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  • Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin
  • William Michael Camp
Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979. By Timothy J. Minchin. ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 414. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3298-8.)

Having authored several works on organized labor in the U.S. South, Timothy J. Minchin turns his attention to a broader national story. His focus in Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 is the history of the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFLCIO)—the largest federation of unions in the United States—from 1979 through the early years of Barack Obama's presidency. Acknowledging that a number of recent works, such as those by Judith Stein, Jefferson Cowie, and Nelson Lichtenstein, focus on organized labor and its decline in the 1970s, Minchin argues that the 1980s were the more important decade in the story of labor's decline. After all, he notes, although union density in the American workforce declined gradually from 32 percent in 1955 to 24 percent in 1979, this figure fell off precipitously to 16.8 percent by 1989. Minchin's main focus is Lane Kirkland, who became head of the AFL-CIO after the legendary George Meany retired in 1979 and served until he was deposed after a leadership struggle with John Sweeney in 1995.

After surveying a few of the most important factors in organized labor's slow decline, such as section 14(b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that allowed states to ban the closed, or union, shop, Minchin begins his narrative in earnest with Ronald Reagan's presidency, which occupies four of the book's ten chapters. Reagan, Minchin argues, represented a disaster for organized labor, famously firing over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers after taking office. But more broadly, Reagan refused to listen to labor leaders, "instead appealing directly to rank-and-file members" (p. 75). Although Kirkland organized a mass march on Washington, D.C., in September 1981 that drew 260,000 attendees, the AFL-CIO was largely unable to counteract Reagan's cuts to social programs and general anti-union stance. [End Page 229]

The AFL-CIO was initially optimistic when Reagan gave way to George H. W. Bush in 1989, mainly because "the new president did a much better job of listening to labor" (p. 150). Indeed, Bush was less overtly hostile than Reagan had been, though the federation still faced structural challenges. For example, one of Reagan's anti-labor tactics was to appoint pro-business representatives to the National Labor Relations Board, which was responsible for upholding the rights of workers to vote to organize themselves. Although workers had an easier time organizing in the early 1990s, it still "proved difficult to translate election victories into contracts" with employers, especially in the South (p. 178).

When Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, the federation found renewed hope after twelve years of Republican rule. However, Clinton proved unable to pass health care reform or labor legislation, two of the AFL-CIO's major priorities. Furthermore, Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement "with considerable zeal," which created lasting resentment among labor organizers (p. 184). The subsequent George W. Bush administration, nearly as anti-labor as Reagan's, caused the AFL-CIO to endure "many setbacks" (p. 264). The book ends with the early years of Barack Obama's presidency. Although Obama finally passed health care reform, labor reform remained unattainable, and Minchin gives him a mixed review.

As the chapter descriptions make clear, Minchin's main concern is high-level Washington politics, and he relies on heretofore unexamined sources from presidential libraries to tell this very recent story. He has little to say about the activities of local union chapters, the experiences of individual workers in their workplaces, or other more specific topics in labor history. He also does little to place the events he describes in the broader macroeconomic context of de-industrialization and the emergence of the digital age. None of this, however, should diminish the value of Minchin...


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