Jobs, Men and Machines
“The AFL-CIO is the most important single component of the American Left.” Thirty years ago this idea would have been regarded as a liberal and radical truism. Today, most intellectuals would probably think it an act of nostalgic piety at best, a refusal of reality at worst. For a series of large, sad, and undeniable half-truths have come to obscure the labor movement’s function in American society.
Clearly, the unions have lost the dynamism of the CIO years. They spend long hours wandering around the corridors of the secondary levels of power, and many of them were even afraid to endorse a March on Washington which had been blessed by Cardinal Spellman. Some AFL-CIO foreign policy statements have justly won high praise in the pages of the National Review; and when one compares labor to the singing, picketing, jail-going Negro movement, it looks middle-aged. Worse, those unions primarily concerned with defending the job gains of the ex-poor in these times of chronic high unemployment have often placed themselves on the wrong side of the Civil Rights barricades.
All this is true, yet it still doesn’t amoun’ to a denial of labor’s essential role in any national movement for social change. For the fact remains that the most numerous, politically cohesive institution fighting for domestic reform is still the AFL-CIO. The black 10 per cent of America has already shamed more conscience into America than anything since the CIO. Yet the Negroes, cannot completely save the rest of us from ourselves, since whites are, alas, 90 per cent of the population. And there is even less hope that middle-class liberals and radicals, the reform Democrats and the ADA are an archimedian lever fit to move a nation of nearly two hundred million people.
Thus, however critical one may be of the unions, the revitalization of the labor movement is a pre-condition both for meaningful Civil Rights and for making the resurgent social criticism of the Sixties into more than ambitious talk and turning it into congressional action. If one argues that this revival will not, or cannot, take place, that is not an indictment of one institution but a sentence of social stagnation passed against the entire society. Such pessimism is, I think, premature. Sociologically one is permitted, morally one is obliged to keep hoping.
But then, as Jobs, Men and Machines makes clear, it would be hard to find more unpropitious times for a rebirth of labor. This book is an uneven collection of contributions to a conference on automation, including fairly predictable essays on such matters as the Kaiser automation agreement and “early warning” plans for impending strikes. But the best of these essays document the way in which contemporary technology, and indeed the economy itself, is more and more hostile to traditional unionism. And this requires lèse-majesté to the Council of Economic Advisors.
For some time now, Washington has been officially committed to the proposition that automation does not cause unemployment but, on the contrary …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.