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Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement By Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss Essay

Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement, by Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, was published by the University of California Press in 2004. It runs to 259 pages. This book deals with the failures of the American Labor Movement to keep pace with the needs of American workers. It explains how the movement failed when it seemed like it was on the road to success and why it is in the lethargic state in which it finds itself today. It chronicles the attempts being made today to salvage what is left of the movement and its attempts to become a force fighting for social justice in America.

One recurring theme of this book is that the people who consider themselves to be both progressive and liberal are constantly amazed that so little they have done and/or advocated has come to fruition or made any difference. They seem stunned to learn that their theories do not work in actual practice. The book documents the actions being initiated in today’s society in an attempt to get off high-center and get on the road to success necessary to keep the American Dream alive.

What is now known as the New Economy as proposed by the Neo-liberals has contributed to the steady erosion of worker’s rights and benefits. Fantasia and Voss examine the dot com industry with particular scrutiny, blaming it for the loss of enormous numbers of jobs. The book examines such companies as Amazon, demonstrating how a vast corporation, doing millions in business can be operated with the use of relatively few unskilled and low paid employees, giving them obscene profits and very little overhead.

The authors believe that such companies are the wave of the future and if allowed to truly globalize they will be extremely deleterious to workers around the world. They call the New Economy a ‘direct attack on labor’. This book reveals that a key element in many industrialized nations, which is lacking here, is that labor gains are not on a national level, meaning that unions and workers must fight for each concession on a company-by-company basis.

In much of the rest of the world a gain by workers is held to be a gain for every worker in that country. The authors trace the history of the union movements for over one hundred years in America. They show that any sort of radicalism displayed by unions or workers was systematically eradicated. They show that what was left in place in each case was a tepid version of what could have been and the result was, intrinsically, a labor union which was in bed with the big corporations, allowing them to strip workers of their rights and fair benefits.

This, the authors say, gave labor leaders the idea they were in some sort of perverse partnership with management to the ruin of the workers. Out of this rose the duality of leadership seen in this country. There came to be leadership that ruled by one of two ways, one, a strongman leader, whose ruled a personal fiefdom by decree and the other the bureaucrat in what the authors called the era of tame unionism, which was benign in an era when it should have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with its members.

During the Reagan era employers realized they were in the drivers’ seats and stripped rights and benefits to the bone while the government stood by or actively abetted them, as did the union leadership. The major premise of this book is that labor must re-invent itself in order to be relevant again. Corporate America is committed to the New Economy, which will never do anything for the worker but further erode any gains made in the past century.

American unions and American workers must, the premise goes, regain their initiative and hang solidly together or they will, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, all hang separately, so to speak. There are numerous ways of going about rebuilding labor into a potent force for the good of the workers and some of these methods are being seen. There is a tactic known in labor jargon as “‘bargaining to organize’ and it has become one important tactic of social movement unionists,” (Fantasia, Voss 2004 p 154).

During the 1990s labor struck some of Las Vegas’ casinos with mixed results, but what was telling in that situation was that the city’s Black population sided with labor and did much in solidarity with the workers. The strike won at one of the casinos but a second strike dragged on for over six years, making it the longest strike in American history, post World War II. The strike had its moments of high drama and on one occasion a mass demonstration of over twenty thousand people. The unions in Las Vegas actively recruited new members even during the height of the strike.

It drew worldwide attention and favorable press for the unions. This, the authors say, is going to continue to be necessary in the future and unions are going to have to actively recruit and actively promote their message. With a strong recruiting drive and overt actions to revitalize what has become a moribund movement in the last few years. Unions must secure leadership from within their own ranks and see that these leaders are not in bed with Corporate America. Fantasia and Voss paint a rather bleak picture of American Labor, as it now exists.

They seem to be somewhat optimistic for the future, however, by assuming that a social conscience will develop in this country and the unions will begin to make inroads into the New Economy, forcing corporations to deal with the rights of the working man. They detail some specific innovations designed to fight the domination by the large corporations, addressing such matters as working hours and conditions as well as the incredible disparity between workers’ salaries and executive compensation.

There must come a new type of union for workers to be protected in the New Economy and the globalization of corporations. The authors refer to this new union, expected to rise like a phoenix from the ashes the old unions, as more a social order than what is generally thought of as a true labor union. Not to draw parallels, but it was the Polish Union, Solidarity, which brought down the communist government and freed Poland of its mind boggling bureaucratic red tape and the morass of regulations which kept the Polish workers in virtual servitude to the state.

The future is not all sunshine and lollipops, however. “…labor retreats from movement building and the percentage of unionized labor force continues to fall,” (162). Not only will this be a disaster for workers, for it will soon reach the point where only a privileged few will have any union strength, such as government employees and professional athletes, with the rest of the workers vanishing off the radar screen. American labor, once the beacon of hope to workers around the world, will become like that of a third world nation and the workers will fight for the peanuts tossed about by their corporate masters.

Not only will the worker lose all that he once had in the workplace, the unions’ once powerful voice in American politics, notably in the Democratic Party will cease to exist and the party will no longer pay any attention to the demands of the working man and woman for parity and job security. There will no incentive for them to bow to any demands for the union will no longer be able to deliver on either the threat of the carrot or the stick.

The authors point out that not only will labor lose its clout on such social issues as minimum wage and job safety, but will eventually lose any ability to weigh in on such matters as free trade agreements and other policies directly affecting the American worker. This country has changed drastically since September 11, and has taken on a siege mentality. It is virtually being ruled by decree of a man who has assumed war-time powers and seems to believe that if something he does is unconstitutional then obviously the constitution needs to be changed.

During his first (and disputed) term in office he was abetted by a rubber stamp congress of Republicans and dragged the nation into a disastrous foreign war for dubious reasons which have since been found to be lies and intentional obfuscations. Primarily, however, the union has much more difficulties in such a political climate for it is always difficult to organize and foment change in times of social upheaval and economic downturn (163). The national debt is in the trillions of dollar.

“The context of severe national emergency has been the pretext for invoking the mantle of national security against unions in an effort to accomplish the long term Republican Party goal of denying the right of federal employees to join unions,” (163). The current administration is actively engaged in what Fantasia and Voss refer to as ‘a low intensity war’ on American labor and workers are seeing the result of this ongoing battle. The outcome of this attempt to revitalize labor is by no means certain.

One ray of sunshine is that college students today are beginning to see what is happening and they are developing a social conscience such as they have demonstrated in the past for other causes. They have made a difference before. The Labor Union is not dead although it is severely bloodied. Fantasia and Voss seem to think there are two possible futures and which one will occur is largely up to the success or failure of the labor movement.

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