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Open Access Publications from the University of California

An opportunity not taken…yet: U.S. labor and the current economic crisis


The United States is undergoing what in many ways is its most profound economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Great Recession, as it is popularly called, is having a devastating impact on U.S. workers. In this context, U.S. unions, workers’ most important advocates, have been vociferous in calling for financial reform, job creation, and other strong policy measures. However, whereas the Great Depression in the United States saw labor engaged in dramatic mass mobilizations, large-scale militant actions, and a powerful role in promoting policy changes, the current economic slump the U.S. labor movement has accomplished none of these things. At first glance, this absence may seem surprising. However, I will argue, expanding on an earlier analysis by Milkman (2010) that in fact, it is a relatively unsurprising outcome of both long-term historical trends and shorter-term conjunctural factors.

The paper makes this case in four sections. First, I briefly summarize the impact of the crisis on U.S. workers. Second, I describe the response of U.S. unions to the Great Recession, drawing extensively on online searches to document my findings. Third, I discuss the long-term and short-term reasons for the very limited nature of that response. In closing, I explore some alternative paths that may indeed lead U.S. labor to mount a more vigorous response in the months and years to come.

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