George Meany
George Meany; drawing by David Levine


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.

Still, McDonald did have reason to think that he had been a man of some mark for quite a while by now. Yet, so low is the caste of a trade union professional that he would be past fifty before the most important banker in Pittsburgh would think that there might be some use in making his acquaintance.

He does not appear interested enough in his members even now to wonder why they have turned him out; he lays his fall mainly to treason in his palace, it being implicit in his view of the way institutions are managed to assume that no incumbent can ever lose a union election unless he has enemies strategically enough placed to reach some reasonable balance in ballot-stealing. He only wonders how he could have been cast aside by persons for whom he had realized everything he and Murray and Lewis had imagined for them in 1936.

“There was little left to seek for my steelworkers except periodic wage adjustments,” he says. “We’d done it all.” He had been casting about for some fresh aspiration when the blow fell. But every idea that occurred seemed so hopelessly exotic that “I knew I was reaching and therefore I knew also that the Steelworkers had achieved just about everything a union could provide them under Murray and me.”

This public bearing of weary condescension toward any suggestion that some struggle might yet avail was a factor in McDonald’s disaster. When Lewis sought some explanation from the Steelworkers’ Vice President, Joseph Molony, he got the answer: “The poor man was bored with the whole thing, so we relieved him of it.”

But it is curious how many elements of the attitude McDonald had the bad judgment to make so explicit seem to survive, though implicit, in the spirit of the institution he left behind him. Meeting I. W. Abel, now president of the Steelworkers, you wonder how the contest between them could have been as close as it was. Could factory hands really have divided as closely as they had over the choice between this man, who looks as though he had been in the plant so long that everyone there called him “Pop,” and that man, who might have been a television director on a visit to see whether the scene might work for a commercial and departed at once, knowing it wouldn’t.

But then more than 40 percent of the union’s electorate voted against Abel the first time he ran for reelection against a barely visible opponent. That wound is still upon him a year later; he sits in his office fingering demands from the provinces which affront his understanding of what reasonable men could possibly expect from their employers. What, he wonders, do these people think they can get? He is really wondering who these people are; and that mystery does not yield much more to this man, who plainly thinks about very little else, than it did to a predecessor who never bothered to think about it at all.

“I was more of a labor leader twenty-five years ago when I was just an organizer than I am now,” says Joseph Molony from his eminence as an International Vice President of the Steelworkers. “Then members would only ask you what to do. It is hard to remember those old men who used to say ‘Thank you, Mr. Murray’ and then stand back as if they were too close to the Almighty. Now the members are different. Ninety percent of them have never been in the union hall. Jim Griffin was beaten in the last election. He was our best district director. There was a man who did every one of the things for Youngstown that people complain labor leaders don’t do for their communities. He was on the board of the hospital; he went out and made speeches for higher pay for teachers. That’s what beat him. Our members are property holders and all they could see from what Jim was doing for Youngstown was raising their taxes. He was beaten by someone nobody had ever heard of; the fellow came to me afterwards and asked ‘What do I do now?’ and I told him there was nothing for him to do but hire somebody to run the office and just stay away from it. That’s the kind of talent that beats somebody like Jim Griffin these days.”

The sense of diminishing relevance peculiarly oppresses Molony because one of his duties is to tell meetings of the membership why the union is still important to it. One recent evening he drove to Johnstown to deliver a recruitment message to Bethlehem Steel’s white collar workers:

I thought a lot about what might be bothering them. There’s automation, of course; but I’ve yet to meet anyone that’s lost his job on account of automation. So I talked about the dangers to the industry and about what we were doing about the competition of foreign steel and I talked about the conglomerates. I don’t think they’d been bothered about these things before. They listened pretty well.

No national assumption endures so stubbornly as this image of Americans who go to the job and Americans who hire them as members of a community sharing the same worries. Evidences in argument against it are transient and seldom as clear-cut as they would need to be. The victories of the Hospital Workers might be offered as a case in rebuttal, but even those tend to be thought of as extensions of the Negro revolt rather than as portents of some wider possibility for the unionism of discontent. Most hospital workers are Negroes; and their assemblies are so faithful to the models of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that the union would not think of calling a strike in Pittsburgh without inviting Mrs. Martin Luther King to deliver the invocation.

But where are we to fit the strike at the Uniontown Hospital forty miles from here? Most of the strikers are white; their base wage is $1.70 an hour. And Uniontown is a citadel of the United Mineworkers, the grandest monument of the labor revolution. It is thirty-six years since Uniontown’s mines were liberated by the union, and John L. Lewis could proclaim, “The United Mineworkers of America has substantially accomplished the task to which it has been dedicated…through the forty-four years of its history.” And yet it is a persistent oddity of labor history how small a mark the strongest men and the greatest events leave on the lives they came to change.

The murder of Joseph Yablonsky, the UMW’s major insurgent, is announced as solved; his killers, we are told, were paid by an old miner on a union pension. Where else in the otherwise prosperous national industry of murder-for-hire could you find an economic pocket as deprived as these coalfields where we can be offered a band of assassins whose paymaster suffers from black lung? There are reports that the Uniontown hospital workers are being replaced by UMW pensioners; the mineworkers’ union’s substantial accomplishment of its task is now a piece of history whose monuments are glad to do anything for $1.70 an hour.

Conversations with the Hospital Union strikers are curiously evocative; they are cheerful and without rancor and remind you of the black South in the days when it was that most pleasurable of subjects, the sentimental one. Talk about the wage passes quite soon. It seems a deeper grievance that the hospital’s superintendent does not speak when they pass him in the hall.

“I like my job,” Bridget Kazmareck says. “But I just want to walk in and have everybody say, ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ It’s not the working conditions I care about any more; it’s just a matter of respect.”

And around the table, there is a nodding of heads at the word “respect.”

That demand of the spirit—expressed most often only in utterances of Negroes—must then move through more of us than most of us know.

A particular virtue of Turbulent Years is Irving Bernstein’s persistence in burrowing for persons obscure in their time and buried beyond memory now. There is Wilmer Tate, president of a Machinists local in Akron and secretary-treasurer of its Central Trades and Labor Council, who led the first movement to organize the rubber plants in 1933:

He had farmed in Iowa and later became a top craftsman in Akron. Though poorly educated, he read widely in economics and radical literature and in the late Twenties decided he would someday help to organize the rubber factories. His associates were James McCartan, a printer, W.H. Wilson, an electrician, A.J. Frecka, a plumber, and Alex Eigenmacht, the owner of a virtually bankrupt print shop. Tate was on relief; Wilson could not get on it because his daughter had a job with Firestone for $5 a week; McCartan, the lucky one, worked on a newspaper. The Central Labor Union still had $696, but it was tied up in a frozen bank account. Tate peddled it in an alley for $360 in cash. With this fund, the men rented the armory, paid the expenses of a speaker, bought stamps, and purchased enough paper and ink for Eigenmacht to run off 50,000 leaflets. On June 26 the men and their families passed out the flyers at the gates of the rubber factories.

The actors these scenes summon from the tomb explain why the Thirties still seem a better time to a part of every union leader whose name we recognize, except George Meany. And yet Meany, who lived through that time more removed from these events than the manager of a wire mill would have been, has still ended inheriting their fruits.

Whatever else may explain that triumph, his skill and passion hardly can. Bernstein disinters for us this picture of the AFL executive council called to Miami to confront the challenge of John L. Lewis’s CIO in January of 1937:

Charles Howard [then secretary of the CIO] …wryly watched the opening of the session. The first important question to be resolved, he wrote Sidney Hillman, was the hours of meeting. There were two schools of thought. There were those who wished to stay up to the “wee small hours” engaged in their “favorite pastime” and so preferred afternoon sessions. The others, who wanted to go to the races, favored meeting in the morning. “The latter element prevailed in the caucus and then some difficulty was experienced in finding a member who would agree to meet the President [William Green] when he arrived and tell him how the matter had been arranged.”

No active spirit of the time could have believed that men this trivial could wear out rivals this serious; yet Meany today presides over an Executive Council governed by the rhythms of the Hialeah Race Track’s schedule, and the leaders of the old CIO unions join him there for debates which seem to have rather less spirit and much less division. The side which was indifferent to history ended up absorbing the side which felt itself marching with history.

Bernstein is as partisan as most truly engrossing historians are. He is for the CIO and against the AFL; and there are indications that he himself thinks the Thirties were the success so uncritically celebrated until just a little while ago. Certainly the conspicuous figures he seems most to admire are Sidney Hillman as labor leader and William M. Leiserson as public mediator:

Despite his foreign birth and early Socialist attachment, Hillman was in the mainstream of American pragmatism. He believed in the gospel according to Hart Schaffner and Marx rather than in that according to Lenin, Engels, and Marx…. Goals must be framed by the “achievable.” When some of his members argued for the abolition of piecework, Hillman replied, “We cannot wreck the house in which we expect to live.”

Above all, Leiserson was pragmatic. “All his life,” Avery Leiserson has written, “my father distrusted ideal type theories and abstract model explanations of human behavior.”

It is never easy to question the accomplishments of pragmatism, because in America pragmatists grade the papers. Given his admiration for the men of the Thirties, we could not blame Bernstein if he gave way to celebration of their accomplishment of some truly radical change. Yet he is so just an observer that, when his chronicle ends, his assessment of the consequence of its events is surprisingly cautious. It is, he decides, “difficult to assess the impact of growing unionism on the condition of workers.”

He ends with a recollection of how philosophically President Roosevelt looked upon the sit-down strikes and how assured he was that, when these things passed, the society would be very much what it had been before. In April of 1937, the President endured a press conference with an angry and uneasy association of newspaper publishers:

A publisher was worried about the American Newspaper Guild. The President replied, “I think you’re going to have a bad time quite frankly for three or four years.” The union people would change their leaders often and “gradually they will get people with their feet on the ground all the time.” That was the case with the new unions generally. They were going through “growing pains.” They required several years of “education,” time to develop leaders who would “see the whole picture, not just the passionate picture of a new movement.”

Mr. Roosevelt judged with a precision impossible for anyone who looked at these events with any great hope or alarm about their consequences. He had the advantage of experience; he had already learned where power resided and that, while he had some dependence on labor to be elected, he had every dependence on industry to govern.

(1) In 1934, the President was called in to mediate the first union stoppages in the automobile industry. He came up with a settlement which made “the manufacturers ‘tremendously happy’… [while] unionists in the auto plants felt that they had been sold out.” Mr. Roosevelt could conceive of no other remedy. A strike would interrupt recovery, and, Bernstein concludes, “In sum, the government needed the industry more than the industry needed the government.”

Even in 1940 Sidney Hillman, then Labor Director of the National Defense Advisory Commission, could only apologize to his fellow CIO officers because so many war contracts were being let to companies still holding out against their unions:

[Hillman] did not make the contracts. This was done by the War and Navy Departments. Hillman was working on these agencies and the contractors. He had just conferred with Eugene Grace of Bethlehem Steel and was trying to reach Henry Ford.

(2) The President’s sympathies were never free from inhibition by appreciation of the power of property. In cases where a union had no claim but morality, he could do nothing. The Associated Farmers were flogging the Imperial Valley agricultural strikers in 1934. The National Labor Board sent an investigating commission which reeled back in shock and horror and urged federal intervention on the side of the strikers. “These recommendations seem to have caused consternation in Washington”; and that was all they caused. Whenever his enemies got a leg up on his friends, the President had to draw back: the Little Steel companies were breaking John L. Lewis’s strike; Republic’s Tom Girdler had refused even to answer the President’s telegram urging mediation. Even so, proud as he was, Mr. Roosevelt could only balance the scale and suggest that most Americans by now were saying “a plague on both your houses.”

(3) And yet this ally, shifty though he had to be, was an absolute necessity for the unions; whatever prodigies of engagement the workers managed to muster could not avail them enough unless somewhere they could find a politician who, if he would not help, would at least abstain from harming. There was no such politician below the grade of governor and very few this side of the office of President. Every officeholder who worked within shouting distance of a plant appears to have been the servant of its proprietors. The steel companies, for example, owned all the mayors. The police seem to have been uniformly disposed to club the head of any stranger who affronted any substantial contributor of property taxes. Bernstein even favors us with Harold Ickes’s judgment of the Chicago police: “From the time of the Haymarket riots in Chicago, police always justified brutal invasions of civil rights by calling those whom they manhandled ‘anarchists.’ ”

In these conditions, we can understand how dependent all these revolutionaries were on a President who, at very occasional best, did what he could to help them and at worst tried to do nothing to hurt; who could reflect, as he did to Samuel Rosenman in 1940, when the storm had abated, how right he had been not to be disturbed:

Little do people realize how I had to take abuse and criticism for inaction at the time of the Flint strike. I believed, and I was right, that the country, including labor, would learn the lesson of their own volition without having it forced upon them by marching troops.

(4) Then too, we forget how useful to the CIO were those very few businessmen who shared Roosevelt’s perception of how little it really wanted. The CIO’s most representative moment in history may not have been the General Motors strike but the peaceful recognition contract Lewis negotiated with Myron C. Taylor of United States Steel just afterward.

“[The Steelworkers Organizing Committee] had found it politically necessary,” Bernstein tells us, “to get the workers a big increase in the first contract and its propaganda had called for the $5 day, which was exactly eight times 62.5 cents per hour. With the current high volume of operations, the corporation could stand this amount and, in fact, used this first labor agreement to institute the policy of raising prices immediately following the granting of a wage increase…. Isador Lubin of the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the return on prices at double the outlay in wages.”

That beginning was an adumbration of the end. If we cannot quite fairly say of the legions Bernstein memorializes what Macaulay observed about the Highlanders who fought for King James, still there are elements of parallel:

Though the Highlanders achieved some great exploits in the civil wars of the seventeenth century, these exploits left no trace which could be discerned after the lapse of a few weeks. It was incredible that undisciplined men should have performed such feats of arms. It was incredible that such feats of arms, having been performed, should be immediately followed by the triumph of the conquered and the submission of the conquerors.

Bernstein makes a persuasive, if unassertive, argument that the Thirties did produce changes—a “significant increase in wages,” the narrowing of pay differentials, the establishment of grievance procedures, and the decline in the authority of the foreman, who, being a worker too, took most of the loss in whatever power the union member gained.

But there was also one small change and two large remainings-the-same. The change was a shift in public attention to the labor leader and away from the worker—the solution of his problems could too easily be taken for granted. That displacement affects Bernstein too. The Lean Years, which carried his history of American labor up from 1920 to 1933, is as notable for his attention to the worker as person as his latest is engrossing for its concentration on the squabbles of union professionals over the worker as property. He has the excuse that in the Thirties everyone talked about labor leaders of whom no one had ever heard in the Twenties. But the results of this general change in focus have been unhappy for our education.

For example, Jerold Auerbach brought a splendid impulse to the collection of documents he calls American Labor: The Twentieth Century. He set out to find, as often as he could, materials where “workers speak for themselves.” “For the moment at least,” he reminds us, “we know all that we need to know about the workers’ leaders and institutions; it is time that we learned more about the workers themselves.” And yet for all his persistence, he can find no material of this direct expression any more recent than letters from miners published in their union journal in 1938. When he comes to judgments of the present inanition of the unions, he can only use their critics, who, however useful, are even more removed from the intimacies of the workday than the leaders they criticize. Journalism, scholarship, and government have, we must assume, simply stopped asking Auerbach’s questions. If the worker is a mystery to his leaders, it ought to be said in justice to them that the rest of us haven’t cared much to assist an inquiry.

But, more substantial than any change, what remain are the two most enduring allegiances of organized labor—the first to business and the second to government.

In his study of the Industrial Workers of the World, which he calls Bread and Roses Too, Joseph Robert Conlin mentions the one policy of the IWW which can fairly be called un-American and thus the only one which seems never to have aroused the smallest impulse of imitation in any other American union.

That was the variant of sabotage that the French called “la bouche ouverte.”

It consisted simply of publicity, of telling the customer the truth…. The Paris cooks’ syndicate revealed to customers how crayfish soup was not made of crayfish meat but of crayfish and lobster shells which had been left on plates and were finely powdered and sprayed with carmine…. An IWW waiters’ strike in York was settled in the workers’ favor when the union threatened to make public a list of hotels which maintained unsanitary kitchens.

Inexplicably, a progressive analyst of the Wobblies was quite upset at what he called “this delicate cruelty of exact truth-telling recommended by the IWW” when he heard a Wobbly tell clerks and retail vendors to “get together, study the foods, candies and every adulterated product. Study the weights and measures and all of you tell the exact truth to every customer.”

That is a doctrine so against the grain of the American labor movement that it is easier still to imagine a union leader fire-bombing an employer’s plant than objectively describing his product to a customer. Walter Reuther’s social conscience is an instrument of interminable expression; yet we would search a long while in the documents it has trailed behind for any criticism of the safety standards of the American automobile.

Ronald Radosh has traced this allegiance to the general interest of the employer through the careers of labor leaders whom popular opinion used to place in polar opposition—from the AFL’s Samuel Gompers and his conception of labor as “industry’s most able helpmeet” to the CIO’s Sidney Hillman who urged that “every employee should lend himself to complete cooperation with the employer in the interest of efficient management of industry” and who developed the argument that industrial unions were the only progressive organizational instrument because the craft union “permits no responsibility in the relationship between labor and management.”1

Radosh’s American Labor and United States Foreign Policy has as its central actor Samuel Gompers, who founded the AFL and set its compass to those points from which labor leaders may occasionally deviate in youth but to which they generally return when they grow wise. Gompers’s is not a memory comfortable even for his inheritors. One cause for the diminishing fashion of celebrating the success of American labor may be that acolytes in that religion are required to intone as an article of its creed that Gompers was right in the end, and any person normally sensitive must, after a while, commence to suspect something horridly wrong in a society where someone so repellent as Gompers could turn out to be right.

George Meany has always tried to avoid mention, let alone worship, of this relic. The AFL did its best to let the Gompers Centennial pass in decent silence; one of those brotherhood hustlers who sought to seduce Meany into financing a broadcast to salute Gompers’s struggle against bigotry was repulsed with the growl: “Oh, come on, you know God-damned well Gompers never did anything against bigotry.”

Gompers as shouter against the Kaiser is Radosh’s central subject. The oratorical tone of the First World War was eminently suited to him; he had a nature incapable of restraint by dignity, whether it was wheedling those he recognized as above him or bullying those he fancied were beneath him.

The same feet that tiptoed into the house of the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad would thunderingly intrude into meetings with those leaders of European labor who might have been excused, on formal if not factual credentials, for thinking that their position in the affairs of their nations was more important than Gompers’s in his own.

The Gompers Ray Stannard Baker saw in Italy served to epitomize for him a national type:

One of the infuriating qualities of some of my beloved compatriots is to talk down to people on subjects which their auditors understand far better than they do. Everything in America is better than anything in Europe, so they preach!

Gompers had traveled to Europe in the summer of 1918 to rally the exhausted unions of the allied powers to carry the war through “until either autocracy is crushed or democracy enthroned.” He was not invariably received with the uncritical silence a messenger of light expects. In Paris, he heard a group of French syndicalists plead for an attempt at a negotiated peace and listened to

…their fantastic and irrational proposals as long as I could endure them and then I tersely told them that they were traitors to the cause of the people of France. This remark brought the meeting to an abrupt end, for such a verbal tumult followed that speeches were no longer possible.

It is Radosh’s thesis that Gompers and the AFL “had traded acceptance of State Department policy for acceptance by the Administration of some basic trade union demands as well as an agreement to work closely with the established union leadership.” That certainly describes the result; and the arguments employed by Gompers to override those colleagues dubious about the war—“[let us] cast our lot with the governmental agencies and help guide them aright”—are persuasive evidence of the intent. The calculation that one is weak and can only grow with the tolerance of the strong remains the most plausible explanation of American labor’s habitual support of those interests which industry and government perceive for themselves. We in no way lessen our gratitude for Radosh’s illumination of the material sources of this pattern when we leave him still wondering why this acceptance has always been so passionate, why, in short, labor leaders always say and sometimes do so much more in its service than they need to.

For example, Gompers’s first words on his return from Europe were: “America is more than a country, America is more than a continent. America is…an ideal, America is the apotheosis of all that is right.”

He had just come back from a reception of his tutelage to Europe almost insultingly more reserved than accorded with his sense of his consequence. Hard though it is to conceive a shrinkage of Samuel Gompers’s self-esteem, even he could not entirely escape some intimation that he had left an America where he didn’t count for much to find a Europe where he counted for even less. It is in those moments when they are reminded how unimportant they are that labor leaders rush most fervently to the comfort that their country at least has an importance transcending all others.

But to glory in America means in the end to glory in the industrial system which is the base of her grandeur. And the whole achievement of that system had been founded on the absence of pity.

Consider the summary by David Brody, a Harvard historian, of the tenets of the pioneers of the steel industry:

That impulse for economy shaped American steel manufacture. It inspired the inventiveness that mechanized the productive operations. It formed the calculating and objective mentality of the industry. It selected and hardened the managerial ranks. Its technological and psychological consequences, finally, defined the treatment of the steelworkers. Long hours, low wages, bleak conditions, anti-unionism flowed alike from the economizing drive that made American steel industry the wonder of the manufacturing world.2

The things that proclaimed the American success had thus their origin in a suppression of pity; and it is striking how easily Gompers, having overlooked this element in the apotheosis of everything that is right, could withhold not just pity, but even the slightest respect, from persons who had suffered and felt a grievance, and that John P. Frey, his legate to Europe, could say that those Allied labor leaders who cried for peace after four years of horror, had “German gold jingling in their pockets.”

That same coldness toward the victim seems to recur in every pronouncement of the AFL until now, when it has become the AFL-CIO and nothing is so outrageous to it as an appeal to conscience. Thus the president of the Pittsburgh Labor Council was confronted last fall with a choice between falling silent or surrendering his office merely for having observed that the Negroes who wanted a place in the construction trades were “just asking for what we asked for twenty years ago.” He did not raise his voice again and is still in office.

And yet the same habits which reflect so well the national preference for what is convenient against what disturbs can at the same time sustain a fervor about the national myth that seems quite out of size with our normal complacency. The AFL-CIO could hardly maintain this pitch if it represented a patriotism no more than mercenary; few of this nation’s proprietors have ever been as alarmed about the nation’s safety as are these its servants. Gompers trusted the Socialists of Europe less than Wilson did, and Meany trusts the Soviets even less than any of our last four presidents did.3

But then most labor leaders began their careers under a shadow of distrust which has never been entirely lifted. It affects even those whose characters were admirable and whose persons engaging. After Joseph Yablonsky’s murder, a business acquaintance said to the steelworkers’ Joseph Molony with real solicitude: “Joe, you’d better get a bodyguard. Things are getting rough in the labor racket.” The labor leader remains that social deviant of the most unfortunate kind, the one who did not choose to be a social deviant. The pressures are therefore immense upon him to be a better fellow than he has a reputation for being, and to be unreasonable only in dealing with his country’s enemies. He has historically shared this oppression at seeming unacceptable with more American radicals than the fact that the latter chose to be outsiders might make us think.

In his book on the Wobblies, Conklin says that the American Socialist Party severed connections with the IWW before the war because it did not believe it could grow in America so long as the middle class associated it with preachments of violence; some of the same judgment entered into the CIO’s decision to expel the Communists in the Fifties. Neither the Socialist Party nor the CIO grew afterward, which might suggest some deficiencies in pragmatism if we could believe that it, and not the need to be accepted, had been the motive.

Radosh indeed is especially useful in the attention he devotes to those backslid Socialists like John Spargo and William English Walling whose illusions served Gompers so comfortably. Walling and Spargo, publicists for the Socialist Party who defected when it opposed the war, have suffered the obscurity which so often attends pioneers; but, thanks to Radosh, we can recognize them as founders of that catering service to the vanity of patrons which has become the intellectual’s chief contribution to public affairs. Spargo writing to Warren G. Harding is the model for Daniel P. Moynihan writing to Richard Nixon.

More basically, Walling and Spargo fit Gompers’s need to feel important, since they shared it and since the persistence of a lack of proportion is directly related to its sincerity. If Gompers would send a mission to Russia to revive its martial spirit, Spargo wrote him, “the result…would be of more importance than the sending of several army corps.” The creation of a prowar French Socialist Party would, another fallen-away Socialist insisted, “prove worth several thousands of soldiers in the ranks.”

There was born in these illusions that closeness to redeemed radicals which the AFL has maintained ever since, until the AFL-CIO has now accepted the stewardship of Jay Lovestone, its International Affairs Director, who has passed from directing the futilities of the revolution for the American Communist Party in 1928 to assisting the CIA in the futilities of the counterrevolution now. Evil spirits ought not to be lightly dismissed, of course; still, there is reason to suspect that, if his intentions are malign, Lovestone’s achievements are meager; very little history is made by conspirators whose public job description might as well read “Conspirator.” But his value to the AFL-CIO may be for something else; he does get the institution talked about.

You feel in all this history a most deprived sense of self-esteem; the trade union movement is always embarrassed or angered when anyone propertyless rises in an assertion of right because it has never felt free in the assertion of its own right; it clings instead to those licenses which have been granted it.

The Allegheny Labor Council has absorbed the new unions into an atmosphere where there is no subject under discussion which would be either unfamiliar or disturbing to Samuel Gompers’s ghost. A letter requesting financial support from the United Black Front, Inc., is received and filed; the subject of this year’s high school essay Scholarship Contest—“What has Organized Labor contributed to Democracy?”—is announced; the lengthiest debate follows the protest of the Brewery Workers Union because the concessionaires at the new city stadium have so far refused to stock the local beer.

The organizers of the Hospital Workers have asked the Pittsburgh Labor Council to support them in their organizing campaign; the Council can only produce an affirmation of the right of hospital workers to join a union. It is not permitted to say which union, because the Laundry Workers and the Building Service Employees have both indicated vague claims of jurisdiction. The Hospital Workers must therefore go forth to battle with no clear license; they have little hope that the Pittsburgh Labor Council will help them and even some small reason for alarm that some of their brothers might work to harm their strike here, as did most of organized labor in Charleston last fall.

The Hospital Union has assembled the thoughts of some of the Charleston Negroes who endured and won that particular struggle:

After breakfast [in jail] we had prayer service led by Mrs. Georgetta Waye, one of the nurses fighting for the Union Local 1199B…. We all felt bad because of the way we were fed tonight, but I feel we have to take a little in order to give and give in order to receive. (Edrena Johnson)

There were days I wanted to cry, I was so depressed, because it seemed that, in spite of all the hard work and sweat, we weren’t accomplishing anything, but I knew within myself that I had to keep on working even harder because 1199 didn’t lie to us, they laid it on the line and let us know how hard it was going to be.” (Mrs. Claire G. Brown)

The AFL-CIO in Pittsburgh is full of men whose kindness and concern for people are by no means invisible to the beholder; yet somehow they have gone beyond being touched by appeals in that tenor. It is curious though that calculations of policy do not move them if stirrings of sentiment can’t: a labor movement afflicted as Pittsburgh’s has been by Negroes insisting on some place in the construction unions might think it a useful distraction from its lack of sympathy for Negroes who want to rise higher if it were to display some feeling for Negroes who ask only for a better life in the hospitals where they work. Even so, there is only a weary indifference.

The Negro demonstrations against the construction unions have ceased; there is a program to train more skilled laborers but no very precise promise of a place for them when they are trained. Nate Smith is a leader of the trainers as he was a leader of the protesters.

Nate Smith is a member of the Operating Engineers. He arrived at that special status because he held a piece of property of the sort that remains the only weapon of bargaining in these matters. He had been a busy, although not-too-successful, boxer around Pittsburgh in the Fifties, and was given a place in the semi-final of the Ezzard Charles-Joe Walcott heavyweight championship fight. He took his purse in tickets, and went to the union headquarters offering to trade the business agent two ringside seats for a union book. The bargain was struck, and Nate Smith has ever since been a Negro in good standing in a construction union. Now he represents complainants with no property except their reproach; he has, however, by insistence, managed to get a federal grant and union tolerance for training sixty-seven Negroes at the crane.

“I worked the low-down funky way,” he says. “I had to hustle. I had to rent my own machinery. But those men would take their women out there on Sunday to see what they could do. You sit way up on that high seat and drop that blade and see the earth moving and, if that don’t get a man, nothing will.”

That is a style so cherished by journalism that, if Nate Smith were not a success, its aura would have to be invented for him. Neither he nor anyone else likes therefore to say how it all turned out in the end: he clearly accomplished the training of sixty-seven Negroes as operating engineers, and just as clearly almost none of them is working on a union job at this moment. There are conditions which do not change and which therefore cannot be honestly described, because to do so would be to admit that so many careers of dedication have been simply useless.

And so Bayard Rustin comes to the convention of the AFL-CIO building trades to testify how “most impressed” he has been with their progress toward realizing Negro aspirations; his testament has been printed in full, with portraits, in the journal of the plumbers’ union (Negro membership, .02 percent); and neither party seems to any degree conscious of the irony. Nate Smith resists the labor movement and Bayard Rustin accepts it; now each one’s approach has failed and neither can admit it. Good men cannot live without those illusions whose gift is reserved for the disposal of rather bad ones.

This Issue

April 9, 1970