Two labour studies scholars, Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, wrote an introduction to an issue of Labor Studies Journal back in 2005 that really helped to shape my understanding of labour history, and of work in America today. They argued that as a result of the postwar agreements between American companies and unions, a period in which organised labour adopted what could be called business unionism, the focus of the labour movement shifted away form organising and addressing workers’ grievances and toward negotiating massive agreements and trade accords:
this postwar paradigm also marked the beginning of labor’s move away from work, the labor process, and workplace struggles [...] as bargaining became more centralized-across local unions and often employers-it increasingly focused on wages and benefits, and less on specific workplace issues.
Juravich and Bronfenbrenner frame this period as one in which the everyday concerns of workers, their relationship to each other, to their workplaces, and to their own unions, became alienated from the aims and methods of organized labour. In practice, the movements to reform the United Mine Workers and United Steel Workers in the early 1970s were a response to this, and were somewhat successful in forcing international unions to respond to workers’ discontent. There’s a relationship between the kind of anger and frustration hourly employees at Lordstown-which Juravich and Bronfenbrenner cite here as a key example-showed towards their jobs and the distant, unconcerned attitudes of organised labour in this era.
Juravich and Bronfenbrenner’s article outlines the huge changes that have reshaped the workplace for millions of Americans in the past 30 years, not just for nonunion workers but for those who have the security of union membership. “Forced overtime, twelve-hour shifts, seven-day weeks, job combinations, two-tiered benefit structures, cross training, are all, unfortunately, part and parcel of too many union contracts today,” the authors point out. Partly as a result of the labour movement taking its eye off the ball on workplace issues, the structure of American jobs has been radically altered over the past 50 years, often in ways which have made the traditional workday longer, harder, and more intensive.
These are the kinds of nuts and bolts issues that interest me, and that often don’t get much attention when we talk about work today. What do jobs mean to the people who work them? And how have their perceptions and understanding of their work chaged over their careers, or compared to the ways in which their parents’ generation understood those same jobs? Juravich and Bronfenbrenner summarise the importance of looking at the everyday experience of work in America quite succinctly, “Up and down the occupational ladder, what workers want is some kind of control on the job, some dignity in their work, some measure of fairness in their workplace, and some chance at life outside of work.”
Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Bringing the Study of Work Back to Labor Studies,” Labor Studies Journal, 30.1 (Spring 2005): i-vii
(Tom Juravich is also a brilliant songwriter and musician who has recorded several albums of songs on work and the labour movement in America)