THE AMERICAN labor movement, it is said, is in decline. The field of American labor history, is however, flourishing. Especially in the past decade, American scholars have produced a number of innovative studies of working-class life as well as accounts of particular unions, organizing drives and strikes. They have invested their work with the imaginaton and political passion that has animated the union movement in this country at its moments of greatest vigor. (The ubiqiuity of higher education in the United States since the late 1950s may, indeed, have induced more than one potential union organizer to serve the working class as a celebrator of its past.)

Each of the books reviewed here reflects a commitment to working-class politics and especially to militant industrial unionism as the best means of transforming American political life. Each is engaging because of this commitment; but it is also true that the political biases of the authors sometimes weaken their powers of analysis.

Philip Foner's Women in the Labor Movement: From World War I to the Present is a companion volume to his study, published last year, which surveyed the relationship of American working women to employers and trade unions from colonial times to 1981. As in the earlier volumne, Foner's survey of 20th-century developments is lively, readable, delightfully anecdotal and unabashadly partisan. He rescues from near oblivion the experience of women in trade unions and in strikes and demonstrates that, at least at some times and in some places, women were not only organizable but were devoted trade unionists and militant strikers. His spirited heroines are a joy; they more then recommend the book.

This ambitious survey, however, raises some important questions it does not fully answer. That comparatively few women in this country have been union members or even strikers can be explained only in part by the indifference and hostility with which women workers were regarded by most male trade unionists. And yet Foner seems unwilling to look beyond male chauvinism in explaining the absence of most women from union ranks. Clearly, other factors must be considered, including the youth of most working women in the not-so-distant past, their distinctive work experience, the values with which they were raised and their probably inflated expectations of marriage.

Significantly, even those unions with majority female memberships have had and continue to have men in top leadership positions, as Foner notes. The domestic burdens women carry help to explain why they have not generally played union politics. But beyond this, I suspect that most working-class women in the past did not understand their lives or their work in terms that made the union presidency or even union membership particularly relevant. This does not mean that working-class women have been unaware of or indifferent to exploitation on the job or in the home. Nor does it mean that women in the 1980s, many of them likely to work outside the home for most of their adult lives and unable to see wifehood as an occupation with tenure, will continue to be indifferent to union organization.

Certainly the most provocative aspect of the Foner study is the contention that communists in American unions were, at least until their expulsion from the CIO in the late 1940s, the most ardent proponents of sexual equality in the union movement. A similar argument has been made, with some justification, for the importance of communists as advocates of racial equality in the CIO. It seems reasonable that pressure from the left moved centrist labor leaders to more egalitarian public stands on the question of organizing women, although the putative superiority of communists to socialists as advocated of women's rights is simply not documented. But even in those unions where communists were strong or dominant, women were rarely given important leadership posts. And communists, like most trade unionists until recently, were staunch supporters of protective laws for woman workers, which limited women's employment opportunites on the grounds of their greater vulnerability to fatigue and injury on the job. This does not, of course, disprove Foner's argument. But it suggests that his argument is distorted by current political concerns.

Less ambitious than the Foner study, but highly intelligent, is James Green's The World of the Worker. Green has undertaken to synthesize much recent scholarship on 20th-century American working-class life, and to discuss trade unions in the context of workers' family and community lives. He has tried as well to analyze the relationship between union members and their leaders, to consider under what social, political and economic circumstances a militant rank-and-file comes to be controlled by centralized bureaucratic authority. The result is a fresh and provocative look at 20th-century American unions, and a fine introduction to recent labor history scholarship.

Unfortunately, the very political commitment that make Green sensitve to the struggle for worker autonomy, which animated even the exclusionary policies of craft unions, weakens his analysis of developments after 1945. He argues that industrial unions after the war accepted corporate control of the workplace and became themselves potent disciplinarians of a restive work force. But his analysis is not wholly convincing. Certainly he overestimates the autonomy of the rank-and-file in the CIO unions in the heady days of the late 1930s. And it is not true that increasingly bureaucratized industrial unions after World War II adandoned all committment to social reform. The argument makes sense only if socially conscious unionism is purely anti-capitalist unionism, and this assumption, given American realities, is politically unimaginative. The radical scholars and intellectuals who came to political consciousness in the '60s bear a keen sense of grievance toward those union leaders who failed, once in power, to struggle for a socialist America. The anger is understandable, given the inequities of American society; it is also supremely ironic, for this generation -- which is mine as well as Green's -- has done little to advance the rights and protect the security of working-class Americans.

Working Lives, a collection of articles on workers in the South reprinted from the magazine Southern Exposure, is at once less critical of established union leadership than the Green and Foner books and a more affecting indictment of untrampled free enterprise. Most of the book's essays are based on oral testimony, mainly from veterans and victims of industrial work in the largely non-union South. These workers recount the gruelling long hours at work, under appalling conditions and for scandalously low pay, that the anti-union passions of their employers and local law enforcement agencies guaranteed them. The testimony of workers employed today, most movingly that of brown lung victims from the Carolina cotton mills, reveals that Southern workers without unions still suffer from inordinately low pay, often hazardous working conditions and excessively arbitrary supervison. And most disturbingly, both old and young who have participated in union orgainizing drives in the South testify to the violence and intimidation that employers and their allies have been and are still using to defeat unions. They make the case for labor law reform most effectvely.

Certainly the testimonies on which Working Lives depends are selective. The editor and contributors do not pretend to present a detached and balanced account of Southern industrial development. The purpose of the book is political: to acquaint Southern workers with an indigenous radical tradition, and to suggest which organizing strategies have succeeded and can succeed in the South. But the variety of contributors and the heavy reliance on oral history makes for a non-doctrinaire radicalism that avoids excessive preoccupation with the failings of union bureaucrats and focuses instead on the abuses inherent in unregulated capitalism. Working Lives makes clear that unions, despite their maifest weaknesses, are essential in a successful democracy.