State of the Union

State of the Union: A Century of American Labor by Nelson Lichtenstein

The fortune of organized labor in the United States has waxed and wane to a considerable degree; from the repression of early days of the twentieth century, by the century’s middle decade the labor movement managed to claw its way into a prominently place in the political and economic order. Labor’s day in the sun did not forever, however. By the century’s end, labor had lost most of its social and political capital and its membership was shorn down to an increasing negligible amount of the private sector labor force.  In his powerful and affecting book, Nelson Lichtenstein seeks to narrate and explain this story.

Lichtenstein’s story can be broken into five chronological parts. The first is the Progressive Era – the first time labor made real gains on the national scene. This era is important because it was the first time two concepts central to Lichtenstein’s narrative – “industrial democracy” and “social wage” – were developed. In his view “industrial democracy” is the attempt to translate traditional American values of liberty, independence, and the pursuit of happiness into the industrial world; this means a stress on solidarity and democracy in the workplace. The “social wage” is “that portion of the working class standard of living that did not derive from wages or from corporate beneficence.” During the Progressive Era, the “social wage include[d] monetary entitlements such as pensions, unemployment insurance, and workingman’s compensation” but also meant public services like “public education, city parks, mandated vacations, municipal services, health and safety regulations, minimum wage, child labor laws, and women’s protective laws.” In a more modern context the “social wage” includes accesses to health insurance, poverty relief, and public housing.[1] Lastly, Lichtenstein argues, importantly, that Progressive reformers did not view what they termed “the Labor Question” as an isolated economic or market problem, but instead they saw labor issues a organically interlocked with the rest of society; thus answers to the “the Labor Question” where part and parcel to the answers Progressives had to “the Social Question,” more broadly.

The rest of Lichtenstein’s narrative can be boiled down to the successes and failures of the labor movement in raising the “social wage.” The second phase is the period of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and through the Second World War. It is here that labor, in many ways, made its greatest gains in expanding the “social wage” and towards “industrial democracy” – with implementation of reforms like Social Security and the Wagner Act. The third phase, between the 1947 and 1960, is what most historians think of as the golden age of American labor movement – what Paul Krugman terms the “Great Compression” – and cooperation between capital and labor. Here Lichtenstein provides a deeply revisionist account of these years, arguing that it was far from a golden age. This was a period of internal strife and bitter strikes – including the largest in American history – and what whatever “accord” there was between labor and management “was a limited and unstable truce.”[2] Only the hindsight and rose-tinted perspective of the declining years of labor in the last decades of the twentieth century could paint this era as some sort of golden age.

The fourth phase of Lichtenstein’s narrative covers the period of labor’s decline and near collapse – the 1960s through 1992. Here Lichtenstein places the blame for labor’s loss of its former political, social, and economic standing not at the feet of its traditional foes – for they are always in opposition anyway – but instead, in the hands of the movement’s supposed “allies;” neo-liberals and the New Left. These “allies” viewed labor as some combination of just another interest group, a roadblock along the path to racial and gender equality, a tool of the state, or an undated holdover from an older economic time and thus “no longer a lever for progressive change.”[3] While “Big Labor” with its corruption, refusal to organize the unorganized, and self-destructive, monomaniac anticommunism gets a share of the blame, but Lichtenstein primarily blames the rights based liberalism and rhetoric of the middle decades of the twentieth century for declining “industrial democracy” and failures to raise the “social wage.” This brings us to the present (as of 2002), the final phase of Lichtenstein’s narrative. While the 1990s and early 2000s represented the waning of the labor movement nearly to the point of collapse, there were rays of hope. The election of a more reform minded and aggression AFL-CIO leadership portends a chance of labor’s revival.

Lichtenstein’s book has a strong proscriptive argument; even more so then most present minded histories. In short, he is calling for a return to Progressive era ideas of “industrial democracy” and a quest for an improved “social wage.” He hopes that the agenda of the “Sweeenyite leadership” of a revitalized AFL-CIO will be along lines similar to Progressive reform and the New Deal with an “open door to the cadres of the Left, welcome the new immigrates, carve out a distinctive political presence somewhat of the Democrats, and, above all, ‘organize the unorganized.’”[4] This aggressive pro-labor stance gives the book an admirably earnest quality but often gives Lichtenstein analytic problems. It feels, by the end of his impressively succinct narrative, that the labor movement can do no wrong. The errors, missteps, and ultimate fate of labor in the United States is not really in its own hands but in those of whatever enemy or failed ally Lichtenstein can conjure up at a particular moment in his narrative. Lichtenstein shows a willingness to often read certain groups – i.e. “Big Labor” – out of the true movement at key points and thus fail to fully wrestle with some of the darker elements of American working class – especially white working class- culture and life.

All of that said, State of the Union is an important and powerful book, which mostly convincingly synthesizes nearly a hundred years of a labor history into a single, accessible volume.

TIE-IN: State of the Union fits awkwardly with the rest of the books assigned for the exam. In arguing that Progressives saw the “Labor Question” as part of a broader “Social Question,” Lichtenstein lines up well with Dan Rodger’s Atlantic Crossings. In viewing the 1940s and 1950s as an illusionary golden age, he also lines up well with Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis. Lichtenstein contrasts with Judith Stein’s argument in Running Steel, Running America that the 1950s and 1960s were expansive times but lines up more with her argument that the labor movement’s vision was expansive enough to include African-Americans and other previously excluded groups and that liberalism’s political failures can be laid at the feet up political leaders and policymakers.


[1] Lichtenstein defines the “social wage” in Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, NJ: Princton University Press, 2002), 10-11

[2] Ibid, 99.

[3] Quote is on, Ibid, 141.

[4] Ibid, 260.

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Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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