restricted access American Labor, Congress, and the Welfare State, 1935–2010 by Tracy Roof (review)
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Reviewed by
Tracy Roof, American Labor, Congress, and the Welfare State, 1935–2010 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2011)

Tracy Roof’s ambitious study places organized labour at the centre of American politics during the last 75 years, tracing its influence not only on the welfare state but also on civil rights, party politics, and congressional reform. A political scientist, Roof advances two main arguments. One is that organized labour provided the strongest and most consistent support for welfare state development in the United States but was frequently frustrated in its efforts to expand or improve social and labour protections by “institutional obstacles in the legislative process.” (2) The other argument is that labour exercised crucial, if insufficiently appreciated, influence on Black enfranchisement and electoral mobilization, party realignment, and reform of the law-making process. Thus, Roof emphasizes the limited power of labour in welfare state development but its expansive influence on political change. In making these arguments, Roof also mounts a strong de-fence of American labour’s alliance with the Democratic Party.

In developing her first argument, Roof identifies four public policies that were central to labour’s conception of workers’ welfare and examines its goals and influence on these policies from 1946 onward. The four policies are full employment planning, income securit y programs (including minimum wage laws and retirement and unemployment insurance), labour law, and universal health insurance. In all four of these policy areas Roof shows that labour’s efforts to extend and improve social and labour protections were frustrated to one degree or another. In the case of full employment planning, the union movement did win two pieces of legislation, the Employment Act of 1946 [End Page 275] and the Full Employment and Balanced Growth (or Humphrey-Hawkins) Act of 1978, but both acts were largely symbolic, passed only after compromises stripped them of key union-backed provisions. In the realm of income security programs labour made “incremental” gains, such as increased coverage and benefits in both the minimum wage and Social Security, but failed to achieve such objectives as indexation of the minimum wage to inflation and federal standards for unemployment insurance.

In both labour law and health care policy labour was “stalemated” for most of the post-World War II period. After the anti-labour Taft-Hartley Act passed over President Harry Truman’s veto in 1947, labour was unable to repeal either the entire Act or its section 14(b), which allowed states to pass “right to work” laws that prohibit union shop agreements, and subsequently failed to win reform proposals intended to better protect worker rights and facilitate union organizing. Finally, from the late 1940s on unions were rebuffed in their attempts to pass universal health insurance. Medicare and Medicaid, enacted in 1965, were significant achievements that owed much to labour support, but they fell short of universal health insurance. Labour also provided crucial support for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that President Barack Obama signed into law in March of 2010, which (if it survives legal and political challenges) will get close to universal health insurance, but Roof emphasizes how different that legislation is from labour’s traditional preference for a single-payer national health insurance system.

What explains labour’s failure to achieve its goal of a more comprehensive and universalistic welfare state? Rejecting explanations focused either on the weakness of labour and the left or on the strategic failures of union leaders, Roof locates the limits on labour’s policy influence in the institutional structure of the American state, especially the fragmented legislative process derived from the US Constitution and the several minority protections and veto points that developed over time in the Congress. In particular, Roof identifies the congressional committee system, the Rules Committee in the House of Representatives, the seniority rule, and the Senate filibuster, together with the presidential veto and the equal representation of states in the Senate, as the key obstacles to greater labour influence on social and labour legislation. She makes a strong case that these legislative institutions and procedures blocked, delayed, or compromised labour’s policy objectives even when they had majority support in Congress...