The fortunes of American unions have taken a turn for the worse. Thanks to terrorism and recession, union members are reeling from a series of economic and political setbacks. Nearly half a million of them now face unemployment in the hotel and airline industries, and at Boeing, Ford, major steel-makers and other manufacturing firms. Many public employees will be clobbered next, as state and local budget crises deepen around the country. Already, teachers in New Jersey and state workers in Minnesota have been forced into controversial strikes over rising healthcare costs–a trend that affects millions of Americans. The accompanying loss of job-based medical coverage by many people who still have jobs should be fueling a revived movement for national health insurance, but few unions bother to raise that banner anymore.
Promising new AFL-CIO initiatives on immigration–like its call for legalization of undocumented workers–have been undermined by post-September 11 paranoia about Middle Easterners and federal scrutiny of thousands of them. Union organizing is stalled on many fronts, and rank-and-file participation in protests against corporate globalization–on the rise in Seattle and Quebec City–has faltered amid the myriad political distractions of the “war on terrorism.” While labor’s nascent grassroots internationalism remains overshadowed by flag-waving displays of “national unity,” trade unionists have yet to be rewarded for their patriotism, even with a modest boost in unemployment benefits. Instead, President Bush is seeking cuts in federal job-training grants for laid-off workers. He’s already won House approval for fast-track negotiating authority on future trade deals that threaten even more US jobs–and expects a Senate victory on that issue soon. To insure that collective bargaining doesn’t interfere with the functioning of various executive branch offices now engaged in “homeland security,” the White House just stripped hundreds of federal employees of their right to union representation. As University of Illinois labor relations professor Michael LeRoy observed in the New York Times, “a time of national emergency makes it more difficult for unions to engineer public support.”
Into this bleak landscape arrives State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein’s intellectual history of labor’s past 100 years. Readers might take comfort from the fact–well documented by the author–that labor has been down before and, as in the 1930s, bounced back. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein’s book raises disturbing questions about when, where and how that’s going to happen again in a period when “solidarity and unionism no longer resonate with so large a slice of the American citizenry.”
The author’s views on this subject are informed by both scholarship and activism. A professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lichtenstein wrote The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, a definitive biography of one-time United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. In 1996 Lichtenstein helped launch Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a campus-based labor support network. Through SAWSJ, Lichtenstein has aided teach-ins and protests about workers’ rights and worked with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to re-establish links between unions and intellectuals that might help labor become a more “vital force in a democratic polity.”