New this month in paperback from NYU Press is Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during WWII by Andrew Kersten. In 2006, Prof. Kersten wrote a piece for the AFL-CIO’s blog responding to Stephen Colbert’s timely mocking of an NLRB decision. Although the political wheels have turned since then, the video and the article remain relevant (and the video is still hilarious, too).
Since the turn of the 20th century, every generation of workers has fought in a class war from above. Employers have methodically worked to make the United States an “open shop nation,”—a nice-sounding concept that in reality undermines workers’ ability to get a voice at work through union membership—and their efforts are far from complete. Still, the NLRB’s recent action is cause for great concern, leaving us to question whether the NLRB can be trusted and what we can do to regain momentum in our decades-old struggle for an equitable society. But given the recent congressional elections, the labor movement is now in a much better position than it has been for a long time. It’s time to recapture the passions of the past and retake the NLRB.
In some respects, the NLRB’s decision was not surprising. It is the end result of years of political maneuverings by extreme conservatives. In fact, the history of the assault on the labor movement extends back to the 19th century when the relationship between labor and management was horrifically brutal. The American Federation of Labor arose in that period. Samuel Gompers and his colleagues built a labor movement whose goals were to stop the violence and repression, to improve working environments and to increase wages and benefits. And, yet, he wanted to do so without the aid of the federal government. He had little faith that the federal government would do anything but serve employers as an army defending the strikebreakers or as a corrupt, duplicitous bureaucratic go-between. Generally speaking, Gompers thought that strong, independent union action for modest economic gains would solve all working-class problems and win the war for the union shop. Time proved Gompers partly wrong.