The movement deserves better books

September 06, 1998|By DAVID KUSNET

This summer, more than 70,000 workers staged an unusual 36-hour strike against the regional telecommunications company Bell Atlantic.

The usual strike issues - wages, pensions and health care ` had already been decided. What remained unresolved was what would happen to Bell Atlantic's current employees, mostly members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), as traditional telephone-company jobs continue to be automated out of existence.

Just a day-and-a-half after the strike began, the company and the union reached an innovative agreement. CWA members will be trained for and placed in high-tech jobs that Bell Atlantic currently contracts out from work on the Internet to data network integration, digital subscriber lines, video services and alarm monitoring. This victory points the way to a new and expanded role for unions helping workers improve their skills and advance their careers in the fast-changing new economy.

On Labor Day 1998, you'd think there would be a growing bookshelf of studies on how workers can make their way in the new economy and how their unions can help find new opportunities, as CWA is doing at Bell Atlantic.

But, unfortunately, you'd be wrong. While serious publishers churn out thousands of volumes each year about race relations, gender roles and other concerns of today's academics, they usually offer only a handful of studies of the world of work. And almost all must seem esoteric to most readers - handbooks on labor relations, biographies of long-departed labor leaders and collections of essays exploring the prospects for new alliances between labor and the Left.

At most, there's just one book each year about workers and their unions that might appeal to the ordinary reader. This year's labor book is "From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future" by Stanley Aronowitz (Houghton Mifflin, 246 pages, $25).

Against all odds, it's readable, insightful and even, as its title promises, focused upon the future as well as the past. For an academic, Aronowitz has an unusual personal history: He worked in the steel industry and later served as an officer of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union before taking up a second career as a sociologist.

His earlier works include occasionally impenetrable treatises about how the labor movement strayed from its radical roots, how American workers have been seduced by false promises of prosperity, and how jobs as we know them will be destroyed by new technologies.

Thankfully, "From the Ashes of the Old" is lucid and level-headed. Aronowitz offers easily understandable and commendably unideological explanations for why - faced with dwindling memberships in declining industries - many unions are once again aggressively organizing new members, and the AFL-CIO has elected activist new leaders.

He is at his best explaining why unions can and must open their ranks to the working poor - millions of employees in industries from health care and building service to clothing, textiles and food processing. And he is also informative about the unions' achievements in organizing workers in state and local governments and school systems, including the recent successful campaign among Maryland state employees.

Through these efforts, the labor movement can regain some of its membership strength, and improve the lives of workers who urgently need better wages and working conditions. But even these gains will leave the unions virtually excluded from the new information - age economy and the growing ranks of wired workers.

These jobs transcend the old divisions among clerical, professional and production workers - and, often, between labor and management as well. These workers are more concerned with skills training than solidarity. And, while they have no illusions about the decency or even the competence of their employers, they're more likely to be cynical Dilberts than militant Joe Hills.

JTC To his credit, Aronowitz does discuss these workers. Unfortunately, he seems as lost as a typewriter in a computer store. Indeed, much of his discussion of the prospects for organizing clerical, technical and professional employees consists of recounting the efforts of radical unions in New York City to organize white-collar workers in a world that no longer exists - small offices where the same person might be a secretary, bookkeeper and file clerk and where most people shared the social outlook of New Deal America.

It would have been more enlightening if Aronowitz had done some firsthand interviewing and reporting among engineers and computer specialists from California to Massachusetts or more in-depth analysis of the efforts of unions such as CWA and the South Bay (California) Labor Council among workers in the information industries. Instead, as the late United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther used to say about General Motors, Aronowitz seems to be looking at the future through his rear-view mirror.

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