Cover image for State of the Union : a century of American labor
State of the Union : a century of American labor
Lichtenstein, Nelson.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xi, 336 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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HD8066 .L53 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In a fresh and timely reinterpretation, Nelson Lichtenstein examines how trade unionism has waxed and waned in the nation's political and moral imagination, among both devoted partisans and intransigent foes. From the steel foundry to the burger-grill, from Woodrow Wilson to John Sweeney, from Homestead to Pittston, Lichtenstein weaves together a compelling matrix of ideas, stories, strikes, laws, and people in a streamlined narrative of work and labor in the twentieth century.

The "labor question" became a burning issue during the Progressive Era because its solution seemed essential to the survival of American democracy itself. Beginning there, Lichtenstein takes us all the way to the organizing fever of contemporary Los Angeles, where the labor movement stands at the center of the effort to transform millions of new immigrants into alert citizen unionists. He offers an expansive survey of labor's upsurge during the 1930s, when the New Deal put a white, male version of industrial democracy at the heart of U.S. political culture. He debunks the myth of a postwar "management-labor accord" by showing that there was (at most) a limited, unstable truce.

Lichtenstein argues that the ideas that had once sustained solidarity and citizenship in the world of work underwent a radical transformation when the rights-centered social movements of the 1960s and 1970s captured the nation's moral imagination. The labor movement was therefore tragically unprepared for the years of Reagan and Clinton: although technological change and a new era of global economics battered the unions, their real failure was one of ideas and political will. Throughout, Lichtenstein argues that labor's most important function, in theory if not always in practice, has been the vitalization of a democratic ethos, at work and in the larger society. To the extent that the unions fuse their purpose with that impulse, they can once again become central to the fate of the republic. State of the Union is an incisive history that tells the story of one of America's defining aspirations.

Author Notes

Nelson Lichtenstein is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit and Labor's War at Home .

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The biographer of United Auto Workers chief Walter Reuther, Lichtenstein here interprets the history of organized labor, predominantly from the New Deal forward. Clearly on the left of the spectrum of labor opinion, Lichtenstein writes vigorously in support of unions that have acted for more than the particular interests of their craft or plant. Those that strike him as more parochial, or conservative, such as the construction unions of the early 1970s, don't much enthuse the author. But those labor leaders who politically weigh in for what Lichtenstein calls the «social wage,» as does current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney on behalf of a nationalized health system, embody the author's vision of the labor movement's agenda. Lichtenstein provides a knowledgeable overview of the signal events since the Wagner Act of 1935, from unions' identification with male-dominated heavy industries to their membership today, which consists predominantly of government and service workers and teachers. An informed analytical history, perhaps best considered by libraries located amid an active local labor scene. Gilbert Taylor.

Library Journal Review

Lichtenstein (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit) presents a history of American unionism in the 20th century and argues convincingly that a thriving labor movement is an essential safeguard of American democracy. He chronicles the struggle for economic citizenship and security that led to the burst of organizing during the Depression and World War II. After the war, even as unions reached new highs in membership and political activity, their strength was sapped by corporate resistance, their own bureaucratization, legal restrictions, and ideological attacks from the Right by anti-Communist conservatives and from the Left by disenchanted intellectuals. Throughout, Lichtenstein examines both the positive and the negative sides of American labor unions have been champions of civil rights and equal pay and racially exclusive and economically self-interested clubs. But, Lichtenstein argues, as the only organized counterweight to the power of rapacious corporations, unions play an essential role in preserving American ideals. Today, the labor movement faces political, economic, and organizational problems, but it has overcome equally large challenges in the past and remains a vital force for social progress in the United States. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. Duncan Stewart, State Historical Soc. of Iowa Lib., Iowa City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Lichtenstein (history, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) has written a thought-provoking book that seeks to put the American labor movement's fate into a broad context, arguing that the "history and future of the nation's labor question remains primarily one of ideas, ideology and social combat." His wide reading, fresh insights, and coherent narrative make this volume one of this year's most important works of labor history. He explains the power of the idea of "industrial democracy" in organized labor's New Deal-era upsurge; challenges the concept of a postwar labor-management "accord," compellingly arguing that American business was exceptional in its opposition to unions; traces the "erosion of the union idea" among liberals and leftists back to the immediate postwar period; capably explains how the emergence of a "rights consciousness" in the workplace further undermined the appeal of unions; analyzes the disintegration of unionism since about 1980; and offers a strategy to resuscitate the movement. He shortchanges the importance of economic forces in his analysis, however, and is surprisingly, perhaps naively, optimistic about organized labor's future--possibly because of an almost religious conviction about its "unique and transcendent" role in workers' lives. Highly recommended for public, academic (lower-division undergraduate and up), and professional library collections. R. M. Whaples Wake Forest University

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1 Reconstructing the 1930sp. 20
Chapter 2 Citizenship at Workp. 54
Chapter 3 A Labor-Management Accord?p. 98
Chapter 4 Erosion of the Union Ideap. 141
Chapter 5 Rights Consciousness in the Workplacep. 178
Chapter 6 A Time of Troublesp. 212
Chapter 7 What Is to Be Done?p. 246
Notesp. 277
Indexp. 323