Nelson Lichtenstein’s new book, “The State of the Union,” gives a history of labor unions in the United States by way of arguing for the need to restrengthen them, and I think the case is very persuasive.
Lichtenstein weaves together a number of themes to explain the decline in union membership and power. One is increased reliance on individual rights and legal protections. Federal laws ban all sorts of discrimination, endangerment, and abuse, but the federal government does not do an effective job of protecting workers from retaliation for asserting their rights and almost nothing to maintain other important elements of the workplace, such as wage levels or the prevention of mass layoffs.
We have learned to think of ourselves as individuals protected by laws, rather than brotherhoods and sisterhoods protected by our strength in numbers. We have a long list of rights, including – most notoriously – the “right to work.” So called Right to Work laws clearly hurt unions but are not too far afield from modes of thought that labor supporters have engaged in themselves.
Unions are now seen as ways to protect individual jobs and proper grievance procedures following individual wrongs, not as cross-company efforts to lift the wages and benefits of entire industries. If the purpose of a union is simply to protect me from specific injustices, surely I ought also to respect my coworker’s right to not be coerced to join, right?
But if the purpose of a union is to change society and improve the lot of all workers, then clearly the “right” of my coworker to be a freeloader and drag us all down is not to be respected.
The case Lichtenstein makes is that in the process of making fantastic gains in the Civil Rights, Feminist, and other movements, leftists unwittingly sacrificed a conception of the labor union that is badly needed today. No doubt this analysis will annoy some people, but it ought to be taken as encouraging. The right didn’t defeat us; we beat ourselves. Therefore, a reconstituted labor left can successfully fight back.