- Labor's Story in the United States
Labor's Story in the United States combines the oft-told story of the rise and, more recently, decline, of organized labor in the United States with stories of those Americans sometimes marginalized in traditional labor histories. Throughout this narrative, Nicholson maintains first, that all of society's wealth is ultimately created by labor. The owners of capital, understanding [End Page 104] this fact more clearly than many workers, have seen the need to control labor through cultural as well as political means. Labor therefore cannot rely on political reform or legal protection alone because the political and legal system in the United States has historically served the interests of capital. Second, the author sees the fate of democracy and labor as inextricably intertwined, advancing or retreating hand-in-hand at various times in the history of the United States. Today, unfortunately, we see labor rights at their lowest ebb in modern times, while corporate dominance appears more complete than at any time in recent history. Fortunately for us, Nicholson's history offers some clues as to how labor (and democracy) might be reclaimed by reviving labor militancy and a social vision embracing all workers.
Nicholson is always cognizant of the role of labor—bonded or ostensibly free—in the creation of the wealth that usually enriches others. His discussion of the development of the slave labor system and early labor history is quite good. He follows labor's rise as an independent social force between the Civil War and World War I, but sees the AFL under Samuel Gompers as betraying that independence by aligning itself with the Democratic Party and a model of "business unionism" that blinded the AFL to larger social issues such as racism, sexism, and imperialism. By aligning itself with state power and corporate capitalism, Nicholson argues, organized labor was caught in a bind throughout much of the twentieth century. Labor often made gains during wartime, but worker militancy would then usually be crushed once the state no longer needed labor's loyalty. The result today is a weakened labor movement and a conservative ascendancy.
I assigned Nicholson's book to my undergraduate labor history class. Students generally like the scope of coverage and bold interpretation. Nicholson's style is clear and readable, and students were especially engaged by his discussion of the power of capital to shape American culture. Despite these strengths, some complained that his narrative of strikes and other events lacked human drama. In a comprehensive account such as this, it may be necessary to paint with a broad brush, but sometimes the author loses the voices of the workers themselves. The students also would have liked some suggestions for further reading and useful web sites at the end of each chapter, so they could discover more about individuals and events in those chapters. Ultimately these are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise monumental work that prods us to consider the fate of labor and democracy.