Finding a Usable Past for the American Labour Movement's Decline

By Loomis, Erik | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Finding a Usable Past for the American Labour Movement's Decline


Loomis, Erik, Labour/Le Travail


Lisa Phillips, A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012)

Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012)

Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald, eds. Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New York: The New Press, 2012)

In recent years, historians have turned their attention to the American labour movement's decline, a significant change in the historiographical arc of the field. Scholars cite many reasons for the movement's struggles: globalization and capital mobility; the ideological war against organized labour by neoliberals and conservatives; labour rejecting radicalism after World War II; the bureaucratic business unionism of George Meany and Lane Kirkland that proved unable to adjust to political and economic change; and the challenge of civil rights and feminism that broke down a white supremacist and patriarchal American working class. Recent major publications such as Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive, Joseph McCartin's Collision Course, and Frank Bardacke's Trampling Out the Vintage all tell stories of organized labour empowering workers but also struggling to adjust to changes in American society that help lay the groundwork for the problems of today's movement. (1)

This same mood dominated the 2013 Labor and Working-Class History Conference in New York, where the increasingly clear new consensus calls industrial unionism an anomaly in US history, suggests that the 21st century better reflects the pre-Depression era workplace, and urges historians to cast their eyes away from the classic industrial strikes that characterized the mid-20th century and toward long-ignored labour struggles. Belief that the AFL-cio can lead labour out of the morass seems limited, with hopes instead pinned on alternative labour organizations, unions not affiliated with the AFL-cio or Change to Win, and grassroots organizing wherever it is found. The conference's plenary session, entitled "Looking Forward: New Directions and Strategies for Labor," did not include one single voice from a major established union except opening remarks by former unite-here president John Wilhelm. Notably, the session did feature a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) campaign to organize fast food restaurant chains Starbucks and Jimmy John's; although these campaigns remain small and largely unsuccessful, organizing those workplaces ignored by the established labour unions has become the hope of many activists, journalists, and scholars. They place great and often unreasonably optimistic hopes on every new movement of economic resistance, whether mass protests like Occupy Wall Street, insurgent unionism such as the Chicago Teachers Union, or--at the time of writing--strikes by fast food workers.

Each of the three books under review provides significant insight on using the past to understand organized labour's present state, seeking new answers about how the movement declined, and exploring possible paths forward. These books reconsider questions about the relationship between political radicalism and organized labour. They move the scholarship away from the big industrial unions such as United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers toward smaller unions that deployed alternative organizing models that may have greater relevance for today's workers. The books also edge toward a new synthesis, one of a great working-class struggle, but one that, outside of a short outlier period in the mid-20th century, has largely failed.

Lisa Phillips' A Renegade Union calls the success of the industrial-based unions of the CIO an aberration within the larger trajectory of American labour history. Instead, she sees a useful past in the New York garment industry's Local 65, a communist-led union that organized workers in small warehouses across the city beginning in the 1930s. …

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