After the Second World War, the American labor movement worked to ensure that America’s working class benefited from the United States’ new global preeminence. The most powerful of those unions was the United Automobile Workers (UAW), whose contracts became the yardstick by which most Americans measured their own aspirations for security and success, and whose leader, Walter Reuther, emerged as one of the foremost advocates for liberal reform on the national political stage. In the past four decades, however, with union membership and influence on the decline, no union has suffered more than Reuther’s UAW, and no union has been so central to our current debates about economic recovery and reform. What accounts for the strength of unions in the early postwar period but its decline since the 1970s, and what has been the relationship of this decline to economic opportunity and mobility? Through an exploration of both recent scholarship and primary documents, the participants in this seminar will study the experiences of the UAW and its members as a way to get at broader questions of political economy, popular culture, and class mobility in the long postwar period.
Seminar led by Daniel Graff, University of Notre Dame