A Word of Introduction

A Word of Introduction

This issue of DISSENT discusses the present condition of the American unions. There are general articles on new problems facing the labor movement and studies of individual unions focused on particular problems: democracy in the steel union, racketeering in longshore, etc. No pretense is made to completeness, and certain omissions—labor’s role in politics, recent “labor reform” legislation—are obvious. But there is surely enough here for thought and discussion.

A major shift in attitude toward unions has occurred among American intellectuals, including many of liberal and left-wing opinion. Unions are no longer regarded with warmth, let alone a sense of identification. Like so many other institutions in our society, unions are looked upon as a distant, impersonal they—an attitude that is, apparently, often shared by union members themselves.

If, a few decades ago, American intellectuals often deluded themselves by contriving an image of the American worker as a potential revolutionary, today they are inclined to accept an equally false image of him as someone whose socio-economic problems have been solved and who is joining the universal scramble for material luxuries. Partly this is the result of a new insularity, a decay of human sympathies among intellectuals who have lost a large portion of their critical response to society. People who feel obliged to “keep up” with Beckett and Jaspers feel no shame at being utterly ignorant about automobile workers. The “myth of the happy worker,” as Harvey Swados once called it, has become part of the unexamined stock in the minds of people who in other respects are highly skeptical of the current cliches of our culture. In university diningrooms one can often hear intelligent men repeating facile notions about Big Business vs. Big Labor— as if the steel workers, individually or together, are on the same plane of power and possession as U.S. Steel! In the city of New York, the country’s commercial and cultural center, tens of thousands of Negroes and Puerto Ricans labor for shamefully low wages. Does anyone care? anyone but some unions try to improve their conditions of work and life?

It may therefore be that the most useful articles in this issue are those providing simple facts—Lens on the troubles of small unions, Widick on life in an auto plant, Swados on the bleakness of the coal towns. If nothing else, these should shock some people into an awareness of half hidden realities.

Much is wrong with the unions, as writers like Marquart, Jacobs and others point out in the following pages; but without the unions, the life of the workers would be far, far worse than it is. And, for that matter, so would the life of many of the rest of us. As A. H. Raskin soberly reminds us in a recent article:

The unions remain the only consistent voice in American society agitating for higher minimum wag...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: