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Labor's lost love

By Michael Kazin
Sunday, November 14, 2010; B07

THERE IS POWER IN A UNION

The Epic Story of Labor in America

By Philip Dray

Doubleday. 772 pp. $35

The great British historian E.P. Thompson once wrote that he aimed to "rescue" his subjects from "the enormous condescension of posterity." In this book, Philip Dray seeks to use the past to help American unionists escape the substantial disdain of the present. His thick, engrossing narrative about close to 200 years of labor history is dedicated to the simple proposition that unions, while hardly without their flaws, did much to turn the United States into a more decent, more egalitarian society and might do so again, if they ever reverse a decline that began some four decades ago. "Against the gathered power of moneyed interests, the state, the ideology of the free market, and often public opinion," argues Dray, union activists "clung tenaciously to the faith that they deserved to be seen as human beings, not cogs or commodities, and that America would be the better for it if they were. In this they were certainly right."

To illustrate his argument, Dray devotes much of his book to dramatic tales about strikers in major industries whose conflicts often dominated the headlines of their day. In 1860, female shoemakers marched through the streets of Lynn, Mass., holding aloft a banner that read, "American Ladies Will Not Be Slaves; Give Us a Fair Compensation and We Will Labour Cheerfully." Abraham Lincoln, campaigning 100 miles away, gave them his blessing. A generation later, a massive strike for an eight-hour day shut down factories and building sites in Chicago, then the nation's leading industrial city. But at an anarchist rally in Haymarket Square called to protest the police murder of four strikers, someone threw a bomb that killed seven policemen, and the resulting backlash set the cause of shorter hours back for decades.

When he pivots to the 20th century, Dray steps back from protest marches and picket lines to scrutinize matters of state. He details the politics that drove passage of such landmark laws as the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave the federal government the power to hold union elections and punish employers who fired organizers, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments, written by conservatives to roll back union power. Dray still manages to squeeze in descriptions of the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, which established the might of the United Auto Workers, and the illegal, unpopular 1981 work stoppage by PATCO, the air-traffic controllers union, which led that erstwhile union president Ronald Reagan to fire every striker and encouraged many private employers to plan for "a union-free environment." None of these stories will be new to readers who have a modest acquaintance with labor's triumphs and losses. But Dray retells them with a vigor, clarity and moral passion often absent from more limited academic studies.

In particular, his biographical sketches of labor officials imbue this routinely maligned group with a certain dignity, even affection. It's easy to craft a good portrait of John L. Lewis, the longtime chieftain of the Mine Workers, whose bushy eyebrows and stentorian voice were known to nearly every American in the 1930s and '40s. But Dray also brings to life the relatively obscure William Sylvis, an unschooled iron worker whose itinerant exploits in the years after the Civil War made him "the first national leader around whom there grew a cult of personality." Sylvis bummed rides on trains to spread the gospel that a disunified labor movement would always be a defeated one. He taught Sunday school while neglecting his own family and health and expired a few days past his 40th birthday. "The shawl he wore to the day of his death," Sylvis's brother remembered, "was filled with little holes burned there by the splashing of molten iron from the ladles of molders in strange cities, whom he was beseeching to organize." Dray also finds a union heroine closer to our own time in Karen Silkwood, whose struggle to expose plutonium leaks at her nuclear processing plant in Oklahoma during the 1970s was cut short when she died in a suspicious car accident.

All these mini-narratives underscore the same point. Workers made few gains unless they organized and fought for them: shorter hours, safety regulations, seniority, paid vacations, middle-class wages and Labor Day itself (the first American holiday created by a social movement).

Unfortunately, Dray focuses almost exclusively on industrial workers. In so doing, he unintentionally points out a major reason for labor's contemporary plight. As the manufacture of so many consumer goods has shifted to low-wage nations abroad, unions have failed to sign up more than a small fraction of the millions of service and clerical employees who now compose the majority of the workforce. Labor membership in the private sector of the economy has shrunk to a proportion not seen since the 1890s. Public employees are the one shining exception to this gloomy picture.

Yet apart from the obligatory tale of PATCO's defeat, Dray has little to say about American unionists who work in government at all levels, where they make up almost 40 percent of all employees. Teachers, transit workers and firefighters rarely go on strike, realizing that even brief work stoppages anger and inconvenience taxpayers. Still, their unions remain strong and are vital to Democratic campaigns outside the South. In fact, if organized labor had roughly the same proportion of members in the private sector as it does in the public, President Obama's party would probably have retained control of Congress with ease. Even while on the defensive, unions typically do an excellent job of teaching their members the merits of liberal ideals and programs.

Organized labor may never regain the kind of influence it had in politics and workplaces during its golden years from the New Deal through the Great Society. Once a movement undergoes so long a decline, it rarely rebounds. Whatever may happen, Dray, despite his neglect of public workers, has given unionists and their sympathizers a memorable and accurate history, one that reminds us of the honorable part labor played in the quest for what its advocates grandly but not inaccurately called "industrial democracy."

Michael Kazin's most recent book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches history at Georgetown University.

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