The title of this article— “The Future of the Labor Movement in Historical Perspective” —is meant only half in jest. No one understands better than the historian that the future is beyond knowing, that there are no laws of history or cycles that can be plotted out into the future. But that does not mean history is irrelevant. Powerful continuities connect past and present, and to know what they are is to have guideposts in times of trouble and confusion.
No reader has to be told that this is a time of troubles for the labor movement. In 1975 union membership stood at an all-time high of 22 million. That translated into a union density in the nonagricultural sector of 28.9 percent, down only slightly from the peak of 32.3 percent in 1953. Since then, unions have lost four million members, and union density has declined below 16 percent. If we count only private employment, the labor movement is perilously close to where it was before the New Deal....
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