Finding Labor’s Voice

Finding Labor’s Voice

From the Ashes of the Old:
American Labor and America’s Future
by Stanley Aronowitz
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998 256 pp $25

The appearance of Stanley Aronowitz’s new book on the future of American labor comes precisely a quarter-century after he burst into the consciousness of my New Left generation with the publication of False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness. That book took its title and much of its spirit from an old bit of communist doggerel:

The Cloakmakers Union is a no-good union
It’s a company union by the bosses . . .
The Dubinskys, the Hillquits, the Thomases
By the workers are making false promises.
They preach socialism but they practice fascism
To save capitalism by the bosses

Needless to say, this little poem appears nowhere in From the Ashes of the Old. Aronowitz, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, writes not as the visionary partisan of some radical union future, but as an advocate of (or perhaps as the loyal opposition to) the trade unionism of our day. In 1973 Aronowitz saw organized labor and collective bargaining as largely counterpoised to an insurgent radicalism embedded within the consciousness of working-class America. The trade unions, he then wrote, had “evolved into a force for integrating the workers into the corporate capitalist system.”

But in his new book, Aronowitz turns this proposition on its head. The unions are now virtually the only institution in American life that stand athwart the ideological and social dominance of capital. Indeed, trade unionism itself is the essential lever necessary to unlock whatever leftist potential still resides within the hearts and minds of the working population. In fact and imagination, the unions stand, for the first time in two generations, on the left side of American political culture.

The Aronowitzes of 1973 and 1998 are here juxtaposed not to chide the author for changing his views, but as a kind of signpost that measures how thoroughly our understanding of American trade unionism, both past and present, has been transformed. Aronowitz’s book is therefore notable because it signals a rapproachment between the “actually existing” trade unions and a generation of academic intellectuals who once were far more alienated. Although the emergence of John Sweeney and his associates to top leadership positions in the AFL CIO is the most visible sign of labor’s transformation, intellectuals like Stanley Aronowitz actually made the greater political shift. At some point in the Reagan era, they accommodated themselves to a well tempered social democracy that consigned any remai...