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The Best Years of Their Lives

What has happened to the trade union movement in America? During the 1930s and 1940s, when millions of American workers joined industrial unions, it seemed to many people that one of the deepest social changes of the century was about to take place. The moment inspired hopes (and fears) of an almost revolutionary shift in political and economic power. Now, fifty years later, unions are struggling to survive. Most political candidates fear appearing too closely associated with them. Public officials see few risks in defying them. Few employers find it difficult to exclude (and at times even to expel) unions from their plants. In 1945, over 35 percent of the nonagricultural work force consisted of union members. In 1989, the figure was less than 17 percent.

It is not hard today to find simple economic or political explanations for the decline of organized labor. America’s industrial base has been eroding for twenty years in the face of foreign competition and declining productivity. Capital has moved around the country (and around the world) in search of cheap, nonunion labor. The shift toward a predominantly service economy has caused millions of people to work in settings much less receptive to unionization than factories. Conservative appointees to the courts and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have weakened the labor laws protecting unions and their organizers. Deregulation has created fierce competition—and hence new pressures to cut labor costs—in such industries as airlines and bus companies.

But these changes alone do not explain labor’s current plight, for it is possible at least to imagine that more powerful trade unions might have done better in the current climate than the often stagnant and bureaucratically bloated organizations we now know. Even in better times American unions never possessed the political or economic influence their most exuberant champions envisioned for them in the 1930s. Recent setbacks, therefore, are only an exaggerated version of the unfulfilled expectations that have marked American unionism throughout the postwar era. The nature of those expectations, and the question of what happened to them, are the subject of some important studies emerging from a new generation of labor historians.

The “new” labor history (now more than two decades old) was, and to a large degree is still, written by left-wing historians. During the 1960s and 1970s it reflected a general belief among New Left scholars that the union movement in America had been a dismal failure almost from the start.1 Labor leaders, the then-radical historian Ronald Radosh wrote in 1966, adopted a “corporate ideology” and created a movement that “chose to align itself with American business and its path of foreign expansion.” Even less strident New Left critics agreed that labor had sacrificed dreams of a radically reorganized workplace, economy, and political life for the inadequate rewards of collective bargaining and a “barren marriage” to the Democratic party.2

The authors of the three books under review, Joshua Freeman, Gary Gerstle, and Bruce Nelson, who teach at Columbia, Princeton, and Dartmouth respectively, are among a surprisingly small number of scholars who have brought the perspectives of the new labor history to bear on the events of the Great Depression. But their books also suggest the ways in which labor history is beginning, somewhat gingerly, to move away from its New Left origins. All three writers recognize the limits of the movement’s achievements and describe the unions’ failure in the postwar era to capitalize on their initial victories. But they reject the image of labor leaders as corporate flunkies and of the labor movement as tame and centrist and modest in its goals. For the workers described in these books at least, the 1930s were a time of genuine workingclass militancy. The triumph of collective bargaining was a real and lasting achievement, which the problems of later years should not obscure.

Freeman, who writes about transit workers in New York City, calls the rise of the CIO “one of the central developments in modern American history,” part of “the most profound metamorphosis in the lives of working people since the Civil War and Reconstruction.” Gerstle, in his study of the organizing drives of textile workers in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, describes the 1930s as a moment when

radicals and other activists managed, in many instances, to set in motion plans for gaining working-class power that would significantly shape their society’s culture, economy, and politics for years to come.

Nelson’s study of the struggles of seamen and longshoremen portrays the Great Depression as a “pentecostal era,” a “syndicalist renaissance” in which truly radical hopes found expression in a fervent labor militancy.3 In light of labor’s problems in the 1980s, apparently, the achievements of the 1930s seem more impressive than they did twenty years ago.

These books are powerful reminders of how much worse off most American workers were before the arrival of collective bargaining. Nowhere is that made clearer than in Bruce Nelson’s vivid description of the experiences of merchant seamen and longshoremen before the Great Depression. The lives of sailors, in particular, were among the most degraded of any American workers. They lived in conditions little different from those which Herman Melville had observed in the mid-nineteenth century, when seamen were pariahs, “deemed almost the refuse and offscourings of the earth,” and which Eugene O’Neill described in some of his early plays.4 At sea, they were crammed into small, dank living quarters on ship (“too large for a coffin and too small for a grave,” a union leader once described them) and fed “stuff that seagulls wouldn’t eat.” Life on board most ships, one sailor claimed, was like life in prison, “with the additional risk of being drowned.”

The special character of maritime life partly explained this degradation. But it also resulted from the inability of seamen to control the conditions under which they were hired. Sailors had virtually nothing to say about where or when they sailed or how much they would be paid. Decisions on hiring were usually in the hands of the men called “crimps,” who kept shoreside boarding houses where sailors stayed between voyages, and who doubled as labor contractors. “The seamen were herded under the eyes of the boarding-master as completely as so many cattle in a corral,” one West Coast sailor described it. The crimp “would determine the length of [the seaman’s] spell ashore, fix the rate of wages…. ‘Play the game, or go to hell,’ was the order of the day.”

For New York’s transit workers, Joshua Freeman makes clear, the preunion era was also a time of exploitation and frustration. Bus and train companies in the early 1930s tried to keep labor costs down not just by shrinking the work force with such technological advances as token-operated turnstiles and multicar door controls. They also forced those workers who remained to devote “a staggering number of hours to their jobs” while being paid for only some of them. The work of the transit systems peaked at rush hours, and employers devised several methods to avoid paying workers for a full day. One was what was known as the “swing” run. Employees “worked the morning rush hour, then had an unpaid ‘swing,’ followed by a second stint in the evening.” Another device was hiring “extras,” low-seniority workers “who on any given day might be sent out on a tripper or a short run, replace a sick worker on a full shift, or be sent home without work.” It was not unusual for a worker to spend twelve or fourteen hours on the job for six or eight hours of wages—or, for some extras, no wages at all. Company spies (or “beakies”) infiltrated the work force; employees identified as malcontents or union organizers could be summarily fired.

The textile workers whose experiences Gary Gerstle chronicles worked in conventional factories, but they and their families were no less subject to the whims of owners and foremen. Interviewing retired workers in the 1980s, Gerstle was struck by the “raw anger” these aging men still felt, fifty years later, toward the all-powerful factory foremen who

made decisions about hiring and firing, work loads and promotions that effectively determined who would be able to feed the family one week and who would not.

Yet despite their grievances and anger, most workers were relatively quiescent through the 1920s, and even through the first years of the Great Depression. There had been substantial working-class radicalism in the early twentieth century and, in 1919–1921, a wave of strikes across the country. But after that, the union movement was largely moribund for more than a decade. Serious upheavals resumed only in 1934, and the most significant union victories did not occur until 1937 and after—which suggests that something more than economic distress was necessary for labor to make headway.

One element was the New Deal, to which historians of a generation ago gave principal credit for the rise of organized labor and which more recent scholars also recognize as a turning point. Nelson describes the excitement that emerged among dockworkers in June 1933 after the passage of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, whose Section 7(a) offered the first statutory guarantee of the right of workers “to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” In San Francisco, he notes, “the passage of the NIRA was followed almost immediately by the reestablishment of an ILA [International Longshoremen’s Association] local that the stevedores joined in droves.” One worker described the moment: “We didn’t have to be pushed to get into that union. We knocked down the god darned doors.”

Transit workers in New York, Freeman argues, saw the NIRA (and the almost simultaneous election of Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York) as a sign “that social change was possible,” that “it was no longer certain that the transit companies could count on automatic government support.” For textile workers in Rhode Island, Gerstle notes, the 1935 Wagner Act—which contained enforcement provisions that the NIRA had notoriously lacked—defined the notion of industrial democracy that labor activists were promoting. “To have a free government,” union leaders insisted, “you must have recognition and respect of your rights in the workshop as well as the polls.” Legislatively guaranteed union elections, supervised by the NLRB, came to seem as fundamental a right as free elections for government officials.

But union activism did not emerge out of economic distress and legal opportunity alone. It emerged as well out of conditions peculiar to specific industries. For maritime, transit, and textile workers, the necessary conditions were a product of the work place itself and, at least equally important, of the larger culture of the working-class community.

In the maritime industry, Bruce Nelson suggests, labor militancy was the product of an affinity for radicalism bred by life on the ships and docks. Merchant seamen were transients (“homeless, rootless, and eternally unmoneyed,” as Fortune magazine put it in the 1930s). They generally lacked the strong ties—to family, church, community, even ethnic group—that among other workers “served the purpose of reconciling working people to the hegemony of the employing class.” Longshoremen too had a long tradition of radicalism, particularly on the Pacific Coast, which stretched back at least as far as the unsuccessful strike in 1921 led in large part by Wobblies. In the West longshoremen, seamen, and loggers (another group of workers on the fringes of society with a strong propensity to radicalism) tended to know one another and sometimes worked the same jobs. They reinforced one another’s militancy.

  1. 1

    The New Left was challenging (but also curiously reflecting) the mainstream liberal view of the labor movement epitomized by Irving Bernstein’s monumental history of American unions in the Great Depression, Turbulent Years (Houghton Mifflin, 1970). Liberals viewed collective bargaining as the principal aim and greatest achievement of American workers in the 1930s. So did much of the left. But while liberals celebrated the extent of labor’s triumph, the left bemoaned its limitations.

  2. 2

    Ronald Radosh, “The Corporate Ideology of American Labor Leaders from Gompers to Hillman,” in James Weinstein and David W. Eakins, eds., For a New America: Essays in History and Politics (Random House, 1970), pp. 151–152; Mike Davis, “The Barren Marriage of American Labour and the Democratic Party,” New Left Review 124 (1980), pp. 43–84; Melvyn Dubofsky, “Not So ‘Turbulent Years’: A New Look at the American 1930s,” Charles Stephenson and Robert Asher, eds., Life and Labor: Dimensions of American Working-Class History (State University of New York Press, 1986), pp. 205–223.

  3. 3

    Workers on the Waterfront was awarded the 1989 Frederick Jackson Turner Prize of the Organization of American Historians.

  4. 4

    O’Neill, Bound East for Cardiff (1914), The Personal Equation (1915), The Long Voyage Home (1917).

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