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The article addresses the points made by Christopher Tomlins in his 1985 book, The State and the Unions, and the various reactions to Tomlins’ critiques of the National Labor Relation Act (NLRA). In his book, Tomlins asserted that the New Deal essentially offered a false idea of liberty for workers. Tomlins harshly criticized the NLRA as being a set of rules and “constraints that would curb workers militance and ultimately weaken the labor movement.”(1) In the book, Tomlins essentially predicts that trajectory of labor unions and how the NLRA will lead to a decline in the very rights it was meant to protect. Tomlins’ book was met with praise as well as criticism from prominent scholars and served as an impetus for extensive debate on the issue of the decline in US unions. The author’s main point is that while there are viable arguments on both sides of the issue, the NLRA may not be solely to blame for the decline in unions. Tomlins’ book was published in 1985, decades prior to the writing of the essay. The author gives a retrospective look into how things have changed since Tomlins’ book was published and how different factors may have contributed to that change, and how Tomlins’ theories fit into today’s climate.
The author throughout the article suggests that even those who agreed with Tomlins’ assertions in the 80s have cause to reevaluate its potential of being outdated and possibly misdirected. Jean-Christian Vinel’s critiques of Tomlins’ book emphasizes this idea that the many years of conservative rule over time have fundamentally changed the debate surrounding the system from when it was created in the 1930s. Vinel makes a point that while the New Deal may not have lived up to its expected potential, it was a better proposal for workers and unions than the ideas of neoliberalism that currently dominate the political atmosphere. Accordingly, the author agreed with Vinel’s arguments, and went through an in-depth consideration of how efforts to revitalize unions have failed over the years since Tomlins’ made his predictions. The author supports these views by highlighting the struggles between organizing with a grassroots-based activist core, which was the direction that the movement was heading, and the more militant approach from the pre-New Deal era. This struggle may seem to be confirmation of the fruition of Tomlins’ predictions, however, there are other factors which were not predicted or considered by Tomlins. It all comes down to the internal weaknesses of the movement as a major factor in the failure to build a more activist movement- just as well as the external weaknesses.
Essentially, the author argues that the internal weaknesses are further emphasized where the efforts to amend the NLRA and enact other statutes to revitalize union power would be pointless. The author further points out the idea that rather than focusing on Wagner Act as offering a counterfeit liberty, the official position of organized labor is that the intent of the Wagner Act was frustrated by outside factors such as the Taft-Harley amendments, the politicization of the NLRB, and substantial intervention by the conservative judiciary. According to the author, none of the proposed amendments or political solutions would be helpful in restoring strong labor unions. Instead, the author asserts, the issue is the result of neoliberal economic policies rather than a narrow construction of the law itself.
In my opinion, the author’s argument that the decline in union power is due to the “contemporary political wasteland” that is neoliberalism is misguided and almost pessimistic. I think that there may be many factors which have contributed to the current climate of labor unions. I also think that while the goal of the NLRA was to give employees the right to unionize and to engage in collective bargaining, its ultimate goal was to provide employees with a vehicle through which they can express their concerns and be heard. Its ultimate goal was also to essentially bridge the gap between employers and employees and level the playing field so that the need for the more adversarial unionization was eliminated. As a result, what Tomlins and the author of the essay see as a failure to restore unions, I see the current status of labor relations as a successful outcome in which there is peace among employers and employees.
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