Friday, March 25, 2011

There is Power in a Union

There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, Philip Dray, (NY: Double Day, 2010), 674 pages, $35.00

There is Power in a Union has the narrative history of America’s labor movement from its early beginnings in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1820’s until 2010. It is a survey, but at 674 pages it is a thorough survey with room for details.

At Lowell, young women from the surrounding farms manned the looms in the textile mills for $2.25 to $4.00 a week. Many lived in boarding houses as the mills expanded and Lowell grew to 18,000 people by the mid 1830’s, but the young women grew restive working 12 and 14 hour days in the dusty, noisy mills. When management ordered a wage cut after a bad year, the women staged a defiant and unified strike; 800 walked out of the mill at once.

The women lost their strike. Management had a big inventory, but it was the beginning of a more expansive effort to organize labor. As industrial production developed labor organizing developed with it. The Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was part of a broader effort to set a 10 hour work day throughout New England factories.

Organizing trades was common in the early years with many of the early labor unions evolving from the discontented in the laboring ranks. Organizers built a following honing their speaking skills preaching a philosophy of personal rights and fair play.

Readers feel the growing violence and mayhem in the era after the Civil War and especially following the 1873 depression as labor relations soured badly when the Erie Railroad failed to meet payroll in March 1874, claiming financial setbacks. Worse came in July 1877 when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced a second wage cut in a year. Oddly the rail workers were not organized but left work anyway. Management brought in scabs, then the police, then the militia, but the violence escalated and spread to other cities and to organized labor in a national labor revolt. One sage from the period was quoted: “The rapidly spreading railroad strike was difficult for authority for the simple reason that it was unorganized.”

Unions primarily sought higher wages and shorter hours in the years before the civil war, but that changed after 1873. Many lost faith in the political system as government and the courts entered labor disputes on the side of business. Courts ruled that labor unions were illegal conspiracies and jailed and executed organizers. Government sent the army along with plenty of ammunition.

Readers learn the background and personal qualities of the socialist and anarchist philosophers of the era who wrote for hundreds of socialist and anarchist daily and weekly newspapers. Outspoken writers like Albert Parsons, August Spies, Johann Most, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Eugene Debs contrast with the more conservative Terence Powderly, or the more goal oriented and practicable Samuel Gompers, or the dedicated and determined Mother Jones, and Jacob Coxey.

Dray follows a general chronology which at times feels like an account of one strike after another. The tide of strikes and shutdowns in 1877 was followed with accounts of the McCormick Reaper strike and Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago, the Homestead strike in Pittsburgh and the Pullman Palace Car strike in Chicago; all that by 1894.

Narrative in these chapters highlights the varied and chaotic nature of labor protest and the organizing of new unions from the late nineteenth century well into the twentieth. Strikes by unions were everywhere in everything: mining, manufacturing, transportation, government services. Out west Bill Hayward organized the Western Federation of Miners in 1893 after a failed copper strike. In the east, Eugene Debs organized the American Railway Union while Samuel Gompers organized the American Federation of Labor as an amalgamated craft union. A coalition of groups, east and west, organized the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905 as an industrial union open to all.

Organizing inevitably translated into action. Dray narrates the peculiar details of the United Mineworkers strike of 1902, the International Ladies Garment Workers strike of 1909, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the Lawrence Massachusetts “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912, the Patterson New Jersey Silk strike of 1913, the awful events in Ludlow Colorado during the strike against John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1913, and two Arizona Copper strikes and violence in 1917. The year 1919 was another bad year with a general strike in Seattle, the Boston Police strike and strikes in the steel and coal industries.

The election of Franklin Roosevelt brought moderation from government as well as an advocate in Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, who announced that the Department of Labor should be the Department FOR labor. Labor leaders like John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman got a chance to influence new labor policy and legislation as insiders: the Norris LaGuardia Act, the National Labor Relations Act.

Labor got new rights and respect and Dray covers the depression era’s legal and political events with expanded detail, but the labor protest continued. Strikes in Toledo at Electric Autolite by the American Federation of Labor, in San Francisco by the International Longshoreman, in North Carolina by the United Textile Workers, in Minneapolis by the Teamsters turned 1934 into days of rage and violence. The renowned GM sit-down strikes in Flint Michigan, the Ford strike where company toughs beat up Walter Reuther at the “Battle of the Overpass” and the violent and deadly Republic Steel strike came in 1937.

The World War II years turned out to be an interlude which Dray covers in a few pages, but the post war labor movement started changing immediately after the war. An industry steel strike, miner’s strike and railroad strike soured public opinion and gave business the opportunity to get Congress to pass limitations to organized labor in the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, events covered in detail.

Much of the 1950’s labor news was the McClellan Committee hearings of corruption and misuse of union funds by labor leaders. Robert Kennedy made a name for himself questioning the Teamsters Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa. Labor proved defiant but Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act with more restrictions on labor.

Business opposition to organized labor remained the same, but organized labor divided in search of a new identity and a broader social justice. Dray captures the frenetic pace and the internal division of what was inevitably a varied and messy process. Internal battles developed as more people recognized the connection between civil rights, social justice, the Vietnam War and the labor movement. Martin Luther King was one of those people and Dray covers his efforts on behalf of labor including the Memphis sanitation strike. The Vietnam War split organized labor and there is extensive narrative describing these divisions. The principal labor antagonists were Walter Reuther and George Meany, although there were others. Walter Reuther comes off as the more reflective, thoughtful and effective representative of labor interests. Readers feel the end of an era with his loss in a plane crash.

Remaining narrative in these late chapters includes discussion of automation, health and safety issues, the history and background of farm labor and the rise of Cesar Chavez, the Karen Silkwood episode, the Patco strike and Clinton era disputes at Hormel, Caterpillar, United Parcel Service and Russell Athletic wear.

There is Power in a Union is an American book with virtually nothing about foreign labor movements. It reads easily and it is extremely well documented with a lengthy bibliography and thousands of text citations. It was possible to find some of the obscure citations on Internet media services from 19th century newspapers like the New York Times in 1874 and 1877. It was new to me to read entire articles of America’s yellow journalism.

As I finished reading I realized an advantage to a history that combines the separate elements of working America in a unified narrative. It is possible and probably common to know the labor movement in separate details as labor law, human resources, labor economics, labor organizing or specific historical events. In Dray’s narrative there was room to address many details, sometimes in twenty or thirty pages, but events in time move along in a chronology that helps reveal common and long lived threads running through America’s labor movement and American culture.

The accounts of a steady stream of strikes reveals a long and continuous managerial class refusing to bargain or respect strikers who were fired and replaced with scabs. Angry strikers picketed plant sites and blocked gates followed by violent clashes between strikers and requested police, militia or federal troops and attacks from a hostile press. It was a scenario repeated over and over with one class of people lined up against another. It is calmer and less violent now, but is it different? I doubt it, but do some reading and decide for yourself.

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