Union blues

State of the Union: a century of American labor

Nelson Lichtenstein <em>Princeton University, 298p

Seven summers ago, at the age of 18, I spent most of my days at a prepared-foods counter, scooping hummus into plastic tubs in exchange for a minimal wage. The job was an altogether unpleasant but bearable way to earn some money before university. My life in the low-skilled, low-wage workforce was short-lived; I knew I wasn't going to spend too much longer cleaning rodent excreta from under the counter.

For most Americans who live among the ranks of the working poor, the future promises little else but the minimum wage and all its accoutrements: struggles with rent, barriers to healthcare, and the social stigma of living in poverty in the richest country in the world. The unions have shrunk in size even as the low-wage workforce has swollen in number - an apparent paradox, were it not for the American public's conflicted attitudes towards solidarity and class.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, has documented a century of the travails of organised labour in the United States, from the New Deal optimism of the inter-war years to the remarkable decline in union membership over the past few decades. As a straightforward story of American labour, State of the Union offers the anticipated statistics and recounts the familiar events that accompanied the waxing and waning of labour as a political force. But as an inquiry into "labour" as a 20th-century idea and ideal, Lichtenstein's book is a thoughtful attempt to link labour's record with the capricious history of identity politics and ideological change. An unabashed partisan on the matter, Lichtenstein maintains that an energetic and forceful labour movement is essential to the economic system and, indeed, to American democracy itself.

But anybody who offers such a resolute argument risks succumbing to utopian assumptions about the relationship between individual choice and collective action. Lichtenstein presents a history of the labour movement, foibles and all, only to end with an almost ingenuous three-level proposal for revitalising it, positing "militancy" and "solidarity", "internal union democracy" and "political organisation" as the essential elements. After documenting unionism's uncomfortable relationship with ethnic minorities and women; after scrupulously recording the way in which power and money fostered corruption among union leaders; after providing a crash course in the ascension of an individualistic ethos and the corporate co-opting of dissent, Lichtenstein throws his proposal into the ring with the inexplicable assumption that "internal union democracy" is necessarily strengthened by the good, old-fashioned concept of "solidarity" - not possibly undermined by it.

Lichtenstein's prescriptions notwithstanding, he exposes one of the most curious features of US identity politics, where application forms include a bold-faced assurance that the company is an "equal opportunity employer", but the fine print stipulates that employees can be fired "for any reason, or for no reason" (as stated on a Burger King application). Remove the awkward phrasing and what the applicant is left with is a bifurcated sense of her rights as an individual: protected by civil rights legislation as a member of a specific group, but ultimately unprotected as a member of the workforce.

In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich investigates this perverse version of the American dream. Initially published as a series of reports for Harper's Magazine, this is a collection of Ehrenreich's undercover forays into the low-wage workforce, toiling at jobs ranging from hotel housekeeper to Wal-Mart "associate". Application procedures often entail invasive forays into personal psychology ("Do you often feel misunderstood?") and an obligatory pee into a cup to reassure the employer that potential recruits are drug-free. Where Lichtenstein interprets history, Ehrenreich examines its palpable manifestation; her story is one of an individual struggling to eat, sleep and work in a life where eating, sleeping and working are all she is able to afford on her limited time and with her minimal wages.

Ehrenreich chronicles the daily injustices and degrading routines that constitute life for the working poor, revealing a world that is, at times, horribly funny in its absurdity, but mostly disheartening in its meagreness and despair.

Jennifer Szalai is an editor at Harper's Magazine

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