Timothy J. Minchin, Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 314 pages
In his new book Labor Under Fire author Timothy Minchin tells readers he intends to provide “the first general history of the AFL-CIO in the turbulent era after Meany’s retirement, a time when the Federation operated in a hostile political and economic climate.” George Meany retired in 1979 after 24 years as the first and only President of the AFL-CIO; Lane Kirkland took over as president in November 1979.
After an introductory section, ten chapters and a brief epilogue follow. The opening chapter provides a review of the 1955-1979 Meany era, which readers will find stands in stark contrast to the nine chapters that cover the years after 1979.
The Meany era review recounts the details of the 1955 merger, the Meany feud with Walter Reuther, his stand on corruption and the Teamsters, his anti-Communist views and support for the Vietnam war. Those around him called him “tough as nails” except as Minchin notes he served as political schmoozer and chief lobbyist for the “People’s Lobby.” He showed little interest in organizing.
Lane Kirkland took over as AFL-CIO president a little over half way into the Carter administration. The Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, which made the Carter years, years of opportunity. Carter remained friendly and accessible to labor but did next to nothing to help. Meany and then Kirkland pushed to correct the serious defects in the National Labor Relations Act, but it was a lost opportunity that Carter did not care about or perhaps understand.
Minchin does not dwell on Carter, but moves on to the Reagan election and the expected difficulties of a Reagan administration. The second chapter gives details of the decision and planning for Labor Solidarity Day on the National Mall, September 19, 1981. Chapter 3 goes through the details of the day and assessment of its significance with commentary by many of those who planned and took part in it. These chapters include the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike and its significance in the 1980’s decline in labor relations. Minchin mentions all of the major strikes of the era – Phelps-Dodge, Hormel, Pittston Coal, International Paper.
The next two chapters continue with the Reagan years and Kirkland’s efforts to unify the labor movement in constructive resistance to the Reagan onslaught. Minchin narrates Executive Council meetings and such topics as the need to involve more women and minorities in top level positions, and the early debate over organizing effort.
In the fifth chapter Minchin writes “Throughout Reagan’s second term, there was little good news for labor.” Actually the Reagan first term did not go too well either. He appointed people hostile to labor such as important posts on the National Labor Relations Board and the Secretary of Labor.
George H. W. Bush won the 1988 presidential election. By now a majority of the labor vote returned to the Democratic Party but not enough to get Michael Dukakis in office. Kirkland found the Bush Administration “a little more civilized than Reagan’s.” He made Elizabeth Dole Secretary of Labor and she intervened to mediate the Pittston Coal strike, but Bush could not bring himself to support an increase in the minimum wage and he started the ball rolling on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Business in the 1980’s more fully exploited their ability to fire and replace strikers and so Kirkland and the Executive Council pushed an “Anti-Striker Replacement Act, but it did not pass.
Democrat Bill Clinton entered the White House in January 1993. The next three chapters narrate organized labor in the eight Clinton years, years of hope and Democratic fumbling. Clinton had majority control of Congress with 57 Democrats in the Senate to start his presidency and like Carter before him failed to help labor in significant ways, which Minchin narrates in considerable detail. Clinton did not get a complicated hard to sell Health Care Bill passed; took the business side to pass George Bush’s NAFTA law over strong labor objections; failed another try to pass a Striker Replacement Bill. I have always thought of Bill Clinton as a smart, well educated and well meaning politician, except he wanted to be accepted in the social circles of the rich and privileged people he desperately needed to regulate.
The Democrats lost the House of Representatives to the Newt Gingrich Republicans in 1994, which brought internal incrimination and fighting into AFL-CIO politics. Minchin devotes most of Chapter 8 to the pressures on Lane Kirkland and contentious debate over organizing and the need for change. John Sweeney was the leader of the opposition who won a divisive election to be AFL-CIO president October 25, 1995. Minchin narrates the twists and turns of a hard fought and divisive campaign.
Sweeney brought optimism to the last years of the Clinton Administration and worked to use AFL-CIO resources in the interests of the working class. A big increase in organizing efforts in service industries helped stem the tide of loss in manufacturing, but business fought unions as hard as ever. George W. Bush took the 2000 election, even though AFL-CIO efforts turned out a large labor vote. The Supreme Court interference and failure to count the Florida vote made the loss tougher. Minchin quotes chief of staff Bob Welsh “We never met with Bush. I mean he was on another planet.”
Bush got a political boost of popularity from the events of 9/11 and like the Reagan administration made important appointments of people hostile to labor who showed little respect for law much less labor. The disappointments brought more divisions in the labor movement. In 2005 Andy Stern formed an opposition group “Change to Win” that diverted Sweeney efforts, which are covered in detail.
Sweeney retired in 2009 and former United Mine Workers president and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Richard Trumka, took over without a challenger. Minchin compiles and narrates many insider opinions to evaluate the Sweeney era before going into the early years of Trumka as AFL-CIO president.
The final pages of the book narrate Trumka changes and the first Obama election where the AFL-CIO played a major role in his election to over racial hesitations. Trumka provided AFL-CIO support to the “Occupy Wall Street” protest and pressed for labor law reform and national health care. Obama had two years with both houses of Congress, enough to get health care reform through the Congress, but not much else. The relentless attack on labor continues without relief. The book ends in Obama’s second term and with Richard Trumka fighting for the labor agenda.
Early in the book Minchin quotes a retired AFL-CIO staff. “The AFL-CIO has always had to fight. We’ve always had to defend.” Labor Under Fire captures that sad dilemma. The book keeps a tight focus on the AFL-CIO as promised. It is well organized, the writing flows easily in narrative fashion and without “academize.” One clear advantage comes by using many quotations from news commentary, AFL-CIO proceedings and notes, and from interviews. Minchin lets the actions, impressions and opinions of participants carry the story, a decided advantage in my view. Readers get a good feel for the skills and character - advantages - disadvantages - of the major figures from organized labor in the era: Lane Kirkland, Tom Donahue, John Sweeney, Andy Stern, Richard Trumka. Numbered footnotes document sources followed by a thorough bibliography.
Minchin effects a gently positive tone for an era with troubling years of labor decline. I did not feel much optimism, but there is respect for labor and labor leaders and the troubles they are forced to confront. Inequality continues to get worse as labor continues to flounder, but in Labor Under Fire there is still hope.