- Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism by Reuel Schiller
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015
xv + 343 pp., $29.99 (paper)
"Labor rights are civil rights" has often been a rallying cry for both activists and scholars. Yet the very need to make such a declaration speaks to the fact that most people in the United States think of the two multifaceted crusades as separate, if not actually at odds with one another. That divide seemed particularly clear in the 1980s and 1990s, especially within the academy. While New Left labor historians still lionized forgotten moments of interracial cooperation, scholars of "whiteness" came to see an inexorable divide between the purposes and character of the two social movements. The undeniable power of the modern Right in these years often led these historians to link the decline of organized labor to the simultaneous exodus of the white working class from the Democratic Party.
Reuel Schiller's Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism seeks to reconcile these two divergent accounts in order to rewrite the rise and fall of mid-century liberalism. Schiller, a legal historian, argues that an alliance between unions and civil rights organizations certainly existed in the mid-twentieth-century United States, but the increasingly elaborate and conflicting legal structures liberals designed to advance the interests of trade unions and racial minorities drove apart these key Democratic Party constituencies. Schiller shows that postwar liberalism, with its faith in pluralism, Keynesianism, and public-private solutions to social problems, was riddled with ideological and practical contradictions. Hence the liberal commitment and approach to economic egalitarianism proved irreconcilable with increasing expectations for and methods to ensure full citizenship rights for minorities.
Postwar liberalism's failings eventually turned white unionists and civil rights activists into rivals. At World War II's end, the labor movement relied on interest-group pluralism—collective bargaining and grievance arbitration—to defend its institutional power and resolve any internal conflicts, including those involving race, that might arise. Civil rights organizations, in contrast, had far more nebulous guarantees and means to ensure that both employers and unions treated individual workers fairly. White workers, for example, had a right to join a union of their choosing. Locals also had clearly defined courses of action to seek redress for a host of practices that the law and the National Labor Relations Board had defined as unfair. But individual workers seeking fair employment guarantees lost the wartime Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), and few states started such agencies in the early years of the Cold War. No single civil rights organization, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the Urban League, had easy means or a federal mandate to seek recrimination against an employer or union on an individual worker's behalf.
Schiller stresses that this discrepancy sowed conflict even though postwar statutes, commissions, and organizations dedicated to fair employment and trade union law [End Page 149] could easily be placed under the general rubric of labor. Early on, sustaining legal protections for workplace majorities trumped quelling discrimination. But protecting the many no longer outweighed the needs of a few by the mid-1970s. "Paramount now," Schiller contends, "was the protection of the rights of individuals not to be discriminated against because of their race, sex, or other immutable characteristics" (240). That priority ultimately resolved a suit filed after African American women workers staged a shortlived boycott of a Bay Area department store. The collective-bargaining agreement and federal law forbade such a protest, much to the frustration of employees redirected to an elaborate grievance procedure. The AFL-CIO actually filed an amicus brief siding with management, since labor leaders considered protestors to have been wrongly attempting to directly bargain with their employer. The Supreme Court rejected that assertion, since the jurists had already decided that unions could not bargain away the rights protected in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which was the legislation in which these clerks ultimately found redress for their discrimination claims.
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