Nelson Lichtenstein on a Half-Century of American Class Struggle

Nelson Lichtenstein

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein reflects on his long life and career, including Berkeley in the 1960s, Walter Reuther and the early UAW, Walmart, Bill Clinton, and much more.

Striking workers at General Motors in 1970. (Dick Darrell / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Nelson Lichtenstein is among the greatest living American labor historians. In a long conversation with Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht covering his life and career, Lichtenstein discusses his life and education at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in the midst of that campus’s many eruptions in the 1960s; the intellectual and activist influence of his membership in the International Socialists (IS), a Trotskyist organization; his years studying the early United Auto Workers (UAW) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); his later turn to studying Walmart and international supply chains; his continued appreciation for radical politics and radical activists organizing, despite leaving Trotskyism behind; his thoughts about the state of labor history; and much more.

Lichtenstein spoke with Uetricht for the Jacobin podcast The Dig in March 2023; you can listen to the episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Micah Uetricht

You write in your essay collection, A Contest of Ideas, about being the son of a German Jew who fled the Nazis during World War II and an American mother who fled Mississippi around the same time. You came of age during the civil rights movement era. Is that how you were first politicized?

Nelson Lichtenstein

At the dinner table, my father was sort of a social democrat. My mother was hostile to the Gothic South even before the civil rights movement, but yes, the civil rights movement was a defining moment for everyone in my generation. I didn’t go to Mississippi in ’62 or ’63 but I did end up in Alabama in the summer of ’66. It was extraordinarily important.

My father ran this five-and-dime store in Frederick, Maryland, which is sort of a border state. And you could see the racial dynamics of the clientele and the sales staff. The town was segregated. I came of age just as desegregation was taking place.

I went to Alabama to work for a newspaper called The Southern Courier, which was funded by Northern liberals. We were trying to break the media boycott of the civil rights movement, even that late in ’66. I was posted to Selma and Mobile, Alabama, and Lowndes County, Georgia. It was revealing. I remember seeing Stokely Carmichael speak in a small southern church. I saw a social movement in reality, and that’s an extraordinary experience. It stays with you for life.

Three or four years earlier when people were in Mississippi in ’61, ’62, their lives were in danger. That was not the case at all with me. But I could see the nature of the struggle, and also I could see what success was. I remember one day in Selma, it was hot, and I thought, “I’m going to go to some air conditioned restaurant and have a nice breakfast, just take a break.” I go in, and there’s a placemat, which already, by the summer of ’66, included details of the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as one of Selma’s historic events. The march had already naturalized and been made part of the history, eighteen months later. I remember thinking this is what happens when a social movement wins.

Micah Uetricht

Shortly after that you started graduate school in history at UC Berkeley, and you joined the Trotskyist group, the International Socialists [IS], shortly thereafter, right?

Nelson Lichtenstein

It took two years or so. I was an activist in the movement of that moment. A lot of my friends were in it already, but I didn’t know about it right away. Some people went to Berkeley from places like New York or Madison or Chicago. They knew exactly what they wanted to do when they got there. That wasn’t the case with me.

I was very impressed with the fact that every organization had a leaflet, and the leaflets of the IS were like legal size, single space, no margins — kind of an entire thesis from 1917 to the present and what we do about it. I was impressed by that. A lot of people in the history department were in the IS, and so I came around that group and began to participate in their activities.

Micah Uetricht

At this point, the IS played a pretty key role in Berkeley in the civil rights movement and the free speech movement that was kicking off in Berkeley around that time.

Nelson Lichtenstein

Frankly, I went to Berkeley because of the free speech movement. The IS was from the Shachtmanite wing of the Trotskyist movement. The Shachtmanites thought the Soviet Union was a bureaucratic collectivist state, whereas the other wing of the Trotskyist movement thought it was a degenerated workers’ state. There were consequences that flowed from those two different points of view.

The International Socialists Club (ISC), later the IS, had been very active in the free speech movement. Hal Draper’s essay “The Mind of Clark Kerr” talked about the university as a bureaucratic machine. This came out of the question of how to define the new regime in the Soviet Union. I found that a very vital, intellectually stimulating environment. Every meeting we discussed, “What do we do? What is to be done?”

Micah Uetricht

You write in A Contest of Ideas about how many of your comrades from the IS “industrialized,” getting jobs in the industrial Midwest in industries like auto and steel. I was surprised that you came into being a public intellectual by your engagement with what the IS was doing, trying to stoke rank-and-file militancy within the UAW in the Bay Area, when you were writing leaflets and handing them out at factory gates.

Nelson Lichtenstein

It was part of a general New Left turn to the working class. But Trotskyists of all varieties thought that the working class was the essential lever of history. We had big discussions in ’69, ’70, ’71 about what to do, where to go, moving off campus to the industrial Midwest cities. This period saw an enormous amount of worker militancy — there were all sorts of wildcat strikes, and strike levels generally were very high in this period, and many were unauthorized.

The general thrust was to go to the Midwest and get industrial jobs, and they did. Labor Notes, which has been in existence for more than forty years, came out of that, and is headquartered in Detroit.

It was the night of September 14, 1970, when we went down to Fremont, the General Motors (GM) assembly plant in the Bay Area, to greet and spur on the big strike against General Motors — the first in a quarter century. There was unquestionably a sense of excitement and rebelliousness on the part of the workers, who rushed out of the plant long before midnight when the strike was supposed to begin. At the same time, the signs that the United Auto Workers itself had prepared were kind of neutered and uninspiring. I remember one strike sign I saw said, “UAW Demands Equity.” What the hell does that mean? And the workers grabbed our signs with slogans like, “GM, Mark of Exploitation.”

General Motors workers wave picket signs outside a Detroit plant on September 14, 1970, after the United Auto Workers voted to strike. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

I think that part of the impulse that led me to become a labor historian was the contradiction that I saw that night. But it also came out of many discussions that we had. I wrote a biography of Walter Reuther. Where did he go wrong? Where did he go right? This was sort of all part of the discourse that was always coursing through our discussions of labor at that time.

Micah Uetricht

I have been working on a book that’s based on interviews with the people from the IS and other radical traditions of that era who industrialized during this time. As you mentioned, they formed institutions like Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union and all kinds of militant rank-and-file currents that are still with us today.

But you went into academia and became a labor historian. You’ve also left behind your Trotskyism. It’s striking to me that, for many people who leave a Trotskyist or Communist or other radical leftist tradition, there’s almost this need to perform penance. They have to go through this sort of ritual where they denounce all their past sins and beg for forgiveness.

But it doesn’t seem like that’s the case for you. You have stayed close to your former comrades and still have an appreciation for what they accomplished on shop floors and the intellectual perspective that they bring.

Nelson Lichtenstein

There’s no God that failed here.

We were always having discussions as to what period this was. Is this a period of conservatism? Is it a period of radicalization? A prerevolutionary period? It clearly wasn’t a prerevolutionary period. It was a period of a mixed bag. And in that context, I think social democratic politics are appropriate.

Now, if there’s a turning of the wheel in such a way that real things are happening, as they have abroad at various moments, then yes, I’m ready to join the vanguard party once again. I’m still a bit of a Leninist, in that I think you should have majorities that vote, and then when you agree on what you’re going to do, people do it.

If the time would come, or if I look abroad, whether it’s South Africa, or some other revolutionary moment, then yes, we need the revolution. But you have to have the right arrangement of power and blocs and consciousness for that to happen. And if it isn’t there, then that’s silly — it’s ridiculous to put forward a Trotskyist proposal or whatever revolutionary proposal when it’s going to fall on deaf ears, because the period is not right for it.

Micah Uetricht

I was surprised to learn that you struggled to land an academic job for several years after you got your PhD and were a bit adrift after grad school. That story made me think of the current state of academia — there are so few tenure-track jobs, and even young scholars who don’t feel adrift and who do jump through all the correct hoops and publish papers in prestigious journals and all the rest of it, but are still unable to find jobs. In 2023, a newly minted PhD with your same post–graduate school life circumstances would not have a prayer in academia.

Nelson Lichtenstein

All through the ’70s, I was in and out of academia. I went into publishing a little bit, I worked for the Social Security Administration a little bit. I would say there are two things going on there. One was, which is absolutely the same case today, the growth of austerity in academia and the lack of jobs, and then there is the overproduction of PhDs.

But there was something very specific in terms of what I was interested in. I was doing a certain kind of labor history. I wasn’t studying the Knights of Labor. I wasn’t studying the Chartists. I was studying the post–Wagner Act world of unions and negotiations.

The people who dominated that field were the labor economists. So it wasn’t just that I had trouble getting a job, I had trouble getting published. I had trouble because I would send out manuscripts of my book, and it would instantly go to the editors who would say, “Well, who knows about this? Oh, the labor economist.” So they’d send it to the labor economist. And they’d say, “What’s this? Where are the equations? Where are the data sets? The Wagner Act and the kind of industrial relations we have today is a wonderful success.”

At that moment, this industrial relations as a kind of academic discipline was at the very height of its prestige. Clark Kerr and Derek Bok and others were either presidents of universities or cabinet officers, and I was writing all of my work against the industrial relations orthodoxy of those of that era. So that also was a problem.

I can give you the precise date in which that changed, both in academia and outside of it. It was a meeting of the Social Science History Association in Rochester. It was sort of a coming-out party for labor historians of the post–Wagner Act period. I remember the people on my panel with Joshua Freeman, who has written very good books on New York, and Steve Fraser. Sitting right there in the front row were the labor historians David Montgomery and E. P. Thompson. And it was like, okay, the cultural and social historians of the nineteenth century — let’s take a look at what’s happening in the twentieth. That quickly got translated into the world of publishing and what other hiring committees were doing.

Labor and Bureaucracy

Micah Uetricht

This brings us to your first book, Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. That book focuses on the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO], the industrial union federation. During the Great Depression, the CIO was home to currents of radicalism, militancy, experimentation, and excitement of that era in the labor movement.

Your book covers how the CIO and its unions were tamed by the state over the course of World War II — essentially defanging the labor movement in ways that reverberated for the rest of American labor history up to the present.

But a new edition of the book was published by Temple University Press in 2003, and you wrote a new introduction that neither fully rejects the book nor indicates you stand by all of it. Can you talk about the process of changing the way you think about the questions tackled in Labor’s War at Home?

Nelson Lichtenstein

The book came right out of debates within my Trotskyist group over the nature of labor, the working class, unions, and the state. The IS members around us were adults during World War II. In the Trotskyist tradition, my group was hostile to the no-strike pledge. My dissertation was entitled “The CIO Under the No-Strike Pledge.”

The no-strike pledge was a point of contention among many unions. The book follows in some ways what the Workers Party was doing at that time and our subsequent thinking on that strategy. At this time, unions were bureaucratizing, pushed by both unions themselves and the state. Part of the argument is that labor history didn’t end with the Wagner Act. There was this whole thing going on in World War II as well.

Now, it is true. I have changed my mind a bit. When I was writing the book, it was a period of wildcat strikes, militancy, the General Motors strike at Lordstown, all of that.

Subsequently, [Ronald] Reagan came to power. I came to see that consciousness is episodic. What a social movement has to do is institutionalize consciousness by way of law or organization. After Reagan, I said, “We need to figure out how to do that.” That’s what happened with the civil rights movement, at least to a degree, with the success of civil rights law.

I remember going to a talk by E. P. Thompson at Berkeley in the early ’80s. At the time, he was writing about the Chartist movement. He said a social movement has a lifespan of about six years, though they persist in some deracinated fashion. You have to institutionalize social movements within those years. Institutionalization means making a deal with the state and your opponents. So yes, I think the whole Reagan era had an impact on my scholarship.

Micah Uetricht

You must have looked back to previous upsurges of American labor militancy that ushered workers into unions and realized those gains were ephemeral. Without the creation of durable institutional structures, workers could not institutionalize gains like basic rights and better pay and benefits. It sounds like you came to realize that in the New Deal and postwar eras, something important was won in union bureaucratization and engagement with the state. Previously you had associated labor’s engagement with the state solely with conservatism, the loss of the right to strike, and the overall tamping down of labor’s militancy.

Nelson Lichtenstein

I don’t think I’m unique in any way. It’s generational. You can go too far and become a sort of politician and incrementalist, which has its own problems and its own de-radicalization. There’s no substitute for radicalization, which has a level of consciousness that goes along with it.

I didn’t industrialize. Although I have worked in factories, I chose not to go to Detroit. I thought there was a role for academics, especially back in those days.

Micah Uetricht

You write that you came around to a more nuanced view on the bureaucratic processes that were created in the labor movement during this period. One example of how you came around on this question was the question of black workers fighting racism on the job.

For many black industrial workers, the creation of these bureaucratic processes provided a platform to fight racial inequality on the job. So more than just the “taming” of these industrial unions was happening in this period.

Nelson Lichtenstein

This is a very controversial question. But I think yes, insofar as you have a union, which has a contract or a grievance procedure, and you have to have a certain level of consistency and commonality in terms of issues like seniority, then from the point of view of an African American or a woman or any other marginalized figure, it’s bringing bourgeois rights to the shop floor, and that’s exceedingly important. Bureaucracy will set you free. When it says equal justice under law at a courthouse, well, a union contract says the same sort of thing.

African American workers in the ’30s and ’40s used the structures. As time goes on for any marginalized group, so do their standards. By the ’50s and ’60s, African American demands of the union went beyond affirmative action and the seniority system. By that point unions became much more bureaucratic and resistant to change, more so than even in the ’30s and ’40s. You could have a racist union, where the leadership doesn’t want to have dances with blacks and whites together, but if they have to enforce the contract on the shop floor, it’s going to be advantageous to African Americans. In Birmingham, Alabama, steelworkers had Ku Klux Klan guys in their leadership, but when they enforced the contract, it would have an egalitarian impact.

Micah Uetricht

You write in The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor that in that period in Detroit, a number of white rank-and-file auto workers carried out hate strikes against black workers coming to the factories. It was through the newly created bureaucracies of the UAW that Walter Reuther could tackle the hate strikes. With their newly created official union positions, they used the bureaucratic procedures to smash  the hate strikes and say, “No, this is not what this union stands for.”

With a narrative that characterizes bureaucracy only as dastardly and defanging the union, how do you then explain leadership being more progressive on race than the rank and file and using the union bureaucracy as a vehicle for achieving more racial justice on the shop floor?

Nelson Lichtenstein

That phrase, about the bureaucracy being more progressive than the rank and file, is a hot-button issue. It was the defense of every bureaucrat in this period. They said, “The rank and file is a bunch of racists.” It’s a complicated thing. Unless ordinary workers can see the possibilities of an activity liberating them, they can easily become much more conservative.

Consciousness is not uniform. At various moments in history and the present ordinary workers were and are terrible, racist, and misogynistic, and everything else. At other moments there are possibilities of liberation. Genuine leadership has to understand and take advantage of that.

Walter Reuther, president of United Auto Workers (UAW) after World War II. (Detroit News Archives)

Law, politics, and the Democratic Party create these sort of iron cages into which activists are stuck. One of my themes in the biography of Walter Reuther is that he became a prisoner of the institutions he helped to create by the end of his life. He was frustrated in that respect.

Highly contentious figures like Herbert Hill, the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] liaison to the union movement in the ’50s, hated all of my work because I didn’t condemn the leadership as racist in the most personal sense. They weren’t. That wasn’t their problem. The leadership’s problem was institutional and structural.

Micah Uetricht

How would you summarize your evolution on these questions over time? You believe there are times for action that is independent of a union bureaucracy and independence from the Democratic Party. Without independence, the labor movement can slip into conservatism and away from the dynamic social movement it could become. But it does not have to be either union bureaucracy is a dastardly foe or the union bureaucracy is who we should put our hopes in. There is a dialectical relationship.

Nelson Lichtenstein

You can move the labor movement to the left with new people or move the current leadership to the left. There is a place for rank-and-file organization and politics and moving forward.

I identify with Labor Notes, whose slogan is “Putting the movement back in the labor movement.” It has been around for more than forty years. Labor Notes has advocated for running for union elections and the use of the strike weapon to shift the labor movement to the left.

Trade unions by nature are not revolutionary institutions. The point of a union is to cut a deal, which the union is stuck with until the next time. That can be demobilizing. That is why we need other forms of protest — whether it is political action or takes an intellectual form. We need writers and intellectuals to put out pieces in places like Jacobin and Dissent as a way of changing consciousness.

Walter Reuther and the Early UAW

Micah Uetricht

The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, the Walter Reuther biography and the book that you are perhaps most famous for, captures the sense of excitement and possibility that was present at the time of the early UAW and the CIO. Workers are engaged in incredibly brave and creative actions on shop floors, and there’s significant democratic contestation on the shop floor and within the union. Reuther was at the center of many of those fights. He comes across as perhaps the most dynamic labor leader the United States has ever produced. In a different country in the same context he could have been a presidential candidate for a labor party.

At the most basic level, reading this book made me realize that of course it makes sense that a young scholar like you would dig into these archives around the early period of the UAW and CIO and be lit on fire intellectually and want to explore in great depth a figure like Reuther. Especially right now, at a time when despite the advances that are happening in the labor movement, we don’t associate the labor movement with the kind of upheaval, excitement, and possibility of this period.

Nelson Lichtenstein

Reuther is a touchstone, sometimes a sore nerve, for everyone on the Left. Here is a figure who had been a socialist — and actually flirted with communism — who was very competent and had a whole cadre around him. He became the leader of a union with a million members, and not just any union but one positioned at the commanding heights of world capitalism. What company was more important than General Motors in this period? None.

With enormous potential, there was also great disappointment. That’s why everyone on the Left used to have an opinion on Walter Reuther.

When I started writing this, I saw all the negatives: he didn’t fulfill his promises and neither did the UAW. As I got into it, I tried to see what was attractive about him to so many people in addition to what was disappointing.

One of the things that changed my perspective on some things was that he was clearly trying to construct a corporatist governance of American industry. That was one of the things that he was doing in the war and shortly thereafter. Corporatism can be a kissing cousin to fascism on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s sort of a kissing cousin to a tripartite social democratic governance.

Reuther wanted to go further like they had in Europe. There are pitfalls in that because it makes you collaborationist with the companies and the state.

One person who wrote about UAW activists and intellectuals said it’s like a true religion. The UAW was a substitute religion in the minds of a whole generation, from Michael Harrington on down to the American labor party that should have existed. Reuther got himself reelected time and again. He created this machine that was only recently overturned in the UAW.

Nevertheless, even with his leadership, there was a lot of debate within the UAW at various levels. I found that very exciting. There were debates about the cost-of-living adjustment, what to do about Taft–Hartley, health insurance, how to intervene in the civil rights movement, and the New Left. Reuther was a big booster of the early New Left that was trying to figure out how the UAW could both help and take advantage of it.

Reuther was a fascinating and important figure. He became a prisoner of the institutions he helped to construct. The whole industrial relations system that America created in the ’40s and ’50s became stolid and unresponsive.

I don’t know what he could have done. There were moments along the way, other people in his network like Emil Mazey, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, who remained a socialist. They discussed what to do and what not to do.

Micah Uetricht

While he became a prisoner of the institutions he helped create, he was also a master strategist in any context that he was put into. What is tragic about his career as a labor leader at this crucial time in American labor history is that he constantly put forward bold demands but then had to reel them back — demands around achieving a social democratic welfare state at home such as retooling auto factories to be able to produce five hundred planes a day during World War II. He thought boldly and creatively about how unions could play a role in American society.

But he’s frequently stymied by not just the institutions that he ended up creating, but the narrow confines of American politics. When he tried to get GM to open the books on its profit-making — a radical demand — he could only go so far before butting up against the strictures of American politics and American industrial relations.

Nelson Lichtenstein

If we had a labor party, we could get around that. On the other hand, the structures of the Electoral College and the winner-takes-all makes a labor party in America so difficult. It may be impossible given the rules of the game, which is not the case in a parliamentary system.

When I was writing this I figured out that General Motors had been the model for capitalism for a long time. Reuther was trying to figure out how to fight that. He won some things and didn’t win others. Around 1980, it dawned on me that General Motors maybe isn’t the model — and that Walmart is. That put into context Reuther’s politics, because he came to see GM as the enemy. It’s stable, linked to a country, and bureaucratic. In the last forty years, we’ve seen that that’s not, in fact, the nature of American capitalism.

I have also always wanted to study the commanding heights, whether it’s General Motors or Walmart or whatever. That brings you into thinking about the nature of capitalism, the nature of policy.

I think my biography about Reuther is my most successful academic intervention. I’m sure there will be another biography written at some point that will be better. The book appeared in 1995, at a moment when labor was on the defensive in a big way. I said here’s what’s possible, but here are the limits.

My Labor Notes friends like Mike Parker, Jane Slaughter, and Kim Moody, liked the biography. They didn’t see it as an apology. I thought their review was more important than Alan Brinkley’s in the New York Times or Jeffrey Garten’s in the Washington Post.

Micah Uetricht

While the book gives the sense Reuther was a dynamic American labor leader, you don’t hold back from criticizing him.

Nelson Lichtenstein

He created a machine that became utterly corrupt. The undemocratic machine would not tolerate real opposition of any serious sort. By the ’60s, his machine had various white regional directors. When it came to race, he said, “This is my region, don’t try to propose an African American to take it over. I’ve been working here for twenty years.”

In the ’60s, there was racial tension in the plants. The UAW was unable to figure that out. In 1969, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was asking for the same things that Reuther tried to win in 1939 — who determines seniority, promotions, or who becomes the foreman. Reuther and his people tried to force the companies to create a kind of co-determination on the shop floor. Workers would, in effect, have a veto over what foremen were doing. DRUM was asking for the same thing, but it was racialized. While DRUM used revolutionary rhetoric, it was the same thing.

Micah Uetricht

Some listeners might be familiar with the book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, which covers the Marxist rank-and-file formations with a black nationalist tinge in the UAW, especially in Detroit. You mentioned Reuther’s shortcomings on racism. You also have extremely harsh criticism on his handling of the Vietnam War. He was so close to the Democratic Party leadership that he could not break from what Lyndon Johnson was doing in Vietnam until it was far too late.

Nelson Lichtenstein

Reuther became linked to President [John F.] Kennedy and then to President Johnson. Johnson was doing a lot of  Model Cities and various social programs like Medicare and Medicaid. All those people around Reuther were in favor of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) after the 1964 convention. They were sending their kids to Mississippi to help that out.

In the summer of 1964, Reuther got a phone call from Johnson: “You have to stop the MFDP and Fannie Lou Hamer.” Reuther does Johnson’s bidding. It’s one of the worst moments. It was the moment when the UAW, which had been held in good regard by the New Left, particularly by the authors of the 1962 Port Huron Statement —

Micah Uetricht

Which was written on the UAW property in Michigan.

Nelson Lichtenstein

Yes, that’s right. Port Huron became the UAW summer camp in effect. All sorts of sons and daughters of UAW officials were writing the statement. The summer of 1964 when Reuther did Johnson’s bidding against the MFDP was the moment of a huge break between labor and the civil rights forces.

Later on, when the Vietnam War became important, Reuther reinterpreted Johnson’s war program in an utterly liberal, unconvincing, and dishonest fashion. He said, “Well, LBJ is really for peace. We’re for peace.”

There’s some remarkable moments with the sons and daughters [of UAW officials]. Leslie Woodcock, who is the daughter of Leonard Woodcock, who would become UAW president, and Barry Bluestone, who’s the son of Irving Bluestone, the union vice president, laid it onto Reuther at a seder: “You’ve got to stop that. You got blood on your hands for 50 cents an hour.” This is, again, a moment when Reuther wanted to be allied with the New Left.

Micah Uetricht

All of this gets at the importance of independence from the Democratic Party. When reading about Reuther’s history from the beginning of the CIO until the New Left era, I was struck by the sense of how, if he had managed to thread the needle and absorb some of those energies of the New Left, he would have impacted the New Left in positive ways, and the New Left would have impacted the labor movement in important ways. But the opportunity was largely wasted.

Nelson Lichtenstein

It was not impossible for the New Left and the labor movement to come together in other countries like Canada and Great Britain to a degree. After about forty years, all sorts of New Leftists became the leaders of unions. Today, there are many aging New Leftists who are probably just retiring.

I think this was a decisive moment. Reuther is the best — well, almost the best — of the union movement. His betrayals and failures would have huge consequences.

Democracy at Work

Micah Uetricht

Much of your book State of the Union: A Century of American Labor has to do with the idea of industrial democracy. As you write in the book, “This is an old idea, but one that has been largely lost.” Despite the centrality of work to our lives, and despite the centrality of ideas like freedom and democracy to American ideals, so many people see the workplace as a place where those rights get checked at the door.

Do you feel the industrial democracy idea has any hope of being revived today?

Nelson Lichtenstein

While there are people like Bernie Sanders who use that phraseology, it seems to be an antique language at this moment. The Starbucks baristas are not using that phrase. But clearly, it was a powerful idea. It was a sort of solution to the “labor question.” That phrase was used from the 1870s through the 1930s. Industrial democracy was sort of the left-wing solution. The more centrist solution was collective bargaining. Liberals of that era thought collective bargaining was a solution to the labor question. Steve Fraser writes very well on that issue.

I had two big ideas in the book State of the Union. I spent a year in Finland, where you’ve got a strong union movement, good wages, and egalitarianism. They were completely bored with the industrial setup in Finland. I was like, “Oh, let me talk about shop stewards.” Instead, they were fascinated by the American civil rights movement.

I thought, “Why is that?” I began to think, “Okay, what is the labor question? How do we think about that after the ’30s?” I think a lot of it is in the world of civil rights. Civil rights is an utterly proletarian movement. The rights revolution is about how we get rights at work. Nancy MacLean wrote a great book about that. So I asked, “How does the labor metaphysic on the one side, and the rights ethos on the other, intersect? To what degree?” That is the core of the book.

In the minds of many jurists, politicians, and other intellectuals, there is a kind of counter-position between the unions with their sense of collective activity, and the civil rights world with a sense of legal individuality, that you challenge that through the courts. For a moment, there was an opposition there.

A guy named Reuel Schiller, a very good legal scholar, wrote a book called Forging Rivals, which was about this conflict between collective principals and the rights principal in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and how these two ways of thinking about justice come into conflict.

Today, that dichotomy is over in a popular sense — but maybe not in the courts. When you look at the Starbucks baristas, they’re multicultural and multiracial; they see collective action as the solution to their problems.

Micah Uetricht

One of the central arguments in State of the Union is that rights consciousness was a product of the civil rights movement and everything else that happened in the ’60s. But you make the point that the solutions offered for oppression based on race or sexuality are sort of individualistic.

There is a rise in legal mechanisms to address discrimination on the job. If you’ve been discriminated against at your job, you need to file a lawsuit against your employer. The collective idea that the solution to your problems at work lies in collective organization with your coworkers seems to be off the table.

Nelson Lichtenstein

I think that was the case forty or fifty years ago, but it has changed today. In the law, you can still find it. Many of these things end up in the courts. Back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the union movement was in the doghouse in terms of all that excitement of the previous decades. It was viewed as a solid and bureaucratic apparatus mainly for white guys. I think that that was one of the reasons that the civil rights movement found itself without much sympathy for, and often in opposition with, the union movement.

One example is Thurgood Marshall, who came out of the ’30s as a labor liberal. In the Emporium Capwell case in San Francisco in the early ’70s, a couple of African Americans at a department store conducted a wildcat strike because the company and the union were racist. They put up a picket line and were fired. Marshall said, “Yes, they should stay fired. Find justice in another workplace through a union. If the union isn’t willing to do it, agitate within it to have a different majority.”

That was reflective of a much earlier way of thinking about things, which Marshall represented. Later on, that would definitely not be the case.

Micah Uetricht

Is that because there is a sort of synthesis of collective action as the solution to our problems and the lessons of this rights revolution?

Nelson Lichtenstein

It reflects the fact that the courts have become much less sympathetic to various kinds of rights claims. Secondly, without a kind of collective transformation of the whole realm of work, these rights claims are going to be — even if you win — a kind of a Pyrrhic victory.

Judith Stein wrote her book Running Steel, Running America about the steel industry. There was a big case that the NAACP put forward demanding better seniority lines for African Americans and all sorts of ends to discrimination against both the companies and the union. They won that. But the actual impact was nil. The number of good jobs for African Americans declined anyway because of the decline of the steel industry. It was a Pyrrhic victory due to the deindustrialization of America.

The Labor Intellectuals

Micah Uetricht

You write in State of the Union about the major shift that took place in the American labor movement in 1995, when John Sweeney became the president of the AFL-CIO. His presidency helped end the Cold War paradigm that had so dominated the official labor leadership. Before then labor was a hidebound institution that supported the Vietnam War at its highest levels. It did not have that sense of the spirit and life of the various social movements that came about throughout the Cold War period.

And then that changed in ’95 when Sweeney from the Service Employees International Union [SEIU] was elected president of the AFL-CIO. This shift produced space in public discourse for “labor intellectuals” like you because the AFL-CIO and many unions had become interested in hearing what you had to say.

It must have been lonely to be a labor intellectual writing these books while the official labor movement had zero interest in what you were working on.

Nelson Lichtenstein

I don’t know if that’s correct. I never had any expectation that the union movement was going to listen to me there. There were other people of my generation who were sociologists and had some connections, but I didn’t. Sweeney came along at the nadir of the union movement in terms of its public reputation. I recently wrote a book on Bill Clinton, and it’s so clear that in the early ’90s, all of the Clintonites, whatever their politics, couldn’t take labor seriously in any way, shape, or form. But Sweeney comes along. At first, there was a certain amount of, “Oh, this is a palace coup and means nothing.”

Bill Clinton speaks to the Democratic Leadership Council on December 3, 1993. (Wally McNamee / Getty Images)

At that time, Steve Fraser had just finished a biography of Sidney Hillman, and I had just finished a biography of Reuther. We thought, “Sweeney’s got all sorts of problems, but let’s see if something dramatic can happen here.” We organized teach-ins and wrote about it and found a lot of support among all sorts of people who wanted a relationship with unions. They wanted to have a coalition. We had this big teach-in at Columbia University with Betty Friedan, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West, which was very exciting. Sweeney liked it.

The industrial relations experts of this era, some of whom were pretty good, like Thomas Kochan at MIT, reacted with, “We’re the labor intellectuals! Who are you guys?” The teach-ins demonstrated that the broad American left should reengage with labor.

Sweeney changed some positions on the Iraq War and on immigration. The Berlin Wall, which had been in existence for so long between the American left and the labor movement, began to crumble. There was Union Summer, which was a way of getting young people involved.

Despite the energy and new people he brought in, Sweeney did not lead to a revival of unionism. In fact, there were some notable failures like the new farmworker campaign. He beat his head against the brick wall of American capital and politics to a degree.

Micah Uetricht

How do you feel about the state of the labor intellectual today? It seems like there are many more of us who could qualify to varying degrees as such a thing. We have plenty of labor intellectuals at this point, but I’m not sure there’s enough people on the ground in the shop floors who are serving as the cadre of a revived American labor movement who can give us labor intellectuals something to write articles about and make podcasts about.

Nelson Lichtenstein

The phrase “labor intellectual” could be a little pretentious. I’m not sure exactly what I want to do with it. C. Wright Mills invented the term in a 1947 essay after a UAW convention. At this convention were all sorts of healthy and constructive labor intellectuals, unlike the neurotic sort you find in New York. I think he was referring to people like Nat Weinberg, who was a UAW staffer and a socialist.

I wrote a piece on the teaching assistant strike at Berkeley and said Mills would have been surprised to know that there were thousands of intellectuals on the picket line. The UAW itself was full of the more stolid figures. I don’t quite know how to define “labor intellectual.” If it is anybody who writes about labor, then we’ve had a couple of generations of labor historians who’ve written about many excellent things. Was E. P. Thompson a labor intellectual? Or do you need to be connected to a union? Do you need to be on the research staff in some way? I don’t know exactly where to draw the lines here on this question.

Micah Uetricht

There are many of us, particularly through institutions like left magazines like Jacobin, who are generally working to make the idea of belonging to a union a cool thing that young people should aspire to do. At a time when so many young people are suffering from low wages and being squeezed economically in every other way, we work to convey labor as not some hidebound institution. When we hear about the heyday of American unionism, we think, “That sounds great, we could really use some of that in our own lives these days.” That has hopefully inspired a number of young people to go into the shops to become shop floor activists.

As I mentioned before, it created a number of us who read many books about the labor movement and follow it very closely. But we are fundamentally in need of movement at the shop floor level in order for us to have things to write about.

Nelson Lichtenstein

You need not just an institution but a movement-oriented institution. We have many today. Some are autodidacts, others come out of the academy.

I’ve always been slightly irritated when someone says, “Nelson Lichtenstein, the labor historian.” I’m not so happy about that because you can’t be a historian of the working people without also being a historian of capitalism, culture, politics, and everything else.

The very phrase “labor history” assumes a self-contained thing. That is less true today than it has ever been. If you’re trying to think about what’s going to happen to the standard of living of Americans in whatever sector, you have to think about the nature of that industry and the social policies that will govern it. I find the phrase “labor historian” and “labor intellectual” a little questionable.


Micah Uetricht

In the period after the Sweeney victory, you then turned your attention to Walmart. You were previously focused on GM, because to understand GM was to understand American capitalism. Then you realized things had changed and now you have to understand a company like Walmart to understand the shape of American capitalism and global capitalism.

Can you talk about that shift to studying supply chains? Specifically, can you talk about your time as a “supply chain tourist,” which you write about in A Contest of Ideas: Capital, Politics, and Labor? You mentioned touring the River Rouge Complex in Detroit to understand what this giant palace of American industrialism is. Then you went to China’s industrial cities to see the supply chain at work there. Can you talk about that transition?

Nelson Lichtenstein

I wasn’t the only one who was caught by surprise. The editors of Fortune magazine excluded retailers in their Fortune 500 up to the year 1995. In that year, we both realized these were big companies. Once they put retailers in, Walmart popped up number four, in terms of sales. By 2001, Walmart was number one in both sales and employees.

I thought, “We have to talk about the commanding heights and figure out what’s going on.” I remember thinking in the late ’90s, “Something’s happening with Walmart. We got to look at this and other big retailers.”

After I got to California there was a big grocery industry strike in Los Angeles, in 2003. Walmart didn’t have any stores in Los Angeles at that time. The grocery companies said, “Uh-oh, Walmart’s coming into town with low wages. We have to take on a tough strike and reduce labor costs so we can compete with Walmart.” It was a long and bitter strike.

In the middle of that strike, we had a conference on Walmart. The New York Times covered it, all sorts of people came, and it was an indication that there is something to study.

Micah Uetricht

I was shocked to learn in A Contest of Ideas that your conference was so successful that the Walmart CEO, H. Lee Scott Jr, felt the need to respond in a major address, point by point, to many of the issues that were brought up in your conference. You struck a nerve at the highest levels of the C suites in Bentonville.

Nelson Lichtenstein

That’s true. I never interviewed a current manager at Walmart. My academic or archival law is to never interview a current manager. They will give you the PR statement. Instead I interviewed those who’ve been fired or retired from Walmart. I had long conversations with them in the Ozarks.

It turned out that Peter Drucker had been on to retail long before. He wrote a series of four important essays for Fortune magazine in the ’60s including “The Economy’s Dark Continent.” No one knew what was going on in world distribution. I thought Walmart was important. Any company that employs a million and a half people is an important company. We had a conference and published a book out of that.

After that I went off to China. I remember riding in a taxi across the big, brand new city in Guangdong Province for an hour. The place was bustling. There were machine shops and people working on a Sunday afternoon. I said, “This is what Detroit was like in 1925.” We toured factories, including supplier factories to Walmart and Walmart stores themselves.

It is interesting the way new ideas come about. The phrase “supply chain” was never heard of until 2002 or 2003 except for sociologists. A friend of mine said, “I went to a conference on supply chains, somewhere in California.” That is when I realized I was a supply chain tourist. I had been to the three most important nodes of international capitalism: the Ford Rouge plant founded in 1919; Bentonville, the headquarters of Walmart; and Guangdong Province. There were about two hundred million people in this workshop of the world. I was a little ahead of the game on some of that.

Walmart was a capitalist dystopia. Everything was the total opposite of GM. Walmart missed the New Deal, the feminist movement, and the civil rights movement. It was up in northwest Arkansas, which was an utterly benighted place. Then, bingo, it became this gigantic institution. It was a good thing for me to transition out of this older model of American capitalism to the new thing going on. From then on, I became interested in fissured employment, sectoral bargaining, and public policy.

Micah Uetricht

What does the changing nature of American and global capitalism mean for labor strategy? In your essay “Supply-Chain Tourist,” you write: “The essence of the twenty-first century labor question, as well as its resolution, no longer resides at the point of production and a struggle between workers and the owners of the factories in which they labor. Instead, the site of value production in the contemporary world is found at every link along a set of global supply chains in which the manufacturer and the warehouse operator, the ports and the shipping companies, the retailers and their branded vendors, jockey for power and profit. To tame this system, we’ll need ideas and institutions, social movements and new legal structures that are truly global in their ambition and effectiveness.”

While this may be true, it makes it a more daunting task for, let’s say, an aspiring trade union militant who is reading this interview. They might think, “Well, what can I do if I’m a driver at UPS or trying to organize my coworkers at an Amazon warehouse? I’m just a speck in this global supply chain. What can I accomplish as a union militant on the job?”

Nelson Lichtenstein

I do think you can accomplish something as a union militant. Production had always been privileged by capitalists, workers, and labor historians. The conceptualized definition of production was broader, since it had to do with the whole supply chain. You had to see production as a clever unit on the part of the capitalist, because they control it, but don’t have the legal or even moral responsibility for what’s going on there.

Your definition of what the labor movement seeks to accomplish has to be much broader. It has to involve not just the organization of the workers in any one unit of that supply chain, but the policies that will have the effect of taming the supply chain, ameliorating it, or maybe even making it more democratic. That’s where you get into questions like trade or health policy.

The reason that workers of an Amazon distribution center should still organize, even if they don’t have the leverage to change everything, is that there’s no substitute for their organizing. There is no substitute for people who talk to each other, think about things together, and have some resources that can have an impact on the political, cultural, and social world.

The only reason we know about these conditions in these places is because of a group of people, whether they were formally organized or not, who told us about it. Otherwise it’s all invisible. That’s why we know a lot about conditions in auto plants in Detroit, but not much about the plants in Tennessee.

Micah Uetricht

You made a turn toward writing about, studying, and understanding Walmart as the paradigmatic company of American and global capitalism in the ’90s and 2000s. You might have the sense that that moniker has shifted from Walmart, as important as Walmart still is, to Amazon. Now Amazon is playing that same role of revolutionizing global supply chains, and transforming the way American and global capitalism is done.

Nelson Lichtenstein

They aren’t entirely different companies. There are many things that they both depend on, like the transpacific supply chain. The core of both companies is the warehouse and the distribution center.

All of Walmart’s executives came out of logistics, which is not true for Amazon. Clearly the competitive advantage is the warehouse. Amazon created its own marketplace for hundreds of thousands of other firms. Those firms have to pay tribute to Amazon, like a robber baron of the Middle Ages. Walmart didn’t do that. So, yes, there’s a difference.

A cashier at Walmart. (Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Some things are fundamentally similar. They are both in the business of getting goods from suppliers, mainly abroad, and squeezing those suppliers using that distribution nexus. They also have a low-wage, nonunion workforce. Amazon is now moving into the cloud and computer services, potentially transforming its whole business model there.

The Left and Labor

Micah Uetricht

You have an essay in A Contest of Ideas about the Communist Party in the United States and its relationship to the American labor movement. You say that the question has always been whether or not communists deserve to be a part of the constellation of players and ideas within the labor movement, or whether they are unacceptable ideas and unacceptable people to be included and thus need to be rooted out.

At this point, in this moment of nascent rebirth of American socialism, many radicals advocate for socialism’s rightful place within the American world of ideals. Young radicals organizing in their workplaces and within their unions are arguing that people who believe in the socialist ideal have a rightful place in the shop floor and in the labor movement.

You believe there needs to be a kind of robust mix of competing ideas in the labor movement and in the body politic in order for us to advance in a progressive direction as a society, no?

Nelson Lichtenstein

That is accurate. My ideas have changed to a degree in this sense. Fifty years ago, when I was in Berkeley, in the Trotskyist world, we had this idea, in some ways linked to the Cold War world. Certain kinds of Trotskyist writing helped provide ideological ammunition for the much more conservative Cold Warriors. The communists, wherever they came from — on the Lower East Side, born in Kansas — ideologically linked themselves so closely to a monstrous regime that that excluded them from the Left on civil libertarian grounds.

The tradition I identify with was not in favor of McCarthyism. Having said that, today I have changed my mind in this respect. It is true for all sorts of reasons that the communists were identified fundamentally with the Soviet Union. In some ways, that was a reason they hung together for a lot longer than the socialists did in that period. When you look at every other aspect of the communists, they were part of the Left; they were workers, African American, women; or they were interested in the Popular Front or what the Left was. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, I am willing to put that identification with the Soviet Union in a box and look beyond that.

I do think the Soviet Union was an albatross around the neck of the American left. Today, I think different ideas about the good society are important. Once you debate them I’m in favor of taking votes. I think we’re in a world where a kind of Popular Front is sort of essential, and there’s no getting around that.

Back in the old days, the Popular Front was a negative idea, because it meant that you mushed up your ideas. Historians like Alan Wald have argued definitively against that. I think today, there’s no getting around that strategy.

Bill Clinton

Micah Uetricht

You recently retired from your position as professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In your retirement, you’re still quite productive. You have a new book that is coming out soon on the [Bill] Clinton years. Can you explain what you’re up to in that project?

Nelson Lichtenstein

Academia is a good job, and when you retire, you just keep doing what you were doing. Several years ago, Judith Stein, who’d been a good colleague, died. She’d been writing about political economy and policy in the postwar period. She was working on a book on the Clinton years but hadn’t gotten very far. Her agent and others asked me to take it over, which I did.

When I jumped into it, I said, “Okay this is a period when the Cold War ends. That’s important.” At the time, there was a lot of discussion going on about industrial policy and about varieties of capitalism. When I looked into it, I didn’t agree with the contemporary narrative on Clinton, which is very fixed, and maybe very satisfying for a lot of people, that Clinton was a New Democrat, a Democratic Leadership Council neoliberal.

I don’t think that’s quite right. I think he became that and I’m very critical of him. But there was a period at the end of the Cold War when there were a lot of ideas in play about how to restructure American society and capitalism. Clinton didn’t have the votes or the power to do it. He then moved in a very bad direction.

I actually got the idea for this book thirty years ago, when I was in Helsinki on a Fulbright. I read the New York Times whenever I got the chance, and it was full of these articles on the health care plan — which sectors of capital were for and against it, and which sectors of the Republican Party were for and against it. They weren’t all against it. This was like the National Labor Relations Act. This was like the early years of the Great Depression when they were trying to reorganize things. That was the very first idea I put in abeyance.

I got back into it with this book. I took seriously the industrial policy ideas that people like Ira Magaziner, Robert Reich, and Clinton were toying around with even if they were opposed and defeated. They were unquestionably opposed by Robert Rubin. This is not in any way an apology on my part, to see them as a little more complicated than caricatures. Rubin is a staunch welfare-state Democrat. He wants the welfare state, but he thinks the absolute mobility of capital is more important.

Micah Uetricht

The mobility of capital is actually how you are going to fund the welfare state. Goldman Sachs needs to be able to make money. That is essentially an update of a Reaganomics kind of argument. But they don’t start out by saying, “We’re going to let Goldman Sachs run free, and we’re going to destroy the welfare state.” It’s, “We’re going to let Goldman Sachs run free, and there’s going to be shared prosperity across the board.” That’s obviously not what happened.

Nelson Lichtenstein

There’s a substantial proportion of Wall Street that are Democrats. The reason is they’re into real estate but don’t care about taxes. They don’t care how high the taxes are. They do want mobility of capital and open trade. Goldman Sachs is big on finance, on capitalizing and financing the Chinese state-owned enterprises as they become privatized. I get into this in the book.

There’s a narrative about the Clintons, which has lots of truth to it, but it’s not the whole thing. I think it does a disservice to the American left today, a disservice to the lefties in the Biden administration, who are trying to work out a new kind of industrial policy to just say, “Clinton walked into the White House as a neoliberal.” He didn’t. The same issues that confronted him and defeated him years ago are here today.

I think that Clinton was a terrible leader of the Democratic Party. He divided the party time and time again on trade issues. NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was an absolute blunder. From Clinton’s point of view, from the point of view of politics, there was no need to do NAFTA. But he did it anyway, maybe at the behest of his Wall Street advisors. It was a blunder of the first order.

Interesting for your listeners, Bill and Hillary didn’t get into the doghouse of the Left until 1996. They were still held in a certain regard. Bill Clinton was very good at defending and explaining Obamacare in 2012, Hillary was partially respected as an okay secretary of state. It was Bernie Sanders who came along. He doesn’t have to attack them, he just says what he’s for, and that made them look terrible. I think it’s Bernie Sanders, even more than the Republicans, who made the Clinton’s look bad. That was an enormous tribute to Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Micah Uetricht

You have retired from your academic position. Assumably at some point, you’re going to be looking back on your long and storied career in labor history. How you feel about the current state of the discipline of labor history in 2023?

Nelson Lichtenstein

I think that it’s fairly healthy, partly in the sense that it’s a kind of imperial discipline. It wants to bring everything under its umbrella in a way. Historians like Sven Beckert wrote Empire of Cotton. I think he’s sort of a labor historian. People are doing a cultural history of various sorts, and there are feminist scholars. It’s sort of spread out.

The number of labor history jobs, per se, is unfair, but the number of people who are trained in a kind of labor history, or at least with a labor metaphysic in mind, is there, and they have a great influence. My grad students ended up doing work on corporations, finance, and policy, but came at it from the point of view of the questions that labor historians would ask. Although as an institutionalized subdiscipline, it may be fraying at the edges, just because it’s taking on many different questions. I’m very much against trying to police the boundaries of labor history. That would be a mistake.