The Best Years of Their Lives

What has happened to the trade union movement in America? During the 1930s and 1940s, when millions of American workers joined industrial unions, it seemed to many people that one of the deepest social changes of the century was about to take place. The moment inspired hopes (and fears) of an almost revolutionary shift in political and economic power. Now, fifty years later, unions are struggling to survive. Most political candidates fear appearing too closely associated with them. Public officials see few risks in defying them. Few employers find it difficult to exclude (and at times even to expel) unions from their plants. In 1945, over 35 percent of the nonagricultural work force consisted of union members. In 1989, the figure was less than 17 percent.

It is not hard today to find simple economic or political explanations for the decline of organized labor. America’s industrial base has been eroding for twenty years in the face of foreign competition and declining productivity. Capital has moved around the country (and around the world) in search of cheap, nonunion labor. The shift toward a predominantly service economy has caused millions of people to work in settings much less receptive to unionization than factories. Conservative appointees to the courts and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have weakened the labor laws protecting unions and their organizers. Deregulation has created fierce competition—and hence new pressures to cut labor costs—in such industries as airlines and bus companies.

But these changes alone do not explain labor’s current plight, for it is possible at least to imagine that more powerful trade unions might have done better in the current climate than the often stagnant and bureaucratically bloated organizations we now know. Even in better times American unions never possessed the political or economic influence their most exuberant champions envisioned for them in the 1930s. Recent setbacks, therefore, are only an exaggerated version of the unfulfilled expectations that have marked American unionism throughout the postwar era. The nature of those expectations, and the question of what happened to them, are the subject of some important studies emerging from a new generation of labor historians.

The “new” labor history (now more than two decades old) was, and to a large degree is still, written by left-wing historians. During the 1960s and 1970s it reflected a general belief among New Left scholars that the union movement in America had been a dismal failure almost from the start.

The authors of the three books under review, Joshua Freeman, Gary Gerstle, and Bruce Nelson, who teach at Columbia …

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