Minding Its Own Business: A Local Trade Union in Action

Minding Its Own Business: A Local Trade Union in Action

Whether labor unions are good for America is now controversial. A decade ago John Kenneth Galbraith’s analysis that unions were a necessary “countervailing power” was widely accepted, but recently corporate America has legitimated a new paternalism. Today liberals, radicals, conservatives, and reactionaries disagree about labor’s role in society. But they agree on a related issue, the nature of the labor movement: the new unions of the 1930s have responded to the challenges thrown up by the ever larger corporations by becoming bureaucratic institutions. Labor and management reached an accommodation after the TaftHartley bill was passed, and the collectivebargaining system was collectivized. As contracts became long-term, grievance procedures developed, benefits proliferated, and employment-security agreements became common, national union officers gained greater control over union policy and the locals’ actions. Consequently labor’s grass-roots, the local unions, withered.

Some analysts decried this development— one thinks of Sidney Lens and C. Wright Mills; others, such as Clark Kerr and John Dunlap, applauded. But all agreed that loss of rank-andfile vitality was the price labor paid for a stable relationship with management. Now that this stability is threatened by plant closings and corporate union-busting, everyone is turning to labor’s grass roots, to see whether they managed to survive the long, cold winter.

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Duggan | University of California Press Gardels