One of the most widely consumed depictions of the American labor movement in the 1980s was Barbara Kopple’s documentary American Dream about a meatpackers’ strike at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota in 1985-86. Facing deindustrialization, an employer set on extracting devastating concessions, a hostile government, and a paralyzed labor movement, the workers of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union Local P-9 lost their strike. The film ends with the local union denied home rule by its international parent, the workers fired, the town devastated, and families ripped apart. As the credits roll, the union anthem “Solidarity Forever” plays ironically.
Around the same time as the Hormel Strike, another strike also captured the imagination of the public, the labor movement, and intellectuals like Kopple. In the fall and winter of 1984-85, the mostly female clerical and technical workers at Yale University, members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 34 battled the administration for their first contract. After they won, a group of sympathetic Yale academics—historians Toni Gilpin, Dan Letwin, and Jack McKivigan and lawyer Gary Isaac—wrote a short book describing how the women successfully organized in Ronald Reagan’s union-hostile, deindustrializing America. At a mere 96 pages, it was a literal handbook on how to beat the boss during the 1980s.
American Dream and On Strike for Respect were both attempts to wrestle with Reagan’s attack on unions and, more generally, with what we have come to know as neoliberalism. The crisis that Kopple, Gilpin, Isaac, Letwin, and McKivigan already perceived is the crisis from which the labor movement has still not emerged. Labor’s dominant legal and organizing model, based on large steel and automobile plants of the 1930s, has faltered in the neoliberal service economy. Pushed by ever-more-aggressive management-side labor lawyers, the state has become less supportive of unionization. Union density—the measure of union members as a proportion of all workers—has fallen drastically, from 23.4% in 1979 to only 10.5% in 2018. Meanwhile, demographic changes render the American working class more diverse by nationality, race, and gender, than was imagined in earlier generations.