America Needs A Raise

Phil Leggiere reviews "America Needs A Raise" by John J. Sweeney.

By Phil Leggiere

Published October 23, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Much of the credit (and blame) for organized labor's new visibility--and its prominence as a political player this election year--has rightly gone to John Sweeney, the charismatic president of the AFL-CIO, elected last year as a champion of reform and revitalization. Sweeney's celebrated energy is certainly on display in "America Needs a Raise," a manifesto-cum-pep rally that outlines his vision of a resurrected labor movement.

Sweeney makes a predictable, if well-argued, case that strong unions are a necessary underpinning to a just and prosperous economy. But this book's larger point is that the so-called "downsizing" of the economy has little to do with such usual Op Ed scapegoats as new technologies, global competition, immigration and the erosion of worker's skill levels. Instead, Sweeney bluntly writes, downsizing reflects the "unilateral breaking of the social compact between workers and business" by a greedy corporate elite.

"America Needs a Raise" fondly recalls the 1950s and '60s, "when roughly a third of America's labor force was unionized, [and] unions had a strong voice in setting wages and benefits." This was American labor's golden age, when the philosophy was to "put more money in people's pockets, and they'll be able to afford houses, cars, washing machines and T.V. sets, creating more prosperity for everyone." Sweeney blisteringly excoriates corporate America for abandoning that scenario over the past 20 years, "meeting the challenge of a high tech global economy by wiping out jobs, weakening and busting unions and systematically driving down wages in pursuit of short term profits."

For all his blustery rhetoric, Sweeney's blueprint for the return of labor to its place at the table is, however, rather modest. He calls for increased union financing of Democratic candidates, without specifying how "pocketbook politics" will actually lead to greater union influence in economic policy. He calls vaguely for "increased union democracy and multiculturalism," without specifics about how to change a notoriously undemocratic, racist and macho union culture, too often controlled by bosses and mob influence.

He calls finally for "expansive organizing strategies" to dramatically increase union membership from its current dismal 15 percent of the American workforce, without any succinct analysis as to how that might be accomplished.

Labor supporters, the survivors of decades in the political wilderness, will doubtless be buoyed by the confidence and hopeful vigor manifest in this book. How this well-intentioned panache and a new activist spirit can translate into long-term effectiveness is another matter, though, about which "America Needs a Raise" has relatively little to say.

Phil Leggiere

Phil Leggiere is a cultural critic living in Hoboken, NJ.

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