Workplace Democracy and Unionization

The rise to power of organized labor in the 1930s shows that, in the perceived failures of capitalism in the great depression, organized labor was seen in a new light. The Roosevelt administration thought that organized labor, with a strong, patriotic social-democratic agenda, would split the difference between Marxism and Fascism. The author here does believe that a great degree of workplace democracy existed in America as a result of this in the 1930s, but that it did not survive the war (55).

In the 1940s, the war caused a massive boom in employment where the demand for labor ensured that workers would not fear joining a union: retaliation from employers, especially under the basically statist economy of the war years, since labor was scarce (56). As the decade wore on, workers believed that they had some sort of “property right” to their job (61) and that the union existed to promote lifetime employment and a strong sense of craft solidarity.

It is precisely the loss of this type of consciousness to a sort of “rights” based consciousness that destroyed the labor movement, and hence, the labor issue, in the 1940s or onward, cannot be dealt with without the social elements of labor exploited by management and the state, specifically the racial and gender questions. Questions one and two of this project really overlap to a great degree. They both take into consideration the nature of the social problem, rather than the problem of “labor” strictly considered.

According to the author, it was the strict racism and sexism of the union that was both their strength and their weakness. It was their strength in that it promoted a great degree of in-group solidarity that made the union hard to dislodge and increased its bargaining power. It was its weakness in that the state, as well as management could then step in and mobilize both blacks and women to be loyal to itself rather than the union (92). In other words, for both question 1 and 2, the real simple answer is that the exclusivity of the unions on social questions provided a weakness that the system could exploit.

Regardless of the support of unionization of the Roosevelt administration, the American cultural view of business seemed to exclude forms of social democracy and collective action across industries. But this is merely the simple answer. It seems that the civil rights and feminist agenda, coming to full maturity right at the time where wages and wage increases were at their highest (1950s and 1960s), were officially sponsored to break the unions. Though the author does not make this rather politically incorrect statement, it is an unmistakable conclusion for the sensitive reader.

Therefore, the basic structure of the answer looks like this: 1. Unionization had made spectacular gains under the Roosevelt Administration and during World War II. There were many reasons for this, but the Roosevelt government saw unions as a pillar of American values at a time when those values were under challenged due to the depression. Work place democracy was basically a fact, and the power of managers was largely stripped (63) 2. But after the war, several things happened.

First, small businesses began to fail at a large rate (109). The war led to big business becoming more and more confident of their position and role in society, whereas unions, given their own infighting and position on the social issues, did not articulate their own sense of social importance and their role in supporting American values. 3. The unions themselves, under the protection of the state throughout the war, became complacent institutions with basically unimaginative leadership.

Even worse, many of these unions became criminal enterprises, or worse, special interest groups that sought self-perpetuation rather than the social evolution in favor of labor that characterized the 1930s (92ff). 4. The slow destruction of small business, as well as the corporate confidence as having been the “arsenal” of democracy and their well known ties with the state as a result of this, led to corporate managers being less and less amenable to compromise with labor.

A huge spate of strikes right after the war also helped solidify management solidarity without a corresponding rise in union solidarity. This is partially the result of bad leadership and partially the influx of new labor coming home from the war and hence, driving wages down at least for the short term. 5. Most of all, however, the state and well as management took advantage of the union problems over the social issues of race and sex.

While the author does not mention the Immigration Reform Act of 1964 in these chapters, the fact is that both the state and management took advantage of three new groups of workers: women, blacks and immigrants from Latin America and Asia. This huge influx of workers broke union solidarity and depressed wages given the large supply of new workers. But more importantly, it shifted the nature of the debate: the debate went from social democratic demands and an ideological commitment to a workers state in a non-communist sense to talk of “rights” for groups that were not a part of the labor coalition to a great extent.