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State of the Union:
A Century of American Labor
Nelson Lichtenstein
With a new preface by the author

Winner of the 2003 Philip Taft Labor History Award, Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2002

Paperback | 2011 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691150116


In a fresh and timely reinterpretation, Nelson Lichtenstein examines how trade unionism has waxed and waned in the nation's political and moral imagination, among both devoted partisans and intransigent foes. From the steel foundry to the burger-grill, from Woodrow Wilson to John Sweeney, from Homestead to Pittston, Lichtenstein weaves together a compelling matrix of ideas, stories, strikes, laws, and people in a streamlined narrative of work and labor in the twentieth century.

The "labor question" became a burning issue during the Progressive Era because its solution seemed essential to the survival of American democracy itself. Beginning there, Lichtenstein takes us all the way to the organizing fever of contemporary Los Angeles, where the labor movement stands at the center of the effort to transform millions of new immigrants into alert citizen unionists. He offers an expansive survey of labor's upsurge during the 1930s, when the New Deal put a white, male version of industrial democracy at the heart of U.S. political culture. He debunks the myth of a postwar "management-labor accord" by showing that there was (at most) a limited, unstable truce.

Lichtenstein argues that the ideas that had once sustained solidarity and citizenship in the world of work underwent a radical transformation when the rights-centered social movements of the 1960s and 1970s captured the nation's moral imagination. The labor movement was therefore tragically unprepared for the years of Reagan and Clinton: although technological change and a new era of global economics battered the unions, their real failure was one of ideas and political will. Throughout, Lichtenstein argues that labor's most important function, in theory if not always in practice, has been the vitalization of a democratic ethos, at work and in the larger society. To the extent that the unions fuse their purpose with that impulse, they can once again become central to the fate of the republic. State of the Union is an incisive history that tells the story of one of America's defining aspirations. A new preface by the author examines how American labor has changed over the past decade.


"While labor's nascent grassroots internationalism remains overshadowed by flag waving displays of 'national unity,' trade unionists have yet to be rewarded for their patriotism, even with a modest boost in unemployment benefits. . . . Into this bleak landscape arrives State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein's intellectual history of labor's past 100 years. . . . The author's views are informed by both scholarship and activism"--Steve Early, The Nation

"A remarkable accomplishment. . . . Lichtenstein provides an authoritative account of labor's decline, an agenda for its renewal and an argument for the necessity of its revitalization if American democracy is to thrive in coming years. The result is a brilliant historical introduction to today's labor movement and the perils and possibilities that confront it. . . . If American labor's fortunes do improve, no recent book will have made a greater contribution to its revival."--Joseph A. McCartin, The Washington Post

"Lichtenstein provides a knowledgeable overview of the signal events since the Wagner Act of 1935. . . . An informed analytical history."--Booklist

"Obituaries of the labor movement, or at least predictions of its impending demise, are familiar to readers of the popular and business presses and various academic tomes. However one comes down on the issues of the prospects for labor's revival or the desirablity of democratizing the workplace, the country's recent economic crisis has made the labor question again worth debating vigorously. State of the Union is an excellent start."--Eric Arnesen, Chicago Tribune

"Absorbing. . . . Lichtenstein's voice--and book--deserves a hearing in the marketplace of ideas."--Karen R. Long, Plain Dealer

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File created: 4/26/2015

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