Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

State of the Union: A Century of American Labor

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

State of the Union: A Century of American Labor

Article excerpt

State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. By Nelson Lichtenstein. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. ix, 337. Preface, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, index. $29.95.)

Nelson Lichtenstein's latest book is both a history of the American labor movement over the past seventy years and a plea for its revival. Lichtenstein, who teaches in the history department at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is probably the leading New Left historian studying American labor since the 1930s. State of the Union is a work of synthesis that is most interesting for what it says about how New Left scholarship on American labor has evolved over the past three decades.

Lichtenstein makes clear in his book's introduction that, rather than a history of American workers in general, he has written a study of labor unions and their relationship to what reformers used to call "the labor question." State of the Union s first two chapters trace the upsurge in American unions during the Great Depression and World War II. Lichtenstein explains very clearly the various rationales New Dealers developed to support the expansion of trade unionism, such as the need to increase consumer purchasing power, promote employment (and thus economic) security, and provide a measure of democracy in the modern workplace. This was the logic behind the creation of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935, which gave American unions strong legal protections for the first time. Unlike other New Left scholars, such as Thomas Ferguson and Colin Gordon, Lichtenstein gives most of the credit for the Wagner Act's passage to New Deal liberals and more radical leftists, not enlightened employers and financiers.

Lichtenstein is quick to point out that worker militancy, not new laws, were the most important reason why unions grew during the mid-1930s. His account differs somewhat from older ones by emphasizing that the split between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) grew out of differing attitudes toward the "new immigrants" from southern and eastern Europe, and not just the question of craft versus industrial organization. The CIO's leaders and organizers were more open to recruiting members from recently arrived immigrant groups, Lichtenstein argues, than the trade unionists of northern European ancestry who dominated the AFL. Lichtenstein's account of labor's rise also differs from New Left orthodoxy by recognizing the important contributions made by Democratic governors in major industrial states and the Roosevelt administration. …

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