Questioning Labor History

David Moberg

A century ago labor issues were at the heart of American politics.

How could American workers, increasingly employed by large corporations, escape “wage slavery” and be assured of an “American standard of living,” determined by morality and democratic politics and not just by the employer-dominated labor market? How could the rights of citizens be protected as the power of capital grew and workers toiled under undemocratic conditions for large private corporations?

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union superbly surveys and analyzes how these dilemmas were temporarily resolved in an unsatisfactory way in the middle of the 20th Century. Labor struggles didn’t disappear entirely, but largely disappeared from public debate—and have once again become as relevant as during the Progressive Era, but with only a diminished labor movement weakly raising the issues.

Lichtenstein argues that progressive politics in America suffered as concerns surrounding work were corralled into an increasingly ignored ghetto of labor union activism. Now issues of workplace democracy are likely to return to the national agenda only with a larger, stronger and transformed union movement.

After the labor movement declined in the ’20s, a victim of employer attacks and welfare capitalism schemes, it rebounded in the ’30s with the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), leftist organizers and spontaneous popular unrest.

The labor revival was aided by the New Deal and sympathetic politicians. By raising wages and by providing a social wage (including Social Security), unions and the New Deal would increase consumer demand and help solve the cause of the Depression. The New Deal version of “industrial democracy,” Lichtenstein argues, was a kind of constitutionalism largely embodied in the National Labor Relations Act. The industrial union movement also increased political democracy, playing a critical role in the expansion of citizenship rights for immigrants, blacks and, to a lesser extent, women.

With the New Deal support (and a “corporatist” regime of labor, government and business to maintain production during World War II), the labor movement grew dramatically. It raised and began equalizing wages (including the largely privatized social welfare program of “fringe benefits”) and established a system of industrial justice focused on seniority rights and methods of processing individual grievances.


The old craft-oriented American Federation of Labor unions adopted many of the CIO innovations of industrial justice and fringe benefits, but as sociologists Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin emphasize in their recent history of the CIO, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, significant differences among the unions remained. Although many critics suggest that communist union leaders were no better than less radical unions in advancing workers’ interests, Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin muster considerable evidence that the communist-led unions were more democratic, protected workers’ power on the job by preserving the right to strike or developing a steward system, and were as good or better in delivering bread-and-butter gains and fighting for women and black workers. Although “red” union leaders often resisted the political machinations of Communist Party officials, they fell victim to attack from the government, employers and opponents in the labor movement—and the movement suffered.

Many unionists and historians see in the post-World War II years an emergence of a labor-management accord that accepted unions as social institutions. Lichtenstein persuasively argues that this new regime was not born of victory but of a dictate imposed by defeat—of unions particularly and the left generally. After World War II, corporations returned to union hostility, aided by white Southern Democrats who had supported much of the New Deal but saw the new labor movement as a threat to their racially segregated order. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto, undermined labor solidarity and militancy and gave employers the right to openly oppose workers’ decisions to organize.


By the late ’50s, Lichtenstein argues, labor support fell further as the nation’s political focus shifted from work to consumption and leisure, the courts elevated management rights over unionist tenets and corruption was exposed in key unions. In the ’60s the labor movement under George Meany lost historic ties with liberals and intellectuals as it was viewed as out of touch with the civil rights and antiwar movements.

Race increasingly replaced labor as the central concern of liberal politics—which focused on remedies by the state and emphasized individual rights. Lichtenstein argues that this new rights consciousness undermined unions. But if American unions had been stronger and their leaders more progressive, they could have used the new focus on rights to strengthen unions, for example, winning a greater role for workers in enforcing occupational safety or protecting employees from plant closings and capital flight.

Lichtenstein blames politics more than changing markets for the collapse of the labor movement in the ’70s and ’80s, citing attacks on construction and municipal unions as precursors of the more widely recognized decimation of industrial unions. Likewise, he sees unions as aiding their own demise by bargaining concession contracts and accepting quality of work life programs that gave management the upper hand and workers only the illusion of participation in solving problems on the job. But he underestimates the significance of globalization. Indeed, the broader fight, including work by unions against globalization policies, has come closer than any phenomenon to putting the “labor question” back into the center of American and global politics.

During the period of the postwar labor accord, union officials viewed their responsibilities under collective bargaining partly as restraining worker initiative and direct action. Staughton and Alice Lynd’s The New Rank and File chronicles the experiences of workers—and some union leaders, like former Steelworker local president Ed Mann—who extol greater direct worker control of unions and workplace action. Their book is unexpectedly complemented by Suzan Erem’s engaging memoir of her work on the staff of Chicago Service Employees Local 73, where leaders tried to organize more worker involvement in the union. Erem’s account reveals much of the good and bad in unions made up of overworked and fallible people—both staff and members.


The Lynds’ intriguing, multinational collection of interviews emphasizes the possibilities for workers (and community allies) to organize themselves, yet they acknowledge the role leadership can play in mobilizing workers and making unions more democratic. Mann was a local union leader, for example, but believed in direct action. “I believe we’ve got too much contract,” he said, invoking the Industrial Workers of the World attitude toward workplace disputes. “We’ll settle these things as they arise.” In Erem’s account, the reformed local union encourages greater membership power and participation (not all of which is progressive, unfortunately). Although at times union staff suppressed or supplanted workers’ actions, Erem also found direct action to be a powerful way to enforce the contract.

So what has labor learned? In an excellent volume of reporting and analysis, sociologist Dan Clawson argues that labor will grow in numbers and strength not incrementally, but through one of its periodic “upsurges.” He suggests this moment may be at hand. Clawson sees hope in new efforts to organize women and to fuse labor organizing with the movements of working-class communities, immigrants and minorities. He also praises organizers’ efforts to challenge neoliberalism (which he cites as the real issue, not globalization), and to fight for a living wage and for corporate codes of conduct.

Clawson reports with perceptive detail about many of the recent and ongoing campaigns—from the Stamford, Connecticut labor and community organizing project to immigrant worker organizing strikes—that he believes might give impetus to an upsurge. He believes labor alliances with other movements will expand the meaning and ambition of the labor movement.

It is striking how little attention, however, he gives to labor’s political efforts, which by some measures have been its greatest organizational success in recent years, even if few policy victories have followed. Politics and government have played critical roles in past upsurges. Besides urging unions to be more militant, Lichtenstein urges unions to act more “as an independent, and sometimes as a disloyal, component of the Democratic Party coalition.”

However, given the weak options for “disloyalty,” labor would be better off working with other progressive movements—including environmentalists, largely ignored in Clawson and Lichtenstein’s prescriptions—to lead the Democratic Party to focus on the “labor question” in a new, broad and inclusive fashion.

Democracy must extend beyond changes in the workplace to include greater social control over investment and the kinds of goods and services American companies produce—and even the kind of society Americans want. Increasingly, Americans do not view themselves as citizens or workers, but as consumers. This makes the task in some ways harder than a century ago. But Americans still value democracy, and as these writers make clear, union effectiveness and credibility relies on them being the best examples possible of democracy in action.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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