Book Review: The Death and Life of American Labor

By Gerard Di Trolio

Noted sociology professor and long time labour movement activist Stanley Aronowitz has written a critical and accessible analysis of the labour movement in the United States. In The Death and Life of American Labor: Towards a New Workers’ Movement, Aronowitz surveys the decline and mistakes of the labour movement in the U.S. after World War II.

For Aronowitz, American labor’s decline can be traced all the way back to how industrial relations were designed by the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal and the immediate pressures labour faced after the end of the war.Labor_mech_2.indd

The landmark National Labor Relations Act (NLRA, aka the Wagner Act) of 1935 which created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), would pressure unions into a legalistic framework that would also bolster the labor bureaucracy according to Aronowitz. The NLRA granted the ability for unions to request exclusive bargaining rights if they could win majority recognition by workers in a bargaining unit. While most unions at the time sought exclusive bargaining rights fearing the reemergence of company unions, Aronowitz argues that the lack of minority union rights and support for exclusive bargaining among unions limited “workers’ ability to choose alternatives when the union failed to support their struggles.” In Canada, the debate about minority unionism resurfaced with the Supreme Court’s Fraser decision, and what that ruling’s impact could have on agricultural workers in Ontario.

As America’s main enemy shifted from fascism to communism, the negative aspects of the NLRA and later McCarthyism would dampen the militant possibilities for American labour. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 would target unions for committing “unfair acts” and require labour leaders to sign affidavits that they were not Communists. Government repression, quickly led to the intensification of organized labour’s zealous respect for the law and its alignment with the Democratic Party (as recently as 2012, American unions donated $141 million to the Democrats for that year’s elections).

Aronowitz uses the 2011 Wisconsin uprising as an example of the limits of this strategy. Despite incredible mobilizations and public sympathy, organized labour in the state eventually channelled their resources into an unsuccessful recall election against Governor Scott Walker instead of keeping up the pressure in the streets and the halls of the state capitol. It’s worth noting that the recall election platform said very little of repealing Walker’s most atrocious anti-union legislation, focusing instead on unseating the governor without a clear policy of change. Aronowitz, like many on the American left believe that labour must decisively break with the Democrats in order to advance its interests.

But along with breaking with the Democrats, Aronowitz calls on the labour movement to break with its obsession with legalism and legislation. He writes:

The real story of the past seventy-five years of labor’s journey is the successful subordination of unions. The union contract is a legal vise; the law that it is supposedly the worker’s weapon is in fact a double-edged sword. When unions agree to long-term contracts of as much as six years, they are prohibited from striking for the length of the agreement. For the modest gains unions have made in legal guarantees, they have been obliged to surrender important rights. Labor law obliges a union to enforce its contract against illegal worker insurgencies, and in some states penalties are fairly stiff if union leaders sanction such actions. The law once helped unions to grow their membership, but after years of relentless and relatively successful right-wing attacks on workers’ rights, some unions have come to realize that the Labor Relations laws at the federal and local levels are mostly rigged against labor.

Aronowitz believes that change to the labour movement will have to come from below in the form of a renewed rank-and-file movement and direct action. He contrasts the conservatism of the labor movement to the Black freedom and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. While these movements faced state repression and in many cases still have yet to achieve all of their goals, their militancy from below did bring about major reforms.

This leads into what Aronowitz believes that American unions must do to be able to go back on the offensive. He calls for renewed union democracy, shorter working hours, a basic income guarantee, expansion of worker cooperatives, forcing certain conservative trades to admit more racialized groups and women into their ranks, universal health care, organizing the new generation of precarious workers, and for unions to orientate themselves to other social movements and worker concerns outside the workplace like the housing foreclosure crisis. Most controversially he writes, “The rank-and-file should demand the right to create minority unions. If traditional unions refuse, the radical labor movement should seize the opportunity to replace the old order altogether.”

This last point will generate much discussion. Is this a call for a much needed rupture with the status quo or leftist adventurism? The question of minority unionism should also be seen within the debate over right-to-work laws. Aronowitz only mentions these laws in passing saying that most unions have generally not focused on right-to-work states which have mainly been located until recently in the Southern U.S. The struggle for a new American labour movement needs to happen in every state.

In both a right-to-work environment or a minority union environment, the success of a union will dependent on what Jane McAlevey calls the participation model. This requires a strong effort by the union to convince large numbers of workers to voluntarily join and pay dues to their union. While McAlevey herself has written about successfully organizing healthcare workers in right-to-work states, is this type of organizing feasible on a national level?

Ultimately, this will have to be the way forward for the labour movement in both the U.S. and Canada. While minority unionism is practically nonexistent in Canadian labour law, many of Aronowitz’s prescriptions for the American labour movement apply to Canada.

Overall, The Death and Life of American Labor is a concise and easy read for those not wanting to get into the minutiae of labour law and political theory. It gives a broad outline of the history of the American labour movement, its structural weaknesses, and a program for radical reform that ultimately seeks to challenge capitalism. It should be required reading for all labour activists who are looking for ideas on how to move forward.

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