous publications and some of the workers who had been displaced, she stresses the shocking contrast between the promise of technology offered during much of the 1920s and the enormity of the unemployment witnessed during the 1930s—perceived widely as a result of that very technology.
Worker displacement, however, had already been occurring, if gradually, during the earlier decade. For example, the telephone industry had begun to install dialing and the electromechanical switching equipment that made it possible—thereby reducing the need for operators. The railroad industry eliminated 535,000 employees as operational efficiencies were improved. In agriculture, the tractor displaced large numbers of laborers, and supplied the technological basis for land consolidation, thus encouraging the eviction of tenant farmers, particularly in the South.
Representatives of business sharply took issue with the notion of technological unemployment, and President Hoover, while not unaware of it, did not think it had long-term significance.
Trade union spokesmen, finding it impolitic to oppose mechanization and the increasing productivity it made possible, proved unable to formulate an effective program to deal with worker displacement, except to propose a shorter workweek. They were reluctant, probably unwilling, to challenge the political and economic forces that gave rise to displacement. For her part, Bix does not address the competitive forces that compelled businesses to keep updating its productive equipment and processes of production, and the reorganization of managerial and workplace structures such updating often necessitated.
Yet, as Bix demonstrates, business leaders were quite active in promoting the great fairs of the 1930s, which propagated the blessings of the technological advances that their exhibits featured. The "Century of Progress" fair in Chicago (1933), and the World’s Fair in New York City (1939) were designed to enhance the "faith" in progress that technology promised. Man must adapt to mechanization was the essential message of the Chicago exhibition, and this was indeed the implication of the influential idea of "cultural lag," coined by the sociologist William Ogburn—that is, the lag between invention and its acceptance by society at large—and, as far as the worker was concerned, overcome by training or retraining.
Apprehension about mechanization’s negative employment effects pervaded much of American cultural life, Bix writes. She discusses relevant literary works, the transition from silent to sound film (which occasioned difficulties for a stratum of movie actors), and the struggle of musicians attempting to come to terms with recordings and other substitutes for "live" performers of music. Her treatment of these topics imparts considerable interest to her book.
Nevertheless, Bix avoids the theoretical and policy-oriented aspects that have revolved around the notion of technological unemployment. On the other hand, Bix cites the concerns of American presidents from F.D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. But the theory of unemployment implicit in the New Deal and its addressing of the problem was that it stemmed from inadequate purchasing power and other deflationary pressures. Remedying these weaknesses would restore employment. Measures such as unemployment compensation, social security pensions, farm subsidies, public employment programs, and the devaluation of the dollar against gold—whatever their ultimate success—were designed to bolster purchasing power. Articulated subsequently by J.M. Keynes and his followers, this has been the theory of aggregate demand stimulation if the unemployment rate would exceed a certain level ever since.
This theory, or conception, of the causes of unemployment, however, could not explain, let alone come to grips with, the many "structural" factors that jeopardized employment. During the 1960s, the fear that automation would give rise to massive job loss, and which drew government agencies and private researchers into lengthy investigations, gave currency to the concept of structural unemployment. Again, Bix does not mention this aspect of unemployment, which, however, subsumes the displacement of workers by technological change. Sporadic as well as continual attempts to mitigate structural unemployment have been made by government—for example, the subsidizing of redevelopment of industrially declining areas; training and retraining programs; and varieties of tax credits. (The Displaced Worker Survey instituted by the BLS in the 1980s also appeared to be a way to probe the extent of structural unemployment.)
Notwithstanding all the concern about unemployment and its causes, one of the U.S. Government’s overarching policies has been the promotion of productivity and the technological advances it spelled. This policy, the evidence for which cannot be detailed here, has certainly sustained the dynamics of American capitalism, and has also been believed to have favorable distribution effects as between capital and labor. In some ways illustrative of the dominance of the policy was the investment tax credit, legislated under the Kennedy administration in 1962, designed to spur "modernization" of plant and equipment. Additionally, depreciation write-offs were allowed to be shortened over time—this at the very time when apprehension over job loss because of automation was at its height.
Bix is invariably sympathetic to the victims of technological displacement, but she keeps her distance from analyzing the economic interests that have underlain the causes of such displacement, as well as from the reasons why the human losses such displacement has caused were not adequately, if at all, compensated.
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