Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement by Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss

by Luis Barahona on July 8, 2004

The inability of the American Labor movement to serve as a relevant force fighting for social justice has confounded many people, especially those in progressive circles. Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss in their book, Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement, explain with poignancy and clarity how the labor movement arrived to the moribund state that it is currently in. The book also deals with current practices that some unions are using to try and increase union visibility and significance to become a force fighting for social justice.

The authors begin by breaking down the New Economy, its neo-liberal policies and how it has contributed to the downfall of working conditions and the rights afforded to workers. Neo-liberal policies have been trumpeted as the model that the world should adopt in which deregulation through privatization and “overcoming union bargaining structures” are the cornerstones.

Using the dot.com industry the authors demonstrate how the New Economy has been proclaimed an all around success disregarding the fact that the triumphs have come at the expense of workers and their rights. E-companies such as Amazon.com have been heralded as examples of how the new economy has transcended “the unpleasantness of actual economic activity and its accompanying negative social effects,” despite the fact that Amazon.com depends on a massive distribution system manned by extremely low-wage workers. When these workers have tried to organize Amazon.com has reacted swiftly in squelching their effort. The New Economy is a direct attack on labor, and as it becomes the model adopted worldwide the working class will suffer. It is within this context that the authors try to show the importance and relevance of a strong American labor movement.

Fantasia and Voss make comparisons between the American economy and the European economy attempting to dispel American’s long held belief that the United States’ status as the wealthiest nation on earth directly translates to a better quality of life for the majority of people within its borders. The most important comparison made is between the European Labor movement and the American Labor movement because it shows the weaknesses of the American Labor movement.

The glaring difference between these two models is the creation of a public system of social provision in Europe, versus a private system of social provision within the United States.

The ability of European unions to have government sanctioned provisions has allowed for the labor movement within Europe to be much more relevant to their workers. Due to state mechanisms within Europe any victory won by a union is than universally passed on to the rest of the workforce regardless of whether or not they are in unions.

In the US, unions must fight for provisions for individual work places and because these victories are never made universal, every time a contract expires the union must start from scratch. It also leads to American unions becoming self-enclosed organizations that fight only for their members. This has caused American unions to continually make many questionable decisions, such as the anti-immigrant stance that many unions upheld until recently.

The authors then present the history of the Labor movement, and how it has arrived at its current standstill. They do an incredible job of tracing more than one hundred years of history, and presenting it in an accessible and succinct manner. The overarching theme of this history is the systematic destruction of any radical element within the labor movement from the Knights of Labor to the Industrial Workers of the World to the Congress of Industrial Workers.

The systematic destruction of these varied radical elements has maintained a watered-down version of unionism that has in turn allowed for the erosion and degradation of the labor movement by corporations whose nefarious use of the global economy has allowed them to strip contracts to a bare minimum.

The lack of a radical element within the labor movement has also prevented unions from responding appropriately to the attacks against them. Years of growth led the labor movement to become complacent and stagnant. This false sense of security caused unions to believe that they were an integral part of a balanced relationship between employee and employer, what the authors call a “social contract.”

Within this context labor leaders were more than willing to be complicit, “.schooled in the relentless pragmatism of the social contract actively discouraging rank-and file initiative and class solidarity as threats to the ordered, bureaucratic machinery of the grievance process and the labor board.” The authors describe the two different types of leadership that came to be during this time of tame unionism: the bureaucrat and the strongman.

More than anything what these two types of leaders have come to symbolize is the willingness of unions to stand aside as long as they were somewhat relevant within the power structure. When employers realized that the balance of power was in their favor, that unions could do little to fight back and that with the backing of the government (lets not forget what a tremendous job Regan did in undermining the labor movement), that they could easily and systematically strip away benefits, that’s exactly what they did.

This led unions to go into crisis mode and realize that the only viable way of surviving was to adopt a mode of functioning that they had long since forgotten; rank and file initiative and class solidarity. The authors proceed to explain the many different devices that more progressive unions are using to try and become relevant again. They do a thorough job of explaining the new methods of organizing that are being used to try and impede the further deterioration of the labor movement within the United States.

They use thorough accounts of two labor campaigns the SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles in the 80’s and the HERE campaign for casino workers in Las Vegas also in the 80’s to demonstrate how these new methods are developed and then used. The most important element of these new methods are their adaptability and fluidity, which stand in stark contrast the rigidity of labor’s past. The more progressive elements within the American Labor movement realized that labor has to become relevant to American society at large and more specifically to American working people. Some unions have created alliances with community groups to form partnerships to try and deal with issues outside of the usual realm of labor. The AFL-CIO is also trying to reform the local labor board councils so that they have more of a community focus and to try and change the conservative reputation of these boards.

All of these changes are in an effort to return to a fight for class solidarity.

The book is at its strongest when explaining the necessity of a strong labor movement, and the history behind the weakness of the American Labor movement. The authors present both of these issues in an accessible manner in which you don’t need a PHD to understand the nuances of such complicated issues. The explanations of the new process being used are thorough and well explained as well, however after explaining the advantages that the European Labor movement has achieved in the beginning of the book, it seems like these new processes within the American labor movement, although a welcome change from the past, are inadequate.

This has more to do with the sorry state of labor in the United States than a problem with the book itself. The books premise is that for the American labor movement to become relevant it must continue to take steps towards class solidarity, and a focus on the rank-and-file. Due to the history of labor within the country there are only certain steps that labor can take in shifting labor’s priorities.

I guess in the end it is hard to understand, even after such a thorough explanation, why within the labor itself there is still so much resistance to ideas of change. As labor stands on its last legs, more needs to be done to make sure that more unions understand how dire the situation is, and how important it is to embrace a return to a focus on the rank-and-file and grass-roots mobilization.

As the New Economy unifies the global market it is essential that labor in the United States gain strength to prevent the further erosion of worker’s rights not only in the United States but also globally. As neo-liberalism becomes the mantra of the corporate world, solidarity must be the rallying call of the labor movement.

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