The labor movement once loomed large over American politics. If the nineteenth century was dominated by conflict with Indians and over slavery, the early twentieth center was dominated by what was called “the labor question.” But very few Americans outside Washington today know anything about the labor movement. I talked recently to a historian who was writing a book on liberalism who didn’t know that in 2005, a group of unions had split off from the AFL-CIO to form Change to Win. Yet the labor movement remains the largest and most powerful organized group within the Democratic party and American liberalism more broadly, as well as the country’s best hope of restoring a balance of power between employer and employee and between K Street and Main Street.
If you want to keep track of the labor movement, it’s not easy. Every large newspaper used to have a labor reporter, but now only The New York Times does; they employ the excellent Stephen Greenhouse. BusinessWeek recently laid off Aaron Bernstein. In These Times boasts my former colleague David Moberg, whom I call for guidance every time I write about labor. And The American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson knows a lot about labor, but only occasionally writes about it.
What about books? I used to be fairly well-versed in labor history, but I haven’t kept up, so I asked Nelson Lichtenstein, who teaches history at UC Santa Barbara; Michael Kazin, who is at Georgetown; and Richard Yeselson, research coordinator of Change to Win, for their recommendations.
For the history of the labor movement--from the Knights of Labor through the present--I used to rely on Thomas Brooks’ Toil and Trouble, but it’s long out of print. Kazin recommends Who Built America: Working People and the Nation’s History by the American Social History Project. Yeselson calls Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union “the best recent synthesis of all of twentieth century labor history.”
When people in today’s labor movement look back upon the past, they look most often to the revival that occurred in the mid-1930s, when the CIO--the Congress of Industrial Unions--was formed as a result of a split from the American Federation of Labor. There are two excellent books that tell the story of the CIO’s rise and its role in the Democratic Party: Lichtenstein’s Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit and Steven Fraser’s Labor will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of the American Labor. Also in relation to this period, Saul Alinsky wrote John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography, about the former president of the United Mine Workers of America. It’s a good clue to understanding Alinsky’s--and later Barack Obama’s--ambivalence toward partisan politics.
Much of the change in the labor movement since World War II can be seen in the story of two cities, Los Angeles and New York. Ruth Milkman’s LA Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement and Joshua Freeman’s Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II are both about the transition from the industrial to service-based unions. In Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier Than Ever, David Kusnet tells, among other things, about strikes, lockouts, and organizing campaigns in high-tech Seattle. Richard Kahlenberg’s Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy tells the story of American Federation of Teachers. And in Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement, Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss explain why labor is in trouble and describe what is being done to turn it around.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.