Ten years ago in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Nashville, Tennessee, HarperCollins shut down its last two remaining U.S. warehouses, after a series of such closings had left an untold number of workers unemployed. CEO Brian Murray offered these words of corporate right-think: “We have taken a long-term, global view. . . . We are retooling the traditional distribution model to ensure we can competitively offer the entire HarperCollins catalog to customers regardless of location.” If you were one of the thousands of people whose lives were changed as a result of this round of consolidations and offshorings, it was likely little comfort that the authors of HarperCollins would find the “broadest possible reach.” Your chief concern was probably more mundane, more domestic, and even, dare we say, provincial in nature, namely: Was there anything that could have helped you keep your decent job in the town where your family lived?
Jane McAlevey argues that the answer is yes: What you lacked was a strong union. And she is right, though whether anyone outside the labor left will listen is another question. Within the labor movement, McAlevey is something of a celebrity. Her last book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, became such a commonplace in those circles that many old hands grew sick of talking about it. Yet outside the ever-shrinking population of union workers and organizers, McAlevey is a non-entity. That fact reflects a wider trend: the marginalization of unions within American society.