- Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism ed. by Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson
At times, it can seem that the only people who pay close attention to American labor unions are those charged with completing their autopsy. As the labor movement has faded in both strength and visibility over the past half century, historians have reached a compelling consensus about the causes of decline. Most accounts suggest that some combination of ineffective leadership, economic transformation, inadequate legal protections, and newly resurgent (or at least effective) opposition from employers has weakened the power (and curtailed the ambitions) of the American labor movement since its heyday in the 1950s.
While most of those factors figure into the analysis of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, the emphasis is squarely on the conduct of employers. Skirting conventional debates about the extent of employer acceptance of the New Deal's labor law regime during the middle decades of the twentieth century, the book's nine chapters stress continuity over change, reminding the reader that most employers have always opposed workers' efforts to organize at the workplace and in their communities. While often lost in contemporary academic debates, particularly beyond the shrinking core of scholars who focus on institutional labor, the emphasis on employer opposition is hardly new, as the volume's editors recognize in their excellent introductory essay. Rather, the focus here, and the primary value of the book for [End Page 214] historians, is the complicated, often contentious process by which employers organized that opposition. The book's most striking claim is that opposition to workers' collective organizing efforts played a crucial role in the development of a common class sensibility among employers.
While material and ideological concerns clearly galvanized efforts to block (or, more often, to roll back) union gains, the book's nine chapters detail the importance of employers' organizing at both the local and the national levels. The first four chapters focus on Progressive-era developments and the open shop campaign. Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger highlight the role of racial knowledge in scientific management. Chad Pearson explores employers' (largely unsuccessful) rhetorical campaign to recast "scabs" as strikebreaking "heroes" (p. 46). Thomas A. Klug probes the limits of capitalist solidarity through a case study of the Employers' Association of Detroit. Robert H. Woodrum uses a biography of black labor leader Ralph Clemmons to highlight the intersection of World War I anti-unionism and the second Ku Klux Klan in Mobile, Alabama. The next two chapters, by Dolores E. Janiewski and Rosemary Feurer, examine employer resistance to the New Deal regime in the 1930s and 1940s, stressing the connections between the older era of outright (and sometimes violent) opposition to union recognition and the political-legal manipulations under the National Labor Relations Act. After a century-spanning case study by Howard R. Stanger on Ohio's fractious printers' association, the final two essays jump to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Michael Dennis uses the Hampton Roads, Virginia, Be-Lo campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to highlight the ineffectiveness of the National Labor Relations Board under President Bill Clinton, while Peter Rachleff places the recent attacks on public-sector collective bargaining in the longer context of economic transformation and employer opposition to organized labor.
The chronologically wide-ranging essays are bound together by four general themes—the regular refusal of employers to accept the basic right to organize; the use of political and ideological as well as economic sources of power; the willingness to turn to the state to discipline and disrupt workers' organizing efforts; and the constant struggle by employers to balance their shared class interests with individual personalities and commercial competition. If the process of employer class formation is perhaps less explicit in the individual contributions than in the introductory...