Review of Phelan, Craig (ed.) "Trade Unionism since 1945: Towards a Global History" (Peter Lang, 2009), vols. 1 & 2, by Pablo Pozzi, for geschichte.transnational

From: Pablo Pozzi
Date: 03.12.2010
Subject: Sammelrez: C. Phelan (Hrsg.): Trade Unionism since 1945

Phelan, Craig (Hrsg.): Trade Unionism since 1945: Towards a Global
History. Volume 1: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle
East (= Trade Unions Past, Present and Future 1). Bern: Peter Lang/Bern
2009. ISBN 978-3-03911-410-8; pb.; 451 S.; 51,40 EUR.

Phelan, Craig (Hrsg.): Trade Unionism since 1945. Towards a Global
History. Volume 2: The Americas, Asia and Australia (= Trade Unions
Past, Present and Future 2). Bern: Peter Lang/Bern 2009. ISBN
978-3-03911-950-9; pb.; 350 S.; EUR 44,90.

Rezensiert für geschichte.transnational und H-Soz-u-Kult von:
Pablo A. Pozzi, Universidad de Buenos Aires

The study of Labor and trade unions has not been fashionable in academic
circles over the past three decades. The reasons for this are myriad and
range from the fall of communism to the decline in the power of labor
unions since the 1980s. This has been unfortunate because it has
deprived us of an understanding of the changes in one of the crucial
social sectors in modern day society. Luckily for us Craig Phelan's
contribution comes to fill a void and proposes a new, more complex and
again more global, way to study labor.

Phelan has edited a two volume collection of articles on trade unionism
since 1945. The basic premise behind the volumes is that "the first step
towards a world history is recognition that trade unions are the
products of national systems of interlocking political and economic
institutions" (p. XIV, Vol. 1). Thus, each labor movement is the product
of a specific national process, and yet it is also an actor on the world
historical scene. To achieve this Phelan has selected 26 articles, each
one analyzing a specific national labor movement over the past 65 years.
The different articles presented here belong to authors trained in
widely different fields, from Industrial Relations and Political Science
to History and Sociology. The result is a fascinating survey of labor
histories, with a wealth of information, as well as an engaging and
thought provoking work that suggests all sorts of questions derived from
comparing them. If the measure of a good book is that it does not leave
you indifferent, then Phelan's two volumes are a significant
contribution to socio-historical analysis.

According to Phelan "trade unionism is in crisis" [...] and "the intent
of this book is to illuminate trade union problems and assess future
possibilities" (p. IX, vol. 2). As such the different authors all seem
to agree that the period 1945 to 1980 was the "golden age" of labor,
derived from its "embeddedness" with the State. This "golden age" came
to an end when changes in structure and "environment" led to declines in
union density and influence (See Vol. 2, p. X-XII.). Most of the
national case study articles seem to agree with this assessment,
especially those dealing with labor in developed countries. Clear
exceptions to this are the pieces dealing with labor in Zimbabwe and in
South Africa, out-and-out two of the most interesting and suggestive in
the collection. In these cases, it seems, that a successful adaptability
of unions to a changing reality, halting or reversing decline, is linked
to heightened levels of confrontation with the State. This is even more
revealing when we contrast this to the Spanish and French cases, were
cooperation with State policies or with governments has not only been
fruitless, but has accelerated the decline of organized labor. This is
suggestive and should make us rethink some of our interpretative
premises. Instead of labor's golden age being a derivative of a
harmonious relationship with the State there is another interpretation
possible. In years after the Depression and World War II, labor was the
antagonist of a predominant State power. For the two decades after 1945
labor retained some of the momentum of its earlier militancy. In the
case of the United States, for example, it topped the OECD's table in
strikes per worker in 1954, 1955, 1959, 1960, 1967 and 1970. At the same
time, in the period 1949-1973, labor's real income steadily rose. The
same can be said of Argentine labor, as Atzeni and Ghigliani aptly
demonstrate in volume 2. This seems to suggest that harmony in labor
relations is contrary to improving labor's lot. In other words, we
should consider the possibility that "business unionism" and
collaboration with the State undermined labor's strength sufficiently so
that when neoliberal economic "shock and awe" reforms came into being,
unions were unable to resist.

All of the above begs two crucial questions. One is how "golden" was
this age we are referring to? And also, how representative of labor as a
whole are unions? Most of the articles collected here seem to agree that
a trade union is a good in and of itself. In addition, it is assumed
that the existence of unions benefits (and perhaps even represents?)
workers as a whole. The first issue is truly problematic, especially
since most of the authors seem unaware of the discussions of labor
bureaucracy from Weber to Wright Mills. Thus they imply that union
density is indicative of strength. However, three examples show that
this is not necessarily a good measure. As Martínez Lucio and Hamann in
their contribution show, Spanish unions have 18 percent of workers
organized, and yet 80 percent of all workers are covered by collective
agreements. The conclusion is obvious, in Spain you do not have to be in
a union to benefit from it. In the Argentine case, the estimated union
density has been set at 35 percent (though unions themselves claim it
was closer to 80 percent) in 1975, and yet support for strikes (be they
general strikes or industry wide) tend to be twice that. On the other
hand, French union density was never higher than 22 percent among State
employees, and much lower in the private sector, and yet Guy Groux has
no doubt but to consider this positive. If 78 percent of the workers are
unorganized, how significant was the French density during the "golden
age"? In fact, as Gordon, Edwards and Reich [1], have amply demonstrated
for the United States, labor structure is much more significant than
density, and segmentation seems to be a crucial development of the
"golden age". Clearly, union membership does not equal labor influence.
What is more, in an issue not addressed by most of these authors (again
a notable exception is the pieces dealing with Africa) is the question
of the linkages between union leaders and labor rank and file. Perhaps
this is a result of the approach some of the authors have undertaken.
Since they assume that unions are a good in and of itself, then they
approach their analysis from "the top down", that is from the unions
towards society; as opposed from "the bottom up", from workers towards
institutions and the State. Again the exception to this is the essays on
Africa and Latin America as well as the piece by Laybourn on Great
Britain who seems to be the only one to consider the implications of
labor's decline at a workplace level.

All authors seem to consider that labor is "battered but not beaten", as
Silvia expresses on German trade unionism. Perhaps so, but one of the
possible conclusions to these challenging two volumes is that labor
unions, as we knew them, are bankrupt and workers need to develop new
forms of organization and struggle to defend their interests. After all,
as Kim Moody has pointed out, the decline of labor has been more the
decline of labor unions, not of the overall number of industrial

[1] David Gordon / Richard Edwards / Michael Reich, Segmented Work,
Divided Workers. The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United
States, New York 1982.
[2] Kim Moody, Workers in A Lean World. Unions In The International
Economy, London 1997, p. 186.

Diese Rezension wurde redaktionell betreut von:
Katja Naumann

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