Through the Workers’ Blood

Through the Workers’ Blood

The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination
Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, eds.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 432 pp.

As the overall unionization rate in the United States dips ever closer to single digits, the decades-long assault on organized labor seems to be reaching its zenith. Nothing stirs conservative passions like the idea that workers should have some protection, voice, and a vehicle for advancing their interests in the workplace. As Nelson Lichtenstein and Elizabeth Tandy Shermer write in their introduction to The Right and Labor in America: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination,

While the American Right has many ideological and institutional strands, a commitment to laissez-faire within the labor market, or rather to a regulatory regime that precludes the self-organization of the vast majority of American workers, has been consistent and persistent, far more so than even the racial, cultural, and foreign policy issues that receive so much attention as talismans of contemporary American conservatism.

From a purely economic standpoint, it is easy to see why individual companies wish to be union-free. As Lichtenstein notes, “Most surveys put labor costs in the unionized grocery stores at about 30 percent above those paid by Wal-Mart.” But it is not just labor costs that elites fear. Corey Robin, in The Reactionary Mind, argues that “conservatives are overwhelmingly concerned with [preserving] the private life of power . . . predominantly in the family and in the workplace.” That is why the American Right despises organized labor above almost all other foes. Worker power represents a challenge that could force elites to surrender a degree of power far beyond something like, say, the legalization of marijuana or gay marriage.

Nothing stirs conservative passions like the idea that workers should have some protection, voice, and a vehicle for advancing their interests in the workplace.

The Right and Labor in America is a collection of fourteen essays that deal with the vast array of tactics the American Right uses to repress employee organizing. The American Legion is further removed from most contemporary American life than labor unions, but Christopher Nehls reveals the organization’s history as a paramilitary force deployed against striking workers in the first half of the twentieth century. Like contemporary Tea Partiers, Legionnaire leaders depicted themselves as arbiters of the country’s best interests, equally opposed to any group that they perceived as holding its interests above the national good, be it big business or workers trying to unionize. (Also like Tea Partiers, American Legion members tended to be better off than the average American, with a professional or small business background.) But only one of these foes was ...


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