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A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy by Jane McAlevey (New York: HarperCollins, 2020).
Jane McAlevey has provided a guide to the revival of labor unions, which she regards as essential to the overall reform of American government and society. An experienced union organizer and activist, as well as book and magazine author, she contends that “only strong, democratic unions can get us out of the myriad crises” the United States and other nations are now facing. “The root cause” of these problems, affecting such matters as democracy, suffrage, and race and sex, is “wealth inequality,” a result of political dominance by the “billionaire class” as represented by Democrats as well as Republicans who have formed a “Party of Inequality.” With government, particularly the Supreme Court, under the control of such forces, unions are the primary agents of positive change.
Beginning with the Great Depression, the author sketches a historical backdrop. She says that disaster was “the last time the American billionaire class forced most Americans into a massive crisis,” and regards the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as a course-correction “for bankrupting the American worker.” Moving to the Post-World War II Era, she says the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 resulted from “a tactical alliance between big corporations in the North and their racist pro-Jim Crow Southern allies.” Similarly, “a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, delivered the North American Free Trade Agreement [effective in 1994] for the corporate global elite.” In addition, she attributes Hillary Clinton’s election defeat in 2016 in good part to “NAFTA and Globalization.” Her explanation is clear: “Between overt union-busting and the insidious union-busting effects of globalization, unionization rates in the private sector have plummeted over the past forty years.” As union membership declined, “income inequality . . . skyrocketed.”
Lest we attribute inequality solely to those forces, let us acknowledge the obvious, that this disparity is not generally condemned. The American people have traditionally embraced equality of opportunity, but not of condition. The phrase “personal accountability” is a convenient device to avoid social responsibility for poverty or other forms of distress. In other words, it has been politically as well as economically profitable to assail labor. With capitalism identified with patriotism, socialism has long been regarded as unpatriotic.
McAlevey’s spirited pace makes for fascinating reading. It is good to see an extended discussion of the Koch brothers and the perhaps less well-known Silicon Valley union buster Robert Noyce. The list of vehemently anti-union companies in that area is daunting: “Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook.” So are the author’s accounts of such places as West Virginia, where a strike defeated coal barons, and Mexico, where polluted air from factories owned in the United States choked the border between the two countries. On the other hand, it is encouraging to read of worker resistance, as in the case of the unionized teachers of Los Angeles to preserve the public schools of their city. Yes, teachers and others have been fighting back, but the damage done over the past seven decades has been disheartening at least, as is evidenced by graphs on increasing income inequality and shrinking union membership.
Though this book condemns the conduct of both major political parties, it is clearly aimed at achieving change in Washington. The author’s call to action is for the nation to “build good unions, undo Taft-Hartley, and enable robust collective bargaining and strikes.” Such a course would preserve democracy and produce political success, and begin by defeating Donald J. Trump and “winning the White House,” which is “urgent.” Moreover, it would require the fielding of a candidate who is not “backed by mostly corporate money,” and a campaign spearheaded by “good unions [to] point us in the direction we need to go and produce the solidarity and unity desperately needed to win.” Such an achievement would be enormous. Ever the optimist, Jane McAlevey declares, “We can fight, and we can win.”
Reviewed by Robert D. Parmet, Professor of History, York College, City University of New York