Posts Tagged ‘Nelson Lichtenstein’

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Is the labor movement anti-freedom?

January 20, 2011

Today’s entertainment was a panel discussion entitled “Employer Reaction to Union Organizing,” in which a professor of labor policy, a labor and industrial relations historian at the University of Minnesota’s business school (of all places), the regional NLRB director, and an attorney representing management interests in collective bargaining all talked about the future of the Wagner Act and U.S. unions in general. I’m afraid that I don’t have a coherent set of thoughts to present about this panel, in part because it wasn’t the most coherent panel ever – but it was still fascinating and there are some tidbits to share and ponder over.

The most interesting recurring theme, albeit one that was more of an undercurrent than an explicitly discussed idea, was that of collective good versus individual rights. In one of the few times this was made explicit, the NLRB regional director mentioned that infighting among Democrats and Republicans within NLRB often revolved around rhetorical/ideological conceptions of whether or not collective bargaining infringes unnecessarily on the rights of individual workers.

In State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein discusses how the rise an individual rights-based set of employment protections, which grew out of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and all the legislation from that time period dealing with discrimination, workplace safety and so on, has actually undermined the concept of collective action. By giving primacy to individual rights, the idea of collective action, in which a greater good takes precedence over individual freedom, can be painted as restrictive and frankly “un-American.” (Lichtenstein is careful to note that he is not denigrating all the achievements of these movements and pieces of legislation, but believes that it is important to note the trade-offs that were made, consciously or otherwise.)

I wondered whether it would behoove pro-labor folks to try to skirt this frame: instead of labor as a collective entity under which individual rights are subsumed, talking about it as a broad, inclusive social movement for the empowerment and betterment of the majority of people. The most interesting comment on this invoked the fact that labor and management alike were in favor of some form of collective bargaining in the Great Depression, when the problems of the U.S. economy were fundamentally seen as stemming from underconsumption. Giving workers higher wages and more buying power was seen as a solution to the problem of underconsumption, and a necessary precondition for the revival of the economy. Perhaps if labor today can be reframed as a movement aimed at increasing the buying power of the poor and the middle class and thus addressing growing inequality and many of our current economic woes, this might go some way towards fighting the perception of “big labor” as a parochial special interest (“unions are businesses,” the management attorney insisted) rather than a working people’s movement.

As I said, a somewhat incoherent set of thoughts and ideas, none of which are original, but something to chew on nonetheless. My background in labor history and philosophy is rather thin, and I’m very much enjoying putting in the effort to beef it up a little.

ADDENDUM: One neat thing I learned was that the local labor newspaper, the Minneapolis Labor Review, has a complete online archive of all of its issues since 1907 in searchable PDF form. Awesome!

Flying Whale

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 17, 2011

I was planning to write a post about how the man we celebrate today was a true radical activist whose image has been thoroughly sanitized for mass consumption. After all, it’s “Martin Luther King Day of Service,” not “Martin Luther King Day of Action.” But my friend over at Banalogies, as someone who has studied the black freedom struggle in depth, has done it (twice, sort of) far better than I can. So I’ll just leave off with an MLK quote I once used as an epigraph to a series of essays:

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

I wonder what those conservatives claiming some ideological affiliation with MLK would make of this statement.

On a slightly different but related note, I recently finished Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union, which is what seems to me a fairly radical reading of the history of the U.S. labor movement since the Great Depression. While there are many things to say about this book (for now, I’ll just say that much of what Frances Fox Piven had to say a few months ago seems to line up perfectly with Lichtenstein’s viewpoint), one thing that struck me peripherally was how backwards and obstructionist the South, or at least Southern Democrats, were in preventing any social change that undermined existing structures of racial oppression.

Why did this strike me? Only because I grew up, and received my K-12 education, in the South. I had an excellent AP U.S. History teacher – possibly the best teacher I had in high school and one of the best I’ve had in my entire academic career – yet I don’t remember really, viscerally, learning about the role of the South in U.S. race relations. There wasn’t an outright denial of the South’s racist legacy or anything so obvious as that; we learned plenty about the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement (though, of course, only in the context of civil rights), and no one respectable called the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression. But I have the sneaking suspicion that things were generally sanitized. The clearest example is that the only thing I remember from my education about Reconstruction is that there were “Northern carpetbaggers.” I had no sense that the failure of Reconstruction meant ongoing oppression of African-Americans at the hands of an obdurate South.

All of which is to say, while I think I have a decent grasp on U.S. history, there are some things I should probably revisit in light of where I received my primary education. Perhaps I’ll start with Eric Foner’s book. Any other suggestions?

Flying Whale