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  • Labor under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979 by Timothy Minchin
  • Chris Rhomberg
Labor under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979
Timothy Minchin
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017
xiii + 432 pp., $39.95 (cloth); $29.95 (e-book)

With around 12.5 million members in more than fifty affiliate unions, the AFL-CIO remains a standard-bearer for the struggles of the American labor movement over the last several decades. The Federation has been subjected to much critical analysis, but we have not had a detailed internal history of the organization, especially since the rise of global neoliberalism from around 1980. Timothy Minchin’s meticulously researched and clearly written book provides a valuable resource to fill that gap. The author provides a wealth of information from insider participants in major events, and while the story Minchin tells raises more questions than it answers, it reminds us of critical conflicts that are still with us today.

Minchin acknowledges the limits of the AFL-CIO’s “golden era” under founding president George Meany, including the dominance of more conservative AFL unions, the lack of racial and gender representation, resistance to new organizing, and Cold War ideology. As a relatively decentralized, voluntary federation, it typically focused on its self-defined role as a “people’s lobby,” especially at the federal level. Much of the book centers on events in Washington, DC, where the Federation has its headquarters a stone’s throw from the White House. Minchin organizes his narrative around what he sees as key turning points, including the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Reagan’s firing of the striking federal air traffic controllers in 1981, the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Act under President Bill Clinton, and the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

Lane Kirkland took over as AFL-CIO president in 1979, just in time for the deluge. The 1980s were dominated by Reagan’s aggressively antiunion National Labor Relations Board and court decisions that turned the law against workers’ rights, and between 1980 and 1988 the number of union representation elections fell by almost half. The new political environment emboldened employers not only to resist unionization in new workplaces but to attack pattern bargaining in already unionized sectors and to use permanent replacements to break strikes. Against this onslaught, Kirkland’s main achievement was simply maintaining internal unity and bringing unions like the United Auto Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and smaller affiliates back into the Federation.

Labor would not regain access to the White House until the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet even with a Democratic Congress, the Clinton administration failed to win either universal health care or labor law reform—two key union legislative priorities—and it delivered a stunning blow to the Federation on trade with its passage of the North American Free Trade Act. Those failures and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 led to Kirkland’s departure and the election of John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as AFL-CIO president in 1995. [End Page 135]

Sweeney inaugurated a period of high hopes and activist reform, including more diverse leadership and staff in the Federation, an expanded commitment to organizing and to initiatives like Union Cities and Union Summer, coalitions with community and social movement groups, the abolition of the anticommunist American Institute for Free Labor Development, and a historic shift toward policy on immigration. For a time, the new momentum helped produce significant gains, and in 1998 union membership actually ticked upward by around a hundred thousand.

It was not to last. In the 2000 presidential election, the US Supreme Court gave the contested Electoral College victory to Republican George W. Bush, bringing back a hostile administration in Washington whose power solidified after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Unions were back on the defensive for the second half of Sweeney’s tenure, and the number of union representation elections fell from 2,896 in 2000 to 1,588 in 2008. Minchin quotes Laborers’ union leader Terry O’Sullivan’s description of the Bush administration as “eight...


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