Union Strategies

Union Strategies

In her review of my State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (“A Dearth of Inspiration,” Spring 2002), Daphne Eviatar offers a tough-minded critique of a book she labels “utopian” and out of touch with “political reality.” She argues that unions are pretty much stuck with a labor law, an existing system of collective bargaining, and a political process that is far from ideal, but labor partisans can’t simply junk that whole system. They must defend and deploy what is most useful, even in the mundane world of contract renegotiations and grievance arbitration. Radical intellectuals and academics who project a wholesale transformation of American labor relations are either impractical or irresponsible, the latter evident in the Naderite sabotage of a Gore victory in the 2000 election.

Eviatar caricatures key elements of the book, so in this rejoinder I’ll restate the argument and then deal with the real differences between us.

In State of the Union I remind twenty-first-century readers that collective bargaining and contract unionism have always been but one path toward a solution to the century-old “labor question.” From the Progressive Era through the New Deal and into the 1960s and beyond, the labor movement—in its better moments—has sought to link firm-centered bargaining to a larger and more inclusive political project. In the Progressive Era the push for a set of state-mandated labor standards was particularly useful to working-class women; in the 1930s and 1940s, strikes, electoral mobilizations, and White House-mediated negotiations with pattern-setting firms generated an expansive system I call “politicized bargaining.” In the 1960s and afterward public employee unionism could never have flourished without a new understanding of workplace rights that arose out of the black liberation struggle.

Employers and conservatives hated such linkages. They wanted to isolate unions by coercing them into a collective bargaining regime that was “free” of any social or political resonance. This was the function of the Taft-Hartley Act. Eviatar mistakenly asserts that I held the purge of the communists the most important consequence of that 1947 law. Taft-Hartley’s anticommunist provisions did fragment the left and chill internal union debate, but I take pains to argue that most employers considered the elimination of union radicals a secondary issue. Far more important was the proscription of supervisory unionism, the curbs on inter-union solidarity and political action, and the expansion of the right of managers to intimidate their employees in union organizing drives.

This was a defeat, and Eviatar seems to accept much of my analysis: union parochialism represented a repudiation of the larger, society-shaping ambitions of the pre–World War II unions; moreover, even for those white male workers who benefited from this system of “free” collective bargaining, dange...