Working Hard for the American Dream
Workers and their Unions, World War I to the Present
The American History Series
Chichester: John Wiley, 2013
Paperback. x+291 p. ISBN 978-1118541494. £18.95
Reviewed by Michael Schiavone
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
As the old saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat. When looking at the sorry state of the American labor movement today everyone connected to it should be studying what has gone on before to learn what worked in the past and whether it is applicable today. Moreover, for those of us who remember a world that was not totally controlled by big business and capital, and hope for a return to this scenario it is also important to learn from history. In this regard the new book by Randi Storch Working Hard for the American Dream offers a good overview of, as the subheading states, Workers and Their Unions, World War I to the Present.
With it being relatively short in length Working Hard for the American Dream cannot provide in-depth analysis of the rise and decline of the American labor movement. However, what it does do well is touch on the main aspects of the labor movementís turbulent history from the 1930s. From the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations to laborís involvement in Occupy Wall Street, the history of the American labor movement is presented in a very easy to read style. The strength of the book is when Storch looks at unions and workers in the 1930s until the end of the twentieth century. For that alone the book deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible. Though of course some things are glossed over. The innovating Justice for Janitors campaign dreamt up by the Service Employees International Union in the 1990s barely gets one paragraph [209-210]. Likewise the labor internationalism of the 1990s also is treated perfunctorily and is only covered in less than two pages [207-208]. Considering the breadth and battles of the labor movement since the 1930s that some things are not as covered as in-depth as one would like is to be expected and does not detract from the book.
One criticism of the book is that rather than use notes to reference sources, Storch employs a bibliographical essay approach. A bibliographical essay allows the reader to get a general idea on what sources the author used to conduct the research, but if a person wanted to know where Storch got specific information that would be difficult to determine.
While I would recommend Working Hard for the American Dream for anyone interested in the American labor movement from the 1930s until the end of the twentieth century, I cannot say the same for those interested in what has happened in the twenty-first century. The period 2000-2011 is covered in the epilogue titled ďThe Illusive American Dream: A Personal JourneyĒ [224-252]. Storch does cover some of the major happenings of the labor movement in this time, but as the title indicates the chapter also includes Storchís personal story, specifically her parents and their pizza restaurant. This space would have been better used to provide more analysis of the here and now of the labor movement.
One good aspect of the chapter is that Storch provides a good overview of Wisconsinís Governor Scott Walker and his assault on organized labor. Walkerís attack on labor and laborís response signifies the battle ahead for workers across America. Conservative politicians are continually to scapegoat unions for all the economic woes of society. The American labor movement could bury its head in the sand like it did for decades or it could stand their ground, learn from history, and try to fight. For those who believe in an equitable society where people are justly rewarded for their efforts, the labor movement is one of the last lines holding the neoliberal forces at bay. In the end, while it is important to learn from history, it is also essential to understand what is happening now. Working Hard for the American Dream is a good book, but if it analyzed to a greater extent the last decade of the American labor movement it would have been even better.
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