The decline of unions in the United States has led scholars and labor activists to ask about past forms of collective action by workers other than contractual worksite representation through governmentally certified bargaining agents. During the last two decades historians have devoted close attention to experiences with the empowerment of shop stewards, campaigns for a legal thirty-hour work week and universal social insurance, enterprise (or company) unionism, and the pre-Wagner Act practices of the Knights of Labor and of craft unions. This has resulted in a valuable discussion over whether the industrial unions that reshaped national life during the 1930s and 1940s provide the only, or the best, model for a future labor movement.
Dorothy Sue Cobble, an associate professor in Rutgers University’s Institute of Management and Labor Relations, has addressed this question directly. “Could labor appeal to the growing female-dominated service work force,” she asks, “or was it historically and irredeemably linked to the anchor of the blue-collar male worker?” A complete answer would require analysis of past and present unionism in health care, clerical work, and the public sector(where the rate of unionization is today considerably higher than it is in manufacturing). But Cobble has
aimed our attention in another direction: food service,
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