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The American Labor Movement in the Age of Obama: The Challenges and Opportunities of a Racialized Political Economy

  • Dorian T. Warren (a1)

The relative weakness of the American labor movement has broader political consequences, particularly for the ambitions of the Obama presidency. Absent a strong countervailing political constituency like organized labor, well-organized and more powerful stakeholders like business and industry groups are able to exert undue influence in American democracy, thereby frustrating attempts at political reform. I argue that it is impossible to understand the current political situation confronting the Obama administration without an account of the underlying sources of labor weakness in the U.S. In such an account two factors loom especially large. One is the role of the state in structuring labor market institutions and the rules of the game for labor-business interactions. The second is the distinctively racialized character of the U.S. political economy, which has contributed to labor market segmentation, a unique political geography, and the racial division of the U.S. working class. In our current post-industrial, post-civil rights racial and economic order, whether and how the labor movement can overcome its historical racial fragmentation will determine its possibilities for renewal and ultimately its political strength in relation to the Obama presidency. If the labor movement remains an uneven and weak regional organization hobbled by racial fragmentation, the Obama Administration's efforts to advance its core policy agenda will lack the necessary political force to be effective.

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Richard F. Bensel 2000. The Political Economy of American Industrialization, 1877–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Amy B. Dean , and David B. Reynolds . 2009. A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Peter L. Francia 2006. The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Peter A. Hall , and David Soskice , eds. 2001. Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Victoria C. Hattam 1993. Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Beverly J. Silver 2003. Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization since 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katherine V.W. Stone 2004. From Widgets to Digits: Employment Regulation for a Changing Workplace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Paul C. Weiler 1990. Governing the Workplace: The Future of Labor and Employment Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
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