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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


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 plant all this time, I would have had to punch that clock 27,000 times, and I would have hated to do it every single minute. Instead of going to work every morning for the boss and hating it, I’ve been getting up every morning and going to work on a job I like to do‌.

These reflections are not recalled as evidence that Matles has kept a purity his brothers have lost, it being more useful to be instructed than to be inspired. The example of Matles suggests that a man’s purity may be less to the point than the endurance of his sense of who he is and where he stands. Labor journalism pretty much forgot Matles in the Fifties when the UE was expelled from the old CIO for the Communist taint. And yet he so bore himself that, in last fall’s General Electric strike, all his old enemies even unto the granitic George Meany bent to accept him, not just as comrade, but as leader in negotiations, because he knew the ground better than they. The intense curiosity about the process of work which runs through his questions about the tape-controlled drill suggests why.

The most noticed exception to the general impression of the labor movement as dormant is, of course, the National Union of Hospital Workers, whose strikes have for ten years remained special as wars of liberation. The hospital union’s missionaries have come to this rock of the church of labor with no lively expectation of encountering resistance less vigorous than was offered in partibus infidelium of Charleston, South Carolina, last fall, where they struck the hospitals for 113 days before they got the union into them.

Still, in Pittsburgh they canvassed the boards of the two largest hospitals in hopes of turning up someone tolerant; the effort, understandably, was quickly left off. The roster of those hospital trustees provides all the rebuttal anyone could need for the notion that Pittsburgh’s affairs are not just as secure in the hands of her corporate custodians as they were before the unions came. Six members of Presbyterian Hospital’s board are also directors of the Mellon National Bank; two are leading officers of the Aluminum Company of America; the Presbytery’s representative is an attachment of the Mellon family. Mercy Hospital has on its board four pillars of Mellon properties, an exact balance with the four nuns who represent the order the Church has charged with its administration. Negroes have been noticed, with one person on the board of each hospital. Yet the unions, whose health and welfare funds provide both institutions with their largest single revenue source, cannot show a solitary trustee. The management of Pittsburgh’s social property rests as entirely as it ever did in the hands that own its social property.

The memoirs of David J. McDonald, former president of the United Steelworkers Union, are a reminder that the only revolt of Pittsburgh labor which has ever overturned a class relationship was McDonald’s ouster from office.

The career is suggestive although it would be hardly fair to offer the character as representative of the run of labor professionals who, if they are by no means free of his weaknesses, hardly approach him in the excess of their display. McDonald remembers, if he does not invent, a childhood where the class struggle was a staple of kitchen table conversation:

The talk of violence and dishonor done the workingman got under my skin and into my blood, but somehow it didn’t poison my mind.

He carried this immunity transiently on to the office force at Jones and Laughlin and then escaped into the labor movement as confidential secretary to Philip Murray, then vice president of the United Mineworkers of America. McDonald was a superior clerk in the mine union; and he seems to have drawn from that experience all of John L. Lewis’s disdain for the people he served and none of Lewis’s grandeur. He went to assist Murray in organizing the steelworkers, where his chief function seems to have been to supervise the union’s construction according to the authoritarian canons of the United Mineworkers.

Murray was an egalitarian without ever having been a democrat, a conflict which made him a disciplinarian who disliked the sight of discipline being imposed. The dirty work then fell to McDonald who brought to it such will that, when Murray died in 1952, his command of the union’s machinery made his succession irresistible. His function as straw boss had made him powerful but it had also made him unpopular, which suggests that his fall was in his rise. He came to the summit having learned from his two guides neither Lewis’s power to awe nor Murray’s to command affection.

What passion he brought to the office was for “a dream [United States Steel Board Chairman] Ben Fairless and I pursued.” This vision does not seem to have been exactly the same in the head of each of these pilgrims: McDonald rose enough above his station to talk about the union as management’s partner in a “mutual trusteeship” for the satisfaction of the stockholders; Fairless inclined no further below his than to express the hope that “management and labor [can] put aside ‘an atmosphere of recrimination, suspicion and distrust of each other’s motives.’ ”

McDonald’s happiest recollection of his stewardship was of the goodwill tour he and Fairless made together through US Steel’s plants in 1953. To arrive as grand seigneur, second class, was clearly the only style for meeting his troops that gave him genuine pleasure. He was indeed so insensitive to the figure he might be cutting that he had to be told that the chauffeured limousines which carried his fellow ambassador and himself “were leaving a bad impression among the workers.”

For here was a man capable of every sin of pride except forgetting his place in the presence of his betters. The chronicle affords only one incident which helps to illuminate our social history; yet it is one so blinding as to redeem what is otherwise the ordeal of his company. He had just been elected president of the Steelworkers Union in 1952 when:

Ben Fairless phoned and asked if I would stop by his office, just a few blocks from ours. It was Christmas Eve. He was waiting for me and greeted me effusively. Then he introduced me to General Richard K. Mellon, head of the Mellon financial empire. Although I had the feeling I was being sized up by Mellon, Fairless insisted that his purpose was to renew [his] invitation to tour the US Steel plants‌.

McDonald is inescapably a flibbertigibbet now, and even then the suspicion that he was one seemed by no means implausible. Still he had been a noticeable figure in Pittsburgh and even the country at large for fifteen years. He occupied the second most consequential position in a union which the public fancy at least imagined to be the equal antagonist of Western Pennsylvania’s most important industrial establishment. He had sat in conference with three presidents of the United States and was soon to sit with a fourth. His government had often called, if not upon his brain, at least upon his vocal cords:

I was asked by the US Department of Labor [in 1942] to represent the United States at a Cuban Confederation of Labor meeting in Havana. My function, I was told, was to urge support for the American war effort in Cuba. That would be the first of dozens of similar assignments I would perform in the years to come.

He had thereafter toured the battlefields of France, wandered about Peru for the Office of Inter-American Affairs, served the War Department on a committee of citizens advising improvements in efficiency and economy. To read this gazette of ceremonial progress is to wonder whether one minor reason for James Matles’s survival may not be that a man cast out for adhering to a foreign government has gained a serviceable exemption from distractions put upon him by adherence to his own.

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