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Writing the "Labor Question" Back into History
Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
The title of Nelson Lichtenstein's latest book promises a sweeping epic but delivers something more manageable. In State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, Lichtenstein reflects on twentieth-century trade unionism and its relationship to American democracy. His jumping-off point is the "labor question," first defined by Progressive Era reformers. He examines its place in the American imagination, tracing its rise, decline, and near eclipse in the last decades of the century. He contends that democracy has been at its most vibrant and effective when (as in the New Deal period) the labor question was most central to the social and political discourse of the nation. In such moments as well, he says, the labor movement has been at its most dynamic, precisely because the project of organizing and collective bargaining were linked to broader struggles for social and political justice. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, the labor question had slipped from view (or was erased from the picture). This erasure had a debilitating effect not only on organized labor but also on the larger body politic. As the labor question disappeared, the nation saw an erosion of social and political democracy, most evident in the deterioration of social welfare and the gulf of inequalities that now stands between rich people and [End Page 207] the poor. From this history of parallel developments, Lichtenstein concludes that the future of democracy in America is linked to the fortunes of organized labor. "An organized working class," he says, "remains essential to the health of a democratic polity" (273). This conclusion is also Lichtenstein's ideological agenda: he wants to prove that organized labor can transform itself into a more democratic and progressive institution. He believes intellectuals can play an important role in that process by reinserting the labor question into sociopolitical debate. State of the Union is his personal contribution. Idealism—pure and simple—irradiates the book. And it is that which most unnerves Lichtenstein's critics.
For his crime of utopianism, Daphne Eviatar, a former labor lawyer and reviewer for Dissent, has characterized Lichtenstein as an infantile leftist. 1 Nelson Lichtenstein, an infantile leftist? Does Eviatar know what sort of leftist Lenin had in mind when he coined the term? Her big complaint is that Lichtenstein isn't pragmatic; he's not considering how to utilize existing law to achieve concrete gains. Deplorably, Lichtenstein envisions something like the opposite. He believes the labor movement needs to think in more ideological and more revolutionary terms; that it has to restore solidaristic values in a culture saturated with desire for individual rights; that it must find a way around the crippling effects of probusiness labor law and what he calls "firm-centered" collective bargaining.
I hate to disappoint Eviatar, but Lichtenstein's sin is not original; nor is it a peccadillo of intellectuals, as she suggests. Unionists grapple daily with precisely the questions Lichtenstein identifies. Once workers establish their solidarity, how can they organize and bargain, unencumbered by legal restraints and corporate domination? How do they get the boss to capitulate without going through legal folderol at the National Labor Relations Board? And how can the union contract be transformed into an instrument to secure their civil and human rights? We have not found satisfactory answers to these questions, but Lichtenstein believes it is still possible. Eviatar apparently believes he's on a fool's errand. Okay, there are plenty of arguments for working within the system—or making do. But what does it mean for the future of our movement when a partisan of labor, writing for a journal on the left, thinks it is "infantile" to dream of a reconstructed labor movement? If hers is a general view, I fear we are doomed to the status quo: 13.5 percent of public and private sector workers unionized.2
"What Is to Be Done?"