If Nelson Lichtenstein is only arguing that the contemporary labor movement should be bolstered by ideas, then we don’t disagree. As I noted in my review, inspiration is important. But to sustain the union spirit, workers need to see concrete results. That’s where the law comes in, and where Lichtenstein’s analysis and prescriptions get muddled.
In his emphasis on sweeping labor ideology, Lichtenstein is dismissive of the bulk of the actual work unions do, particularly the collective bargaining process, by which unions can boost their members’ wages and benefits and in many situations save their jobs. Although he never directly argues for repeal of the National Labor Relations Act, the source of unions’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, he claims that the scheme it created is outdated and counterproductive. By couching workers’ rights in legal terms and creating elaborate procedures to enforce them, he writes, it has sapped the labor movement and left workers dependent on union bureaucracies to fight the good fight for them. Implicit in this view is distaste for the notion that “legal authority and government policy” can be effective tools for change. But the striking success of the “rights-conscious legal regime” Lichtenstein writes about in his book proves just the opposite.
The civil rights movement, animated not by the left-wing intellectuals Lichtenstein credits but by grassroots activists and religious leaders, got a huge boost from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law created, among other things, enforceable employment rights that have improved opportunities, wages, and working conditions for a broad range of workers while radically altering American political attitudes toward discrimination on the job. As Lichtenstein acknowledges in his book, even employers, wary of costly lawsuits, have embraced the law’s principles.
Unfortunately, one can’t say the same for workers’ right to organize. That’s not because of a failure on the part of intellectuals, however, as Lichtenstein insists. Rather, it’s due largely to a toothless legal regime that provides little support for organizing or bargaining, and accordingly has given unions little to show for their efforts.
Lichtenstein sees ideological support for labor as a prerequisite to more tangible gains. But the two go hand-in-hand. Contrary to Lichtenstein’s claim, I never wrote that he believed “the most important consequence” of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was the purge of the communists; but I did note that he emphasizes the law’s symbolic rather than practical consequences. He reinforces that view here, writing that the function of Taft-Hartley was to coerce unions into a regime that was “‘free’ of any social and political resonance.” While the tone the law set may have been significant, its most devastating aspect ...
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