On page 5 of The State of The Unions James Hoffa is described as “ninth vicepresident” of the Teamsters’ Union and its “most dynamic force.” On page 20 he is described as “ninth vice-president” of the Teamsters’ Union and its “most dynamic figure.” On page 147 we are given a one-paragraph definition of “Bogus” (a cant word in the printing trades), and on page 199 we are given approximately the same one-paragraph definition of the same word. On page 99 we are told that Harry Bridges “has tolerated an all-white longshore local in Portland,” and on page 288 we are told that even in Bridges’ “‘progressive’ union there is at least one local that excludes Negroes.” (Despite the fact that we are told this twice, incidentally, it is no longer so.) On page 182 we are told that braceros are “Mexicans legally brought into the United States first during the Second World War to meet the shortage of domestic labor,” and on page 193 we are told that braceros are “Mexican contract laborers brought north under Public Law 78 for the harvesting season.”
We are, in short, in the domain of the New York Times, which day in and day out relentlessly re-identifies everyone and everything, presumably for the benefit of those suddenly become literate since the events of the previous day. Or in that of the New Yorker profile, the sacred institution devoted to telling us everything about a noteworthy human being except what a serious biographer would tell us, and generally in serialized form, repeating certain characterizing labels from week to week for the benefit of the impulse buyer rather than the subscriber.
But the goal of journalism is not the goal of book publishing. If I take advantage of this volume to remind both Mr. Jacobs and his publishers of what should be tiresomely obvious, it is because we are entitled to expect more from both. What they have seen fit to give us is another example of the unbook, that device increasingly resorted to by reputable publishers to present us with the pasted-together magazine pieces of journalists, educators, diplomats, and others whom we respect for their intellect or accomplishments, but who seem increasingly unwilling or unable to apply themselves to the task of writing three hundred-odd consecutive pages even on the subject of their special competence.
There are at least two good reasons why it is time to blow the whistle on this practice. As a publishing gimmick, it misleads the hopeful reader and lets the serious writer off too easily from a responsibility that he ought to confront. Why bother to sit and think if you can get out a book with a tube of glue and a fistful of acknowledgements? And it is difficult if not impossible to come to terms with the argument of a writer who is encouraged not only to be repetitive but to dilute substance with ephemera.
In his Preface, Mr. Jacobs advances four reasons for devoting approximately a fourth of his space to Jimmy Hoffa: the Teamsters’ president symbolizes “some of the basic dilemmas of American unionism,” his union is “the largest in the United States,” he is “a very colorful and interesting person to write about,” and “I happen to know a good deal about him.” What he does not tell us, but what we are surely entitled to infer from the fact that the first six chapters, all on Hoffa, were originally magazine articles, is that he was commissioned to write these articles. It is one thing to do a series of pieces on assignment, and quite another to do a book, which has so much on Hoffa and past history, and so little on the whitecollar unions of tomorrow—neither the American Federation of Teachers nor the State, County, and Municipal Workers is so much as listed in the index—and to title it The State of the Unions.
The chapter on the harassment of Harry Bridges by the federal government, which began in 1934 and continued for over two decades of hearings, trials, reviews, and edicts, is sophisticated in its examination of the government’s “unrelenting effort to press its primitive image of the Communist onto Bridges.” (It is preceded by a civil-libertarian discussion of the harassment of Hoffa by Bobby Kennedy, and an introductory note which concludes forcefully; “I believe Hoffa’s rights have been violated in a number of important ways, and I do not accept as justification for those violations any or all the defects in Hoffa of which I am very much aware.”)
The introductory note to the Bridges chapter relates governmental harassment to the CIO’s decision in 1950 to expel the Communist-led unions, and it includes a typically fortnight declaration by Jacobs, who himself played a role in the expulsions: “I must admit, much as I hate to provide Bridges with ammunition to prove the assertions he made at the time, that there was very little due process in the trial that took place…”
But more important things have been happening on the West Coast waterfront since Bridges’ drift to Republicanism and respectability, foremost among them the “mechanization-automation” agreement between the Longshore Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. This agreement is barely touched on in the introduction to the chapter and not at all in the chapter itself, which in consequence does not relate—as it logically should—to the discussion of automation and re-training in the final two chapters.
Likewise, the chapter on the Negro worker, with its review of the lengthy effort of the NAACP to work against discrimination within the framework of the organized labor movement, provides a most useful corrective to the current conception of the NAACP and its labor secretary, Herbert Hill, as “anti-labor.” But because it has not been revised since its original appearance in print in 1959 (about a generation ago, as the Negro revolution is measured), it is dated; and the comments in the final chapter on the shifting relation between the AFL-CIO and the Negroes are simply not related to those observations made back in the chapter on the Negro worker. So with the chapter on the formal organization of the International Typographical Union, written in 1958, which provides a good historical background for discussion of union democracy, but is quite unconnected with the later chapter (1962) on makework in newspaper publishing and on the airlines; in neither chapter is there anything more than an introductory passing reference to the New York newspaper strike in 1962-63.
What makes reading The State of the Unions particularly frustrating is that, mixed in among all this confusion, there is some of the best and boldest labor reporting of our time. Paul Jacobs has more than special qualifications—a radical background which, if he harps on it excessively, has nevertheless ingrained in him the habit of combining a large view with concentration on the daily experience; years in the labor movement as worker and organizer; a natural sympathy for the underdog which is not always standard equipment in either radicals or labor officials; aggressive curiosity and unbounded gall. He also has a record of performance, some of the best of which is fortunately preserved in these pages.
There may be one or two other labor reporters around capable of clarifying and even making interesting a horribly complicated dispute such as the pilots’ and flight engineers’ bickering over the “third man” in jet cockpits, as Jacobs does. But which of them are concerned enough, as he is, to go beyond the expense-account circle of the union allrightniks, to examine the lives of those who pay the dues, or fight to maintain democracy in American trade unionism? I can think only of Herman Benson, who edits the remarkable little paper, Union Democracy in Action, and Benson does not command the attention that Jacobs does.
Even though Jacobs sometimes swings wildly, as when he suggests that the AFL and CIO split again, we owe him a debt of gratitude for telling the story of Ciepley and Rappaport, “two of a disappearing breed—the self-educated, radical workers who, with their insistent cries for industrial justice, were once the leavening agents of the labor movement,” and their struggle against the ham-handed leadership of the International Association of Machinists. And for reminding us that the wretchedness of the migrant worker and the bracero and the wetback has still not been wiped out, not even by the unions which washed their hands of the unprofitable effort to organize these people at the bottom of the heap. And for brushing aside the liberal mythology about David Dubinsky and the Ladies Garment Workers Union to give us a look at the sentimental but tough, aging but powerhungry Jewish ex-radicals who now lead mainly Negro and Puerto Rican union members.
The final chapter of this collection, “Old Before Its Time,” is a thoughtful monograph based on the work of the trade union study which Jacobs directed under the sponsorship of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. It sets forth Jacobs’ criticisms—to my mind largely justified and very well argued—of the social and economic limitations of collective bargaining in an age of automation. Indeed, if he had set himself to the task of integrating with this wide-ranging summary the ideas behind the helter-skelter articles which precede it, rather than settling for their reproduction together with added introductory comments, Jacobs might very well have produced a unified work which, if not intellectually unassailable, would have been impeccable in its thrust and important in its conclusions. As it is, he has given us a variety of topics (you may take your choice) about which to argue.
And as it is, his analysis of collective bargaining has already drawn the fire of the official trade union liberals, just as articles like his “David Dubinsky: Why His Throne Is Wobbling” have gotten Jacobs labeled as a traitor to his class, a phoney, a fink, and even (in the columns of the Jewish Daily Forward) a Jewish anti-Semite. I think rather that they show him at his most attractive: he tells us frankly that after his Harper’s article on Dubinsky he was not only attacked by professional Jewish liberals, but praised by anti-Semitie correspondents. Such a painful insult he might just as easily have kept to himself, but with characteristic frankness, at the risk of increasing the arsenal of his trade union antagonists, he lays it out for us to see. His conclusions are both courageous and unexceptionable: “I am disturbed because what I say will be misunderstood by some Jews and even worse, by some anti-Semites, but no alternative is open to me; one must either write his perception of the truth or not be a writer.”
If Paul Jacobs’ perception of the truth has been important—which I think it has—in many of these limited magazine articles and monographs, why shouldn’t it be even more so in a carefully considered book?
October 31, 1963