Union strategies: Responds

Eviatar, Daphne

IF NELSON LICHTENSTEIN is only arguing that the contemporary labor movement should be bolstered by ideas, then we don't disagree. As I noted in my review, inspiration is important. But to...

...But Lenin had a phrase for Lichtenstein's style of uncompromising utopianism: "infantile leftism...
...These are positive steps...
...Hopeful workers may at first be content to sign their e-mails "In Solidarity," but if the only benefits they gain are a warm fuzzy feeling, their enthusiasm will surely wane...
...I'm not "contemptuous" of events such as teach-ins aimed at consciousness raising...
...Lichtenstein sees ideological support for labor as a prerequisite to more tangible gains...
...That's where the law comes in, and where Lichtenstein's analysis and prescriptions get muddled...
...Implicit in this view is distaste for the notion that "legal authority and government policy" can be effective tools for change...
...To Lichtenstein, that's just more evidence of my "crackpot realism...
...As Lichtenstein acknowledges in his book, even employers, wary of costly lawsuits, have embraced the law's principles...
...By couching workers' rights in legal terms and creating elaborate procedures to enforce them, he writes, it has sapped the labor movement and left workers dependent on union bureaucracies to fight the good fight for them...
...78 n DISSENT / Summer 2002...
...In his emphasis on sweeping labor ideology, Lichtenstein is dismissive of the bulk of the actual work unions do, particularly the collective bargaining process, by which unions can boost their members' wages and benefits and in many situations save their jobs...
...Unfortunately, one can't say the same for workers' right to organize...
...Lichtenstein didn't mention the results of the living wage campaign at the University of Virginia in his book, but I'm pleased to learn, as he now reports, that over the course of several years some employees won a modest wage increase, and clerical workers and teaching assistants have affiliated with the Communications Workers of America...
...but when such lessons are confined to the college campus, their impact is limited...
...That's not because of a failure on the part of intellectuals, however, as Lichtenstein insists...
...While the tone the law set may have been significant, its most devastating aspect for unions was that it tied their hands in organizing and protesting...
...But the striking success of the "rightsconscious legal regime" Lichtenstein writes about in his book proves just the opposite...
...That law created, among other things, enforceable employment rights that have improved opportunities, wages, and working conditions for a broad range of workers while radically altering American political attitudes toward discrimination on the job...
...The civil rights movement, animated not by the left-wing intellectuals Lichtenstein credits but by grassroots activists and religious leaders, got a huge boost from the Civil Rights Act of 1964...
...But the two go hand-in-hand...
...Contrary to Lichtenstein's claim, I never wrote that he believed "the most important consequence" of the DISSENT / Summer 2002 77 ARGUMENTS 1947 Taft-Hartley Act was the purge of the communists...
...but I did note that he emphasizes the law's symbolic rather than practical consequences...
...That made it far more difficult to recruit new members, win better contracts, and expand union ranks...
...DAPHNE EVIATAR is a New York-based writer and former labor lawyer...
...My emphasis on the concrete, rather than symbolic, consequences of the law does not devalue "left-wing values and visions," as Lichtenstein claims...
...He reinforces that view here, writing that the function of Taft-Hartley was to coerce unions into a regime that was "'free' of any social and political resonance...
...But to create the sort of radical change Lichtenstein envisions, labor must be able to offer more...
...I just think they ought to be used to accomplish something tangible as well as ideological...
...Although he never directly argues for repeal of the National Labor Relations Act, the source of unions' rights to organize and bargain collectively, he claims that the scheme it created is outdated and counterproductive...
...Rather, it's due largely to a toothless legal regime that provides little support for organizing or bargaining, and accordingly has given unions little to show for their efforts...
...The refusal to see political conditions as they are and direct one's efforts toward improving them is ultimately a counterproductive indulgence...
...But to sustain the union spirit, workers need to see concrete results...

Vol. 49 • July 2002 • No. 3


 
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