When Labor Organizes

by Robert R. R. Brooks
[Yale University Press, $3.00]
IN addition to providing an able exposition of the problems and tactics of labor unions in the United States, When Labor Organizes is characterized by a thorough understanding of the driving forces behind the labor movement. A highly realistic presentation has been achieved. This result is in marked contrast to those studies in which labor is conceived as ‘an abstract mass in the grip of an abstract force,’ or to others based primarily upon documentary evidence.
A clarity of analysis typifies the book. This may be illustrated by reference to the differentiation that is made between the wage policies adopted by unions in highly competitive as compared with monopolistic industries. Failure to distinguish between these situations has frequently resulted in unwarranted generalizations. Since ’the worker in competitive industry is the final absorbent of all the shocks of competition,’ his union seeks a minimum wage and a plan of industry stabilization. Under monopoly conditions, ’labor’s primary policy . . . has been an effort to recapture monopoly profits by driving wages up.’ In either case, it is pointed out, the road charted by labor leads to political action. Minimum wage laws are sought in the first instance because complete organization of a competitive area has ordinarily been difficult or impossible. Government price regulation becomes essential in monopolistic industries if wage increases are to result in an improvement in real wages.
Although Professor Brooks thus provides an essential background for understanding the broadening objectives of the labor movement, primary attention is given to the techniques used in organizing and in operating a union. One may therefore question why there has been such an inadequate consideration of the practice and results of collective bargaining. Since the negotiation of agreements is the most important task of the established union, this process deserves a more complete treatment than it has received. Are the internal politics of the union of paramount importance in negotiation? Are wages and conditions established by collective bargaining generally satisfactory to employees? What is the place of arbitration in making agreements, and of impartial chairmanship in administering them? Answers to such questions about how collective bargaining works are a prime requisite to a complete understanding of the objectives of labor.
The author accepts as inevitable the fact that trade-unions will adopt those practices that will sustain and improve their position. These policies are explained, rather than evaluated in terms of whether they are good or bad. ‘Most ordinary human beings refuse to regard the society in which they live as a congeries of conflicting groups each of which is right if it wins and wrong if it loses.’ There is much to commend the wider adoption of this point of view in appraising the significance of our social institutions, and especially of the labor movement.