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  • Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement
  • Bruce Nissen
Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. By Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. 244 pp. $19.95 paper.

Hard Work is simultaneously a primer on why the fate of unions matters so much in the U.S. context, a brief history of the hostile climate for labor in the U.S., an analysis of contrasting union leadership styles and what they tell us about the internal culture of unions, a look at recent "success stories" in two locales, and an assessment of the prospects for social movement unionism. All of this is accomplished within 175 pages exclusive of footnotes and bibliography.

Hard Work is the slightly expanded English-language version of a book on the U.S. labor movement that was originally published in France. Reflecting that origin, it explains a number of the basics about U.S. labor that one would not expect to see (or normally consider necessary) in a book written at this level of sophistication. Later chapters contain complex discussions of the internal condition of U.S. unions and the prospects for their transformation into participants in a progressive movement.

Every part of this book is expertly written. The authors know a great deal about contemporary labor affairs, and they summarize vast quantities of data and knowledge into elegantly compressed summaries. The chapters on labor's importance to the future of the U.S. and on the hostile U.S. environment for labor are well-written summaries of facts and interpretations that should be familiar to most readers who follow recent literature on the future of U.S. unions. Likewise, the coverage of labor resurgence in the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign and the Las Vegas hotel workers unionization drive should be familiar to many knowledgeable readers.

The book's analysis of what it calls a potential "new labor metaphysic" is by far the most original contribution in this volume. Looking beyond labor's [End Page 97] "corporeal dimensions" (size, membership characteristics, institutional leverage, etc.), the authors argue that

. . . a successful labor movement must have the capacity to rise above its corporeal or institutional form through a kind of sacred narrative, or myth, and solidarity has been a cornerstone of the foundational myth of labor movements everywhere. Solidarity represents a potent mythic theme that carries remarkably transcendent qualities. Under certain conditions and at certain moments, demonstrations of solidarity can summon powerful spiritual forces in the social world (in groups, in collective activities, and in organizational forms) that are capable of producing extraordinary degrees of selflessness and of collective identification.

Hard Labor argues that the labor movement may be creating such an "aura" around itself by taking a new place in "the symbolic vocabulary of the society." Both symbolically and in literal formations, the "space between unions" takes center stage. Organizationally, this includes labor union formations such as revitalized central labor councils and also non-union formations such as interfaith committees, Jobs with Justice chapters, student solidarity groups, and workers centers.

Among modern analyses of unions, this is a relatively novel approach, although the "mythical" perspective on unionism has a tradition stretching all the way back to French philosopher Georges Sorel in the early 20th Century. Exploring the metaphysic of the labor movement leads to critical questions about its ability to become once again truly a movement, by standing for something larger than a fatter paycheck for workers who already earn more than the median income in the nation.

The authors believe that a few unions, among them the SEIU, UNITE HERE, and CWA, are leading the way in creating a new labor metaphysic. The book was written too early to address the "New Unity Partnership" (NUP) proposals put out by the SEIU leadership, so it only partially addresses the controversies that NUP proposals have aroused. On the whole, the authors appear to admire the SEIU model, and they are guardedly optimistic that it, or something close to it, will be able to lead organized labor forward to a more powerful and successful future. This is an interesting and provocative book. It should find use in a...


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pp. 97-98
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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