- Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin
Following a 2016 US presidential election that saw the Democratic candidate's union household vote share advantage over the Republican shrink to eight percentage points – the smallest gap in three decades – afl-cio president Richard Trumka initiated a restructuring of the labour federation that included dozens of staff layoffs and the elimination of several programs in an effort to address current and anticipated revenue shortfalls. This comes at a time when labour density in the United States has dropped to 10.7 per cent, the lowest level since the 1930s. In Labor Under Fire, the prolific labour historian Timothy Minchin has taken on the daunting task of telling the afl-cio's story from 1979 – when union density was 23.4 per cent – to the present, delineating an era of seemingly unremittingly grim tidings and a one-step-forwards, two-steps-back trajectory of decline. If Irving Bernstein hadn't already used the title for a work about the 1920s, Minchin could have called his book The Lean Years. [End Page 293]
While the theme of decline unavoidably colours Minchin's fine history, he strives to complicate the prevailing image of a largely hapless association leading a doomed movement. Indeed, Minchin frames his narrative of the afl-cio under the presidencies of Lane Kirkland, John Sweeney, and (briefly) Trumka as a revision of the hostile portrayal of the federation by leading labour historians. During the long tenure of the afl-cio's larger-than-life founding president, George Meany, critics heaped charges of racism, sexism, and long-term strategic myopia against the organization that scholars have largely echoed. Minchin's most important and subtle analytical achievement is to show how the federation gradually but determinedly shed all of those Meany-era characteristics in the difficult decades following his retirement. Beginning with Lane Kirkland's under-appreciated presidency, Minchin shows, the afl-cio slowly transformed into a thoroughly progressive force, "firmly on the left side of the Democratic Party and the political spectrum" (249) and still punching above its weight in political impact, at the same time that organized labour's presence in society diminished relentlessly, year after year.
The source base for Minchin's crisply written and organized account, spanning ten chronological chapters and a brief epilogue on Trumka's presidency, consists of 60 oral history interviews plus archival material drawn from unprocessed and never-before-used afl-cio papers, collections in several presidential libraries, and a slew of personal papers. Perhaps to a fault, this is a narrative told resolutely from the vantage point of the afl-cio's leadership. We get only sporadic glimpses at events from the perspectives of other actors – usually presidential administrations – seeking strategically to engage or respond to the federation. The narrative focus on afl-cio presidents and US presidents serves an implicit analytical purpose, emphasizing both the importance of national-level public policy for labour's fate and the degree to which the federation, lacking much authority over the activities of its union affiliates, has found its comparative advantage in political lobbying and electoral work.
The first chapter offers a sweeping overview of the Meany era that impressively synthesizes decades of labour and political history while also drawing on original archival research. Minchin identifies "roots of decline" in the midcentury heyday of union power, particularly in the afl-cio leadership's reluctance to forge ties to progressive social movements as well as its indifference to the task of organizing new members. The decentralization of the federation's structure, which limited it ability to compel affiliate members to invest in organizing, encouraged such indifference and would greatly hinder the federation's ability to grow its membership once its strategic priorities did shift in later years.
The core of the book consists of six chapters on Lane Kirkland's presidency, spanning his ascension as Meany's groomed successor in 1979 to his ignominious and undesired retirement in the face of an internal challenge...