This issue's Up For Debate features Dennis Deslippe's revisionist argument about labor's response to affirmative action. Contrary both to those scholars who have fixed the unions as a primary obstacle to affirmative action plans pushed by civil rights organizations and public officials and to those who have identified affirmative action as an unalterable stumbling block for collective (as opposed to individual) rights on the job, Deslippe suggests a middle path of accommodation to the letter and spirit of the equal-opportunity cause on the part of an identifiable “labor liberal” sector of unions and their leaders, who opted for a progressively modified version of traditional “contract unionism.” Though such accommodation to the demands of minorities and women proved easier in relation to hiring than layoffs (where nearly all unions took a stand against the abridgment of the seniority principle), Deslippe finds that the labor movement as a whole was not the benighted monolith turning its back to the future that it appears to be in some accounts of the 1970s. Moreover, rather than an inevitable clash between union “solidarity” versus the “rights claims” of the new social movements, Deslippe suggests that the most successful unions of the period were precisely those that embraced the spirit and constituencies associated with the civil rights and women's movements. The respondents give Deslippe mixed marks. For Paul Moreno, the only good union seems to be a weak union, for to him any union preference or job protection is an economically inefficient “privilege” inevitably blocking minority access to authentic “freedom of contract.” Ava Baron welcomes Deslippe's attempt to identify a historical move among unionists to overcome divisions of race and gender, but she fears that he underestimates the basic contradictions of a labor law based on collective bargaining (and never constitutionally anchored) and employment law rooted in a deeper-sanctioned civil rights agenda. While welcoming Deslippe's challenge to the either/or view of unionism versus new social movement dichotomy of the 1960s and 1970s, both Joseph McCartin and William Jones insist on a more sector-specific (and, for McCartin, more time-sensitive) approach to the unions' evolving affirmative action policies. The large nonwhite and female memberships of the unions that chose the “egalitarian” policy path, suggests Jones, are perhaps both telling and limiting qualifiers to the expanded reach of contract unionism. Deslippe, of course, enjoys the last word.
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Dennis Deslippe; On the Importance of Affirmative Action: Labor Liberals and the Recasting of “Contract Unionism”. Labor 1 May 2012; 9 (2): 47–72. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-1539953
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