Labor Conference Examines Trade Unionism Today
By Andrea Estrada
Hostility to trade unionism on the part of American conservatives has been a feature of this country’s political landscape for decades. That animosity will likely be at the forefront over the next few months as Congress begins debate on the Employee Free Choice Act, the first major effort to reform American labor law in more than 60 years.
In anticipation of that legislative fight, scholars from around the world will gather at UCSB for a conference titled “The American Right and U.S. Labor: Politics, Ideology, and Imagination.” According to conference director Nelson Lichtenstein, participants will explore the legal, rhetorical, economic, and political resources that political conservatives have deployed to marginalize and delegitimize self-organization among American workers today and over the last century.
The conference, which is open to the public, will take place January 16-17 in the McCune Conference Room, 6020 Humanities and Social Sciences Building.
“This conference offers participants an historical understanding of how and why proposed labor law reforms, such as the contemporary Employee Free Choice Act, have generated so much heated debate for so many years and under such a divergent set of economic and political circumstances,” said Lichtenstein, a professor of history and director of UCSB’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.
The conference will cover a broad range of historical and legal topics from the Progressive Era to the present. Fred Feinstein, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton administration, will give the keynote address. His talk is titled “Embattled for 30 Years.”
“The next few months promise to generate intense debate on key issues facing the labor movement, as well as working Americans in general,” said Lichtenstein. “The effort to pass — or defeat — the Employee Free Choice Act will be central to this fight, but so too are questions arising over the role labor will play in the bailout of the financial, housing, and automobile sectors of the economy and in the character of the economic stimulus package now being crafted by the Obama administration.
“An understanding and deconstruction of the opposition to U.S. trade unionism requires something more than mere condemnation,” he said. “That’s especially true during the next few years when an effort to reform American labor law, along with the rise of labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, is almost certain to generate a furious and determined counterattack from those who seek to limit its power and marginalize its legitimacy.”
The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, the campus’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, history department, College of Letters and Sciences, and Hull Chair in Feminist Studies; UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment; and the University of Pennsylvania Press.