A Dearth of Inspiration

A Dearth of Inspiration

State of the Union: A Century of American Labor
by Nelson Lichtenstein
Princeton University Press, 2002, 336 pp., $29.95

Longtime labor supporters may remember the Joe Hill ballads or Ralph Chaplin’s anthem “Solidarity Forever,” but years ago, the unions stopped singing them. While gospel hymns and blues ballads were giving spirit to the emerging civil rights movement, the old songs that had once filled union halls were all but forgotten by the 1960s. Alas, when the merged AFL-CIO finally got around to publishing its first songbook, the time-worn union tunes were pushed back to make room for “The Star Spangled Banner.” These days, your average wage-earner is more likely to be shouting out the Wal-Mart company cheer—a sinister development Barbara Ehrenreich documents in her recent book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America—than singing any union songs.

To Nelson Lichtenstein the death of union crooning reflects the dearth of inspiration that afflicts the labor movement today. A once impassioned cause that evoked images of placard waving marchers demanding human dignity has degenerated into a bureaucracy of union officers in business suits who lord over small but lucrative fiefdoms and an apathetic membership that’s content to let the institutions do their bidding for them. It’s a slide that’s all the more difficult to understand because it accelerated just as the civil rights movement was on an upswing.

Lichtenstein—who wrote an acclaimed 1995 biography of former United Auto Workers leader Walter Reuther and has written and edited several previous books on labor—takes on this “great contradiction in American democracy” in his most recent book, State of the Union. It’s an attempt to provide a new answer to the old question: Why the labor movement’s demise?

Lichtenstein begins, appropriately, in the Progressive era, when “the labor question” seemed a burning one. Industrial capitalism had wrought unregulated workplaces offering long hours, low pay, hazardous conditions, and angry workers. America’s laissez-faire system had caused havoc, sparking radical demands for a “living wage” and “industrial democracy.” But it was the Great Depression that ignited the movement. With a quarter of the workforce out of a job, Americans came to question the very foundations of capitalism. The response was the New Deal. For the first time, the federal government set minimum wages and maximum hours and granted the right to organize and bargain collectively. Unions, many believed, would not only boost wages and consumption, but provide workers a valuable voice on the shop floor.

And the politicians of the day were on their side. In 1941, as Lichtenstein notes, Franklin Roosevelt exalted “Freedom from Want” to the level of the classic American values of free speech a...

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