Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Eds., the Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination

By Newkirk, Anthony B. | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Eds., the Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination


Newkirk, Anthony B., Labour/Le Travail


Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, eds., The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2012)

GREG McNEILLY, who heads the Michigan Freedom Fund, described Michigan's new right-to-work law as a blow against "forced unionization." (Washington Post, 11 December 2012) Why do Americans take such notions for granted? Why isn't the general public sensitized to the significance of recent events in Michigan and Wisconsin? Why are struggles for civil and economic rights not seen in the same context, while organized labour and crime are? The Right and Labor in America gives some answers. This well-written essay collection assesses the modern American Right's views on the "labour question" and attempts to alter public policy. A general point made is that opposition to unions had always been central to modern conservatism. The collection is well organized. Given the vast size of the subject, it is hard to criticize the editors for omitting material.

Part 1 focuses on early 20th-century conservative views of labour. Andrew Wender Cohen notes craft unionists saw the tariff as a way to ensure industrial democracy. But beginning during the New Deal, organized labour accepted lower tariffs in exchange for a domestic social contract. Christopher Nehls argues that there was a lack of consensus in the early American Legion about labour. Most legionnaires were corporatists who subscribed to Progressive-tinged civic nationalism, but obsessions with law and order drove the veterans' organization rightward. As Chris Nyland and Kyle Bruce (both professors of management) argue, the scientific management school of industrial psychology wanted to democratize management decision making and the Human Relations School wanted to normalize elite control. While Elton Mayo was a "modern Machiavelli" who supported the Rockefeller Plan (an early "union-avoidance strategy"), the Taylorists were pro-labour "proto-Keynesians." (53, 56, 63)

Part 2 deals with the exploitation of racist beliefs to contain unionization. Tami J. Friedman argues Northern employers justified capital migration and opposition to the New Deal after World War II with appeals to states' rights. the consequence was an alliance of convenience with southern elites and acceptance of Jim Crow. Northern industrialists did this willingly since they and southern "boosters" had common cause against unions. (79) Michael Pierce addresses how racism played a decisive role in Arkansas' political climate in the 1950s (the first US right-to-work law was passed there in 1944). Protests against public school desegregation moved Governor Orval Faubus, who had risen to prominence in the reformist wing of the state Democratic Party, to oppose desegregation (his parents were socialists). He pressured white Arkansans to choose between unionism and white supremacy. They chose his "anti-labor populism" that tapped into entrenched notions about "outsiders." (99) Elizabeth Tandy Shermer addresses postwar right-to-work campaigns in the South and Southwest. Life for southern unionists was precarious because they, like integrationists, threatened the racial order. While contending with rapid unionization in new manufacturing industries, open-shop activists in the Sunbelt were not primarily concerned with preserving Jim Crow. Established to support open-shop campaigns, the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC) stressed prosperity above the need to preserve agricultural elites. This message influenced southern anti-labour activists.

Part 3 considers right-wing uses of civil rights rhetoric. Reuel Schiller argues that California's African American voters helped defeat a ballot measure legalizing the open shop in 1958. They did this despite discrimination against Blacks in several California labour unions, and despite efforts by the measure's advocates to highlight this fact. In her work on the NRWC'S Legal Defense Foundation, Sophia Z. …

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