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  • Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin
  • Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (bio)
Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979. By Timothy J. Minchin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 414. $39.95 cloth)

In 1955, when the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged, one-third of American workers belonged to unions. Twenty-four years later, when George Meany stepped down as the first president of the AFL-CIO, the ranks of organized labor had declined by a third. Today just one in ten workers are members of unions. It is not surprising, then, that the theme that dominates Timothy Minchin's deeply researched and engagingly written account of the recent history of the AFL-CIO [End Page 144] is the labor movement's decline, and the efforts of the Federation's leaders to combat it.

Drawing on the archival records of the AFL-CIO and extensive oral-histories, Minchin focuses on the post-Meany presidential administrations of Lane Kirkland (1979–1995) and John Sweeney (1995–2009). He examines how each leader dealt with the challenges of relentless de-industrialization and globalization, intensifying employer opposition, and an often-hostile political climate. Minchin concludes that critics have not given the AFL-CIO a fair shake. They have condemned the Federation's failure to address labor union racism and its Cold War foreign policy and have argued that the AFL-CIO's conservative philosophy was a critical factor in its decline. While acknowledging the truthfulness of these criticisms, Minchin "recognizes its achievements and its limitations" (p. 6).

Minchin begins with a brief review of the AFL-CIO's first two decades under George Meany's leadership, a period when it wielded significant economic and political power. The Federation played a critical role in the passage of an array of progressive legislation that benefitted all workers, such as Medicare, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the landmark Occupational Safety and Health Act. However, as Minchin notes, the roots of the Federation's and the labor movement's decline can also be traced to this period. Although the seventies saw the beginnings of the decline in union density with massive factory closures, Meany was complacent about the decline and showed little concern with organizing or addressing union racism and sexism.

In the early eighties, the AFL-CIO faced a pivotal turning point. Minchin finds that the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and his breaking of the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike as well as a depressed economy put labor on the defensive and hastened the AFL-CIO's deterioration. Union-busting intensified and takeback bargaining, lockouts, and decertification campaigns became common. These factors combined with the impact of deindustrialization caused industrial union membership to drop precipitously. Moreover, Reagan's tax cuts and new harsh policies undercut critical [End Page 145] social welfare programs. Under Kirkland's leadership, the Federation fought back, organizing public protests and making stabs at expanding organizing, supporting strikes, and reaching out to minorities and women, as well defending Social Security and workplace safety. Moreover, in the nineties the AFL-CIO was critical to pushing through the Family and Medical Leave Act and a higher minimum wage. But, as Minchin acknowledges, under Kirkland, the Federation was unable to block the North American Free Trade Agreement and there was no fundamental turnaround in its fortunes.

In 1995, frustrated at the AFL-CIO's emphasis on political activity instead of organizing and grassroots mobilization, insurgents from the most dynamic unions in the service and public sectors challenged Kirkland's leadership and elected John Sweeney president. Emphasizing change and militancy, the Federation quickly diversified the AFL-CIO's leadership and coordinated major organizing campaigns, as well as emphasizing environmentalism and connecting with progressive community groups. However, Sweeney's reforms were undermined by the election of George Bush in 2000, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which created a more conservative political climate, and by internal dissension within the Federation.

Minchin has written a more balanced history of the AFL-CIO, although at times he struggles to find a silver-lining...


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