Title Reviewed:
American Workers, American Unions, 1920–1985

Author Reviewed:
Robert H. Zieger

Patrick J. McGeever


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 83, Issue 2, pp 205-207

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Workers, American Unions, 1920–1985. By Robert H. Zieger. (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. Pp. xii, 233. Bibliographical essay, index. Clothbound, $25.00; paperbound, $9.95.)

By 1985, suggests Stanley I. Kutler in his editor's foreword, "the question, in short, was whether the unions had become irrelevant." Robert H. Zieger's sympathetic history of American unions, without answering this question directly, leaves open the possibility that they had.

The narrative begins in the 1920s, when American workers found themselves disunited and disadvantaged in an era of apparent prosperity, and concludes in the mid-1980s, when the same observations could be made. In between, Zieger charts the rapid rise and the gradual decline of organized labor as a major social force.

The Depression set the stage for a rebirth of unions, and their entry into politics. Rapid growth in the 1930s led to intense labor-management strife which neither existing union structures (i.e., the American Federation of Labor (AFL)) nor the early New Deal (i.e., the National Recovery Administration) could contain. The Wagner Act achieved industrial peace and ordained both the successes and the limitations of American unionism by turning unions into managers of rank-and-file discontents, employers into guarantors of union membership rolls, and the National Labor Relations Board into the red-tape-laden referee. Hardly was this new arrangement and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in place before World War II broke out. During the war the deal cut in the Wagner Act was ratified by labor's No-Strike Pledge and by management's maintenance of union membership. Unlike their World War I ancestors, the new and the newly strong unions of 1945 survived the conversion to peacetime. The Taft-Hartley Act limited long-term union security more than it did short-term union successes. By winning for their members a larger piece of the larger American pie with hard-fought strikes and savvy political maneuvering, the AFL and CIO moved into the 1950s as the stable representatives of increasingly affluent workers. But by the 1960s the decline of unions both in percentage of the work force they represented and in their ability to adapt to (let alone lead) social change was apparent. Buffeted by the issues of Vietnam and civil rights, union leaders found themselves attacked by militants as part of the establishment, deserted by their membership for Republican candidates or George Wallace, and all the while manhandled by managements who had learned to flout the National Labor Relations Act with impunity. In 1968 came the moment of truth: Hubert Humphrey was defeated. But still worse lay in store: the Reagan era of massive unemployment, give-backs, and union busting. Zieger offers counterarguments to those who see unions as responsible for the deindustrialization of America, but can find no John L. Lewis on labor's horizon to marshal the forces anew.

Zieger's account, using a rich variety of earlier works, is generally well woven, concise, and adept. He gives a friendly hearing to mainline union leadership, shorter shrift to critics right and left. He places particular emphasis on the history of the United Auto-mobile Workers of America. He makes occasional mention of Indiana's position as a conservative state which still reflects national developments on the labor scene. Particularly lucid is his treatment of complex labor laws, and particularly sympathetic is his grasp of the problems of female and black unionists.

Little will be found in these pages that is new, and fellow scholars may be frustrated by his substitution of bibliographical essays for footnotes. His treatment of the years from 1968 to 1985 in a brief epilogue is a disappointment. Yet, Zieger has compiled an altogether useful account of what for now appears to have been the golden era of labor in the United States.

Patrick J. McGeever, Indiana University, Indianapolis

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.