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  • Rethinking the American Labor Movement by Elizabeth Faue
  • Liesl Miller Orenic
Rethinking the American Labor Movement
Elizabeth Faue
New York: Routledge, 2017
246 pp., $140.00 (cloth); $35.95 (paper); $17.98 (e-book)

Elizabeth Faue's Rethinking the American Labor Movement reconsiders the twentieth-century labor movement through a gendered lens, building a powerful and approachable narrative that integrates working women's experiences into this history. Faue argues that the modern American labor movement is really a loose coalition, rooted in local institutions, communities, and workplaces. It should be studied through a social-movement theory of "resource mobilization" (J. Craig Jenkins, "Resource Mobilization Theory and the Study of Social Movements," Annual Review of Sociology, no. 9 (1983): 527–53). To understand its watershed moments, missed opportunities, and common and contentious goals, Faue examines how activists and organizations deployed their energy and resources in ways that reflected gendered perceptions of the labor question. Understanding the many and sometimes conflicting goals among this loose coalition are three central issues: the presence of intraclass conflicts over gender, race, ethnic, and sexual inequalities; the dominance of masculinity and whiteness particularly within labor institutions; and the transnational and global foundations of American working-class history (5).

The book's goals are ambitious and straightforward. Faue describes her effort as a history of the "always diverse and often divided American working class," with an emphasis on the connections between the labor movement and other social movements and on labor's impact on politics and culture, balancing accounts of institutional labor's turning points at the national level with instructive community-level struggles (2). Her work joins earlier syntheses to make accessible twentieth-century US labor history. James Green's The World of the Worker (1980), the longer chronology of Priscilla Murolo and A. B. Chitty's From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend (2001), the multiple editions of Robert Zieger's American Workers, American Unions over the last three decades (1986, 1994, 2002, and 2014) and of Nelson Lichtenstein's State of the Union (2002 and 2013) all grapple with the "labor question" and how to tell labor's institutional, social, cultural, and political story in the context of an expanding historiography that has dramatically broadened the reach of what American labor and working-class history is in a global context. Further, the culmination of successes of conservative resistance to progressive social movements in America, including the labor movement, require such synthesis to reassess watershed moments and the strengths and weaknesses of institutional labor power.

From the first, Faue points to the problematic merger of white masculinity with notions of solidarity, responsibility, and respectability in nineteenth-century craft unionism. Using the rise of Samuel Gompers from bullied immigrant boy to American labor leader, she presents the appeal (to white male workers) of this model as well as its limits through the conflicts of the age, when skilled craftsmen's restricted sense of who could share in the brotherhood of labor excluded many and left the movement vulnerable in an era of injunctions, new modes of manufacturing, and de-skilling. [End Page 112]

Faue argues that the modern labor movement took shape in the first two decades of the twentieth century as old forms of organization showed their limitations, new workers entered new industries, and progressive era reformers, employers, politicians, and radicals all tangled to control the growing workforce. Faue deftly moves through the political strategies of craft unionists, the powerful contrast of the Industrial Workers of the World, the growing role of women as workers and agitators, and the chilling impact of the Red Scare. Her chapter on the Great Depression and World War II addresses the traditional story of the rise of how the CIO and the women striking in the Southern textile industry were energized by the work of activists that preceded them (105).

Faue keenly illuminates the internal and external pressures through which the labor movement maneuvered. Throughout her narrative, Faue knits together the varied responses to the demands of capitalism, the presence of the federal government, and the needs and interests of groups of workers. Undergirding this is the consistent tension between stability and security through institutional maintenance...


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