Sinyai, Clayton. Schools of Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement
James E. Voelker
Sinyai, Clayton. Schools of Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. 282 pages. Paper, $24.95.
Union membership in the United States has been in a downward trajectory since the late 1960s, and union influence on public policymaking has diminished along with its numbers. In the current work by Sinyai, the author traces the development of labor unions in the United States but focuses uniquely on their efforts to educate workers for effective democratic citizenship. He argues that unions have performed a role well beyond that of organizing and bargaining to obtain economic benefits for their members. Unions have strengthened the democratic tradition by giving workers a voice in decisions in the workplace and developing democratic habits needed by all who would contribute to the health of the political process.
Sinyai begins his argument with developments affecting unions almost from their inception. The Gilded Age, with its huge corporations and wealthy businessmen who frequently disregarded the law and government, led early unions to fear not only for their autonomy on the job, but also for the political future of the republic. Though their methods differed, both the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that later supplanted it sought to create among workers the equivalent of the small-town, autonomous proprietors that Thomas Jefferson and others lauded as critical for the functioning of American democracy.
Most central to the first half of the book is Sinyai’s treatment of Samuel Gompers, the leader of the AFL through its formative years. Gompers believed that it was imperative for craft workers to retain control over work processes in order to maintain their independence from capitalists and to prevent the separation of manual and mental labor that later was attempted by advocates of Taylorism. Maintaining workplace autonomy potentially could give political voice to workers and ultimately help curb the domination of government by big business. Sinyai emphasizes that Gompers and early unions rejected direct government involvement on their behalf, fearing centralized governmental power as much as private power. When the federal government passed the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) and then the Clayton Antitrust Act (1914), Gompers’ fear that government regulation could be used by corporations to rein in the activities of unions was substantiated.
In the second half of the book, Sinyai describes the conflicting attitudes toward government held by craft and the growing trade unions. By the 1920s, mass production in major industries such as steel and automobile manufacturing challenged the autonomy of workers and led to the growth of industrial unions that were more receptive to government intervention on their behalf. The Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed unions the fight to organize and bargain collectively, recognized that workers in mass-production industries were subject to autocratic rule and worthy of government protection. In exchange for this protection, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, pledging not to strike for the duration of the war and agreeing to forfeit overtime pay. The AFL remained more wary of wartime labor controls. Meanwhile, the federal government increased its control over labor relations, wielding its authority to define jurisdictions and to certify bargaining-unit representatives. Even John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers, ultimately was unable to prevail over what he viewed as the CIO’s collaboration with the government at the expense of labor’s self-determination.
Some years after a Republican Congress passed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which placed significant restrictions on union activity, the AFL and CIO merged and came together solidly behind the Democratic Party and its political and social agenda. Unions became major players in Democratic politics during the 1960s and supported many Great Society programs of the Johnson administration (e.g., the war on poverty, the creation of Medicare in 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Unions developed their electoral arm, the Committee on Political Education (COPE), which helped fill the vacuum of the flagging political machines. COPE and the unions registered voters, raised campaign funds for labor-friendly candidates, and provided volunteers for many of these political campaigns. Labor ultimately reinforced its commitment to civil rights when its education efforts constrained union members’ support for the presidential candidacy of George C. Wallace in 1968.
Sinyai’s study essentially ends in 1968, although in the final chapter he comments on more recent events, including President Ronald Reagan’s decertification of the air-traffic controller’s union, congressional passage of free-trade agreements, and corporate exporting of jobs overseas–all of which seriously injured the labor movement in the United States. Despite the weakened political role of organized labor, Sinyai maintains that unions remain active in educating workers, supporting labor-friendly political candidates, and staffing get-out-the-vote drives that yielded substantial numbers of votes on behalf of the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
Overall, Sinyai’s work is informative and rewarding reading. Through careful research and in clear prose, he shows how unions continuously have grappled with the issues of educating and encouraging their members to become politically informed and active. Interestingly, unions seem to have had greater political credibility when they were not closely aligned with a single political party; when they directly challenged corporate control of politics; and, when they clearly articulated the value of worker political education and participation as critical components of a healthy, democratic civic culture. Sinyai does not speculate whether the American labor movement will regain its role as the major political player that it once was, but his writing suggests that labor’s political history may well hold the possibility of a strategy for its eventual resurgence.
James E. Voelker, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science
Bluefield State College
Bluefield, West Virginia
COPYRIGHT 2007 Pi Gamma Mu
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