- Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States by Andrew Kolin
New York: Lexington, 2016
xxxv + 398 pp., $110.00 (cloth); $104.50 (e-book)
Political Scientist Andrew Kolin has written the first general study of US repression in more than two decades. He follows scholars like Robert Justin Goldstein and the late Patricia Cayo Sexton, authors of Political Repression in Modern America from 1870 to 1976 (1978) and The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America's Unique Conservatism (1991), respectively. With respect to periodization, Kolin casts a wider net than these authors, starting in the colonial period and concluding in the Obama years. Many of the topics he covers—Bacon's Rebellion, the Stamp Act, Shays's Rebellion, court-granted injunctions against numerous nineteenth-century strikes, the employer-led open-shop movement, the repression of political radicals during and following both world wars, the House Un-American Activities Committee's cruel actions, business's relentless neoliberal assaults from the 1970s on—should be familiar to readers of this journal. Indeed, the book is mostly a synthesis of previous scholarship.
Like earlier writers, Kolin reminds us of the various forces historically arrayed against working-class people, including such forces as politicians, judges, employers, and conservative union leaders. Significantly, the book offers overwhelming evidence that the state has repeatedly acted in a one-sided way in the context of labor-management relations. Such imbalance became especially clear in the late nineteenth century, when the state helped corporations secure land under the principle of eminent domain. Moreover, during this decade, employers discovered that they could rely on the law to side with them during labor disputes. Labor won some legitimacy and security in the early twentieth century, but business remained much more powerful. "While law liberates the corporation," Kolin explains, "it oppresses labor" (77). Political authorities and business elites showed tolerance for the AFL during World War I provided that its members refrain from striking. Yet these same forces launched a series of aggressive campaigns against members of the Industrial Workers of the World, anarchists, and socialists. Kolin reminds us that some states passed criminal syndicalism laws and that business-backed vigilantes staged raids and took mailing and membership lists from left-wing organizations. The Espionage and Sedition Acts further punished labor radicals.
The best portions of the book examine the New Deal era. In a refreshing alternative to recent scholarship, such as Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself, which tends to portray Franklin D. Roosevelt as a friend of labor—also one of Sexton's weaknesses—Kolin reminds us of the obvious limitations of the New Deal state. In a reiteration of the arguments advanced by a previous generation of leftist labor historians and critical legal scholars, he points out that one of the chief goals of the designers of the National Industrial Recovery and National Labor Relations Acts was to neutralize "labor unrest" (164). By overseeing collective bargaining, government administrators encouraged the development [End Page 109] of a more moderate union leadership, one that, like businesspeople and government officials, prioritized industrial stability over the demands of rank-and-file militants. And numerous corporate leaders and managers, interested in maximizing profits and fully committed to the open-shop principle, often refused to bargain with or even recognize unions. They faced few serious challenges from government agencies: "Corporate America had little reason to cooperate with the administration's pursuit of class harmony" (164).
Importantly, Kolin highlights the one-sided relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party as well as the tensions between establishment labor-liberals and forces on the left, especially the Communist Party. Marxist activists of various stripes, of course, helped build the inclusive and combative CIO in the 1930s, but labor leaders eventually assisted in purging radicals from its affiliated unions in the 1940s. It was, he notes, a "historical tragedy" that the labor leadership partnered with "capital and its government supporters" (265). Essentially, the union leadership's relationship with Democratic Party politicians did more harm than good. Roosevelt, Kolin reminds us, played a critical role in fighting communists, which, following the...