Sticking to the Union

UE Guide to Automation and the New Technology

United Electrical Workers
60 pp., $.75

Union Man: The Life of A Labor Statesman

by David J. McDonald
Dutton, 352 pp., $7.95

Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker 1933-1941

by Irving Bernstein
Houghton Mifflin, 873 pp., $14.00

Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies

by Joseph Robert Conlin
Greenwood, 165 pp., $8.50

American Labor and United States Foreign Policy

by Ronald Radosh
Random House, 484 pp., $10.00

Pittsburgh

It is a long time since many of us burdened the trade union movement with our hopes or complimented it with our curiosity. There is some surprise then at finding so much to learn and even to enjoy in these studies of an institution so much out of fashion. But what is the most surprising thing in the lot is that the book among them which manages not merely to hold but to compel the attention turns out to be the one with the fewest contrivances of narrative or argument, and with the smallest concern for beguiling the stranger. Is it possible that how men work and how they try to make their work more tolerable are subjects not dull, but so full of life that no art is needed to involve us in thinking about them?

The heart of the UE Guide to Automation and the New Technology is a conversation between James Matles, Secretary-Treasurer of the United Electrical Workers, and John Glavin, a Westinghouse machinist, about the struggles and conquests demanded in the operation of a tape-controlled horizontal boring mill. It is simply the talk of men who cannot conceive of a subject more absorbing than the tool and the problems of its use; we are at once fascinated and beyond our depth. Both the pleasure and the puzzlement of such company suggest that our prevailing indifference to the unions may be as much our fault as theirs; most of us stopped caring about labor before we ever managed to learn what it might be like to work at a machine. It was, indeed, possible to spend most of the Fifties as a journalist specializing in labor, to remain if not revered at least employable, and yet enter a factory on only three occasions, two of them as a tourist with Nikita Krushchev.

This is a deficiency not easy to repair; you can come no closer to the reality than to pass Jones and Laughlin’s plant here, as dark and satanic as it could ever have appeared to any Son of Vulcan, and to understand that no man could yet spend a day inside and be unconscious of class oppression; whatever illusions the factory worker may have, comfort, ease, and the sense of fraternity with the boss cannot be imagined among them.

Four years ago James Matles rose at a convention of the United Electrical Workers to oppose a motion to increase his salary:

First let me tell you something. We officers, organizers, business agents, district presidents have it all over you as far as the job is concerned. When you walk through the gate every morning you hate to do it. If you did not have to earn a day’s pay, you would never go near that gate. During the years you have kept me on my job, I have been able to stay from that gate 9,000 times—I figured it out. If, for instance, I had been working in the Erie …

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Letters

Sticking to the Union July 23, 1970

Sticking to the Union July 23, 1970