THE NEW MEN of Power is a study of trade unions and their leaders, the American political scene, and the prospects for a radicalized democracy in the years just after the Second World War. When C. Wright Mills published the book in 1948, it identified a newly empowered set of strategic actors, who led the nation’s most important progressive institutions, “the only organizations capable of stopping the main drift towards war and slump.” But unlike his politically acute, agenda-setting volumes published during the 1950s, of which White Collar and The Power Elite are the best known, Mills’s equally expansive probe into the meaning and future of U.S. trade unionism quickly fell into the shadows. By the mid 1950s few observers would have called American unionists “a strategic elite,” as Mills had once argued in a book whose very title now mocked the waning influence of a labor leadership firmly wedded to the Democratic Party, cold war orthodoxy, and the collective bargaining routine. Organized labor seemed a stagnant force, largely defenseless against the political and economic hammer blows that befell the rank and file during the 1970s and 1980s.
But The New Men of Power bears rereading at the dawn of the twenty-first century. This is not because the contemporary labor movement has regained the power held by union leaders in the 1940s, when Mills and his associates made the surveys and drafted the chapters that went into the book. Unions are far less powerful, in terms of relative membership, raw economic power, and political influence than they were when The New Men of Power appeared. Nor does the American working class face an immediate, consciousness-changing crisis, such as a new war or a new depression, which Mills himself expected to put the unions at the center of the nation’s political thought and action.
Enough has changed, however, to make the ideas and speculations put forward in The New Men of Power useful and exciting. Today, as in 1948, the unions stand on the left side of American politics and culture. They are organizing again and recruiting a new generation of young activists who seek to infuse the labor movement with a radical élan. New leaders have ascended to important posts in the trade union movement, and the old iron curtain that once divided official labor and the broad American left—academic, feminist, socialist, African-American, Latino, and gay—is rusting away. Faced with a world of global production, a nearly useless labor law, and a corporate opposition that remains intransigently anti-union, many otherwise conventional union leaders have been forced to look for new allies and new ideas; likewise, social activists and intellectuals have come to see the revival of a powerful trade union movement as essential to their dreams for a better world. Living-wage campaigns, labor teach-ins, and demonstrations against a corporate definition of globalism have ...
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