Cover for BRODY: Labor Embattled: History, Power, Rights. Click for larger image

Labor Embattled

History, Power, Rights

What history has to say about the current crisis of American labor

American unions are weaker now than at any time in the past hundred years, with fewer than one in ten private-sector workers currently organized. In Labor Embattled, David Brody says this is a problem not only for the unions but also a disaster for American democracy and social justice.

In a series of historically informed chapters, Brody explores recent developments affecting American workers in light of labor's past. Of special concern to him is the erosion of the rights of workers under the modern labor law, which he argues is rooted in the original formulation of the Wagner Act. Brody explains how the ideals of free labor, free speech, freedom of association, and freedom of contract have been interpreted and canonized in ways that unfailingly reduce the capacity for workers' collective action while silently removing impediments to employers coercion of workers. His lucid and passionate essays combine legal and labor history to reveal how laws designed to undergird workers' rights now essentially hamstring them.

"One of the deans of American labor history, David Brody asks difficult questions about American labor. . . . 'I make no bones about it,' he writes. 'I am trying to tell the labor movement what to do.' Brody begins with the assumption . . . that trade unions are not a special interest but 'the single most important agent for social justice in our political system.' In this context, falling membership threatens far more than the AFL-CIO bureaucracy; as goes labor, Brody argues, so goes Social Security, affordable health insurance, and the rest of the social safety net. Though aimed at labor historians and movement insiders, Brody's claims deserve a wide hearing in current political circles, where labor's crisis has been so often ignored. For instance, he offers a scathing condemnation of the National Labor Relations Board, whose unwillingness to stop employers from intimidating and even firing union supporters, he argues, has effectively deprived Americans of their right to organize. Not all of Brody's analysis is so grim. He reminds us that in the early 1930s, many intelligent Americans were ready to consign American labor to oblivion. A few years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, ushering in the greatest period of union growth in the nation's history. In our own era of free-market orthodoxy, a transformation on this scale may seem unimaginable. But to anyone who believes, like David Brody . . . that a healthy labor movement is crucial to American democracy, the alternative - a nation without unions - is unthinkable."--Washington Post

“A revelatory collection from one of our wisest and most influential scholars of labor history, law, and politics. Brody recovers a vibrant American tradition honoring workplace democracy and civil rights. He helps us understand the assault on those rights in the late twentieth century and how history can inform present-day movements dedicated to expanding individual and collective freedom. This is engaged history at its best.”--Dorothy Sue Cobble, Rutgers University, author of The Other Women's Movement

David Brody is professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Davis. He is the author of Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth-Century Struggle and many other books.

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