Labor history bleg

C.R., a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I'm writing with a small favor, I was wondering if you could recommend (or ask for recommendations on MR) for a good history of labor unions in the US. I know a lot has  been written especially from the left labor economists, but I don't have the knowledge to sort out the good from the bad. I'm interested in it from a historical perspective (origins and accomplishments) and a current political analysis perspective (what are reasonable claims about the costs&benefits of modern union membership).  The case in Wisconsin has really grabbed my attention and I'm curious about unions as a case study of the creation, growth and changes of institutions.

I know where to go for the standard economics of labor unions, if you wish start with the surveys in Journal of Economic Perspectives (on-line and free) and then go to the Handbook of Labor Economics.  But what about labor history?  What is the best way to approach this often controversial topic?


I have never read it, and thus am writing from a position of ignorance, but I imagine Howard Zinn "A peoples history of the United States" would have some good info on this topic.

Strongly recommend Making a New Deal, but maybe also The Making of American Exceptionalism, by Kim Voss

"de Long comes across as more centrist, and even conservative in some respects, than he is portrayed on this site."

Or on his own site.

Not that academic, but what about 1877: A Year of Violence?

A Short History of the American Labor Movement by Mary Ritter Beard is good, although it was written in 1920. She was married to Charles Beard, who wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S.

I would recommend Howard Zinn's a people's History of the United States. There's a very good section (about 2 chapters) on the birth and growth of labor unions in America (1900s - 1920s I think).

Labour History is, many suspect, the most unspeakably boring and unscholarly branch of history - maybe US Labor History falls into that category too. It's even worse, many suspect, than Wimmins' History. As conclusive evidence, I cite the fact that the PhD dissertation of Gordon Brown MP, and former PM, was on Labour History.

"There Is Power in a Union" by Philip Dray has received good reviews. It is a history of the US labor movement published this past year, but I have not read it.

Zinn's "People's History" is interesting reading, but as history, it leaves something to be desired.

(f.1) Thus, a solid line of economic questioning is whether permitting unions to extract unwilling support from workers who do not support it, and permitting coercive striking activities is the best way to offset such perceived corporate imbalances, or whether a reconsideration of the laws of incorporation are in order (or perhaps even to ask whether labor market competition can become robust enough to protect workers of all skill levels).

Even if the unions improve the lot of the folks in the unions, the forgotten man in all of this is the worker who is made worse off precisely because of the successes of the unions.

Read chapter 14 of the collection of historiographical essays _The New American History_ (edited by Eric Foner) and then selectively read items in the bibliography of that chapter. The brief chapter gives you an overview of how historians have approached the subject, highlights key books (some mentioned above, like the David Montgomery book), and then provides a wonderful bibliography. The sample through google books is pretty good, but doesn't include the bibliography.

Howard Zinn is great fun, but not taken seriously at all by academic historians. Even left wing historians think he's a terrible scholar. See this Michael Kazin essay for a taste:

re point (f) by Andrew Edwards:

What makes you think labor unions balance out the effects of corporate personhood? Why wouldn't the labor elites just pile on with the corporate elites so that the rest of us are doubly exploited?

What effect do you think corporate personhood has on the wages of workers? Why do you think what you think?

Re standard economic theory being wrong: maybe so, but it ain't wronger than the kind of leaping from assumption to assumption done by the pro-union side wherever I look.

Getting back on topic: I've read Zinn, and some more of his ilk (e.g. People's History of the World). There's some interesting stuff on the historical use of violence - which has been employed both for and against unions. But I think the main insight relevant to the present day you can glean from it is just that it's a good idea to keep violence removed from the equation.

Oh, sorry to have gotten off topic. My recommendation would be to poke around the work of the folks in Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Jeff Cowie is a terrific labor historian and there are 3 or 4 other labor historians working there as I recall. I am sure they'd be willing to share a reading list with you.

just to actual expand just a little bit on wintercow's point - the concept you're grappling with is called "agency problems" when referring to management as a representative of shareholders.

It's a genuinely tough problem, but I've heard it used as a reason to ban labor unions far more often than I've heard it used as a reason to ban the publicly traded corporation.

Not sure that there is much practical difference between your two points, but fine, withdrawn.

What do you think of the other things I am thinking about?

And there we go.

Off to bed, but Eric, question I guess is whether "shareholders" or "suppliers" are the right unit of comparison to "workers". At the least I'd say it's not obvious.

Eric, The answer re exemption from the antitrust laws is interesting. When the Sherman Act was enacted in 1890, the assumption was that labor unions were not covered, just as guilds or associations or unions or farmer cooperatives were not treated as restraints of trade under common law existing prior to the passage of the Sherman Act. Well, you can guess what happened. Some of the earliest prosecutions were against farmer coops and labor unions! (Certainly such interpretion would not have led to the passage of the Sherman Act in 1890 had that been known then.) So, in 1916 Congress amended Clayton Act to exempt labor unions and farmer cooperatives from the antitrust laws. Now, speaking to the labor union part of this rather than the farmer coop side (which also permits vertical integration by farmers into processing), the labor exemption has to be considered in the context of labor piece and economic history, highly disruptive strikes, and the preference for collective bargaining.

Did they predict the decline of unions?

Considering unions are supposedly a response to power as opposition, I doubt that unions decline due to opposition power.

Perhaps someone is still reading comments. One thing I don't quite understand is why unions, or more specifically their members, don't attempt to buy capital and then convert into an employ owned activity. That would largely eliminate the conflict of interest in the distribution of value based on capital versus labor contribution.

Perhaps this is addressed in some of the recommended readings.

"thing I don't quite understand is why unions, or more specifically their members, don't attempt to buy capital and then convert into an employ owned activity."

Marx had a similar idea.

I did say "similar" :-)

I know most of this conversation concerns itself with unions, but that is secondary to the idea of the right to collective bargaining or concerted activity, two things which are not restricted to unions. Besides salaries, there are other things that the right to concerted activities protects, and in this atmosphere is scapegoating unions, I believe the public is not being fully informed about this. The National Labor Relations Act protects all non-managerial employees (and in some cases even managers), not just union employees, from reprisals and retribution when employees communicate or coordinate actions with the aim of bettering their working conditions.

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