It is a fairly common understanding that capitalists prefer an economy without labor unions. Indeed, the history of capitalism includes many tales of fierce struggle between capitalists and those who labor under them. This seems to be especially true in certain capitalist nations more than others. Among those where it is especially true is the United States. Since the advent of industrial capitalism in the US, there have been only a couple decades when unions and capitalists operated in an atmosphere which, while not without confrontation, was not bloody or too antagonistic (especially in relation to the rest of that history.) However, despite the bloody interludes in labor-capitalist relations—interludes that include the massacre of dozens of women and children in Ludlow, Colorado, a mass murder of union revelers in Calumet, Michigan’s Italian Hall made famous in Woody Guthrie’s tune “1913 Massacre,” and street battles too numerous to count along with starvation of workers and hundreds of years of prison time—it can be argued that the bulk of the fight against union organizing and unionism in the US has taken place in courts, boardrooms, legislatures and even union headquarters.
This history is the story told in Andrew Kolin’s latest book, Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States. Both broad in its scope and comprehensive in its analysis, Kolin’s text takes a place next to Philip Foner’s multiple works on US labor history throughout the Twentieth Century. While focusing on the role capitalist elites have played in manipulating labor in the United States, Kolin also examines the role played by different elements within the labor movement itself. In other words, he makes it clear that the labor movement is not monolithic. Indeed, there are numerous political and economic interests at play within union locals and especially at the national level. This has been the case throughout the movement’s history; from the Knights of Labor to the AFL-CIO, there has always been a labor hierarchy within the labor movement. What this has meant for workers in the United States is that skilled workers like carpenters, electricians and so on have often separated their organizations (craft unions) from those organized by laborers and others less skilled. In modern times, these divisions have also exacerbated differences between those who sell their physical labor and those who sell their mental labor. Of course, these divisions have been exacerbated by the machinations of management and the capitalist class who understand that a divided working class works in their favor. The tragedy in this, as Kolin points out again and again, is that all too often union leaders allow the perspective of management and the capitalists to frame their approach. At other times, they openly collaborate. Either way, it is the working class that suffers from those efforts.
Then there is the role of governments. It becomes clear from Kolin’s text that there has never been a truly pro-union/pro-labor party in the United States. Consequently, neither has there ever been a pro-labor government. One could argue that the reforms put into place during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt were in favor of labor unionizing. One could also consider the era of union power in the first two decades after World War Two to be a period when labor had a prominent role in the governing of the nation. However, not only were these periods witness to thousands of strike actions, they were also times when US labor unions were more concerned with economic gains and increasingly opposed to using their strength for political action that went against the goals of US capitalism. Indeed, it was immediately after World War Two that most US unions joined in the anti-Communist hysteria whipped up by the US ruling class and purged most leftists from their membership rolls. In addition, the AFL-CIO forced the few unions that didn’t give in to the anti-communist repression out of the federation. When all was said and done, the unions were stronger but they were also politically emasculated. Most of them ended up in the Democratic Party supporting both guns and butter in the postwar imperial USA.
As most working people in the United States know, union organizing and membership is an anomaly in the US workplace today. Not only are very few workers organized, those that are in unions find their organizations under attack from state and national politicians, many in the pay of super wealthy capitalists like the Koch brothers. In states like Wisconsin, where such politicians have been elected to office, public sector unions have been slashed and destroyed. The ripple effect of these attacks in an economy where private sector unions were effectively neutered years ago has been devastating for what the US likes to call its middle class. What this situation has made clear was that union strength was what not only made this “middle” class possible, it was also what increased its numbers in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, the unions retreat from political organizing outside (and to the left) of the Democratic Party has meant that working people in the unions have not only watched that party become a neoliberal shell of itself, they have also suffered the effects of this turn.
Political Economy of Labor Repression in the United States is an exhaustive look at the history of organized (and not so organized) labor in the United States. It begins with a discussion of indentured servitude and slavery in the early colonial and US economy and ends with a look at labor’s weakness in the neoliberal capitalist era. Simultaneously a history of labor and US capitalism, it makes it clear to the reader the repression of labor in the United States is multilayered, pernicious and pervasive; it includes management, media, government, some union members and most of their leadership, and ultimately the cops. While the future for unions in the United States does not appear very bright, the history detailed in Kolin’s text should be essential knowledge for those hoping to resurrect the necessary and noble endeavor labor unions once were.