The International Handbook of Labour Unions

The International Handbook of Labour Unions

Responses to Neo-Liberalism

Elgar original reference

Edited by Gregor Gall, Adrian Wilkinson and Richard Hurd

Since the 1970s, the spread of neo-liberalism across the world has radically reconfigured the relationship between unions, employers and the state. The contributors highlight that this is the major cause and effect of union decline and if there is to be any union revitalisation and return to former levels of influence, then unions need to respond in appropriate political and practical ways. Written in a clear and accessible style, the Handbook examines unions’ efforts to date in many of the major economies of the world, providing foundations for understanding each country.

Chapter 13: Unions Facing and Suffering Neo-liberalism in the United States

Bob Bruno

Subjects: business and management, human resource management, organisational behaviour, social policy and sociology, labour policy


Bob Bruno INTRODUCTION In the 1980s, neo-liberalism washed over the American political landscape and nearly drowned the labour movement. The first sign of high water is debatable. Maybe, it was the firing of striking unionised air traffic controllers by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 that signalled the advance of an unfettered ‘free market’ in America. Symbolically, the strong-armed action of the nation’s chief executive to punish federal employees waging an illegal strike was a watershed moment for the deteriorating relationship between capital and labour. Corporate leaders and right-wing conservative political forces interpreted Reagan’s executive order as an unconditional withdrawal of state protections for worker rights. McCarten (2006: 215, 216) called the strike of Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) ‘one of the most significant events in 20th century US labor history’ (2006, 215) symbolising ‘the declining power of the labor movement’. But as dramatic as it was in turning labour’s fortunes the air traffic control firings were more a confirmation of a neo-liberal turn than the first rip in the postwar social-contract fabric. In the late 1970s, administrative deregulation had already been imposed on the trucking industry reducing incomes and eliminating union drivers. Foreign cars had driven unimpeded into American show rooms while American auto manufactures and government officials ignored the realities of the emerging global markets for durable goods. Trade policy shaped principally by cold war foreign policy concerns had invited steel imports into industrial centres of the Midwest and Northeast. Before Reagan’s ‘revolution’ foreign competition from computer, home electronic,...

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