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.
The principal event in the mobilization of West Coast waterfront workers was the “Big Strike” of 1934. It was inspired by the NIRA—and more immediately by the frustration that union militants felt at the failure of Section 7(a) to advance their cause. There were many such strikes that year, but this one was more radical than most, because of the powerful “mood of syndicalism”—Nelson describes this as “a desire to transform the world by fundamentally reshaping the patterns of authority and organization in the realm of work”—which seamen and longshoremen alike had embraced. The strike continued for nearly three months, shutting down almost all shipping along the Pacific Coast and inspiring something close to a general strike in San Francisco (“effective beyond all expectations,” one leader boasted) in which over a hundred thousand workers (teamsters, streetcar workers, and many others) joined. There was “an almost carnival spirit” among the strikers, one participant recalled, in which “common social barriers were swept away in the spirit of the occasion. Strangers addressed each other warmly as old friends.” There were also bloody clashes between strikers and police in which six demonstrators died. For many years afterward, maritime workers stopped work for several minutes every July 5 to commemorate the anniversary of two of the killings.
Although the 1934 strike ended inconclusively, it was a critical event in the lives of sailors and longshoremen alike. The traditional divisions among craft unions became eroded for a time; and while the syndicalist dream of “One Big Union” remained elusive, maritime workers after 1934 were much better able to make common cause with one another than at any time in the past. Seamen and, to an even greater extent, dockworkers eventually won control of hiring away from the crimps, and seized a significant degree of control over hiring and work conditions from foremen, gang bosses, and petty officers. Not long after the strike, they won recognition for the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) and for several seamen’s unions on both coasts.
The 1934 strike also established the Communist party as a major presence in the maritime unions. In describing its activities, Nelson joins an already substantial group of labor and social historians who have challenged the view (expressed most powerfully by Theodore Draper and Harvey Klehr5 ) that American communism had little significant life apart from its subservience to Moscow. “It would be wrong,” Nelson concedes, “to underestimate the large, unifying faith at the root of the Communist vision” or to ignore the “rigid constraints” that the Soviet-dominated Comintern imposed on “the thought and behavior of individual Communists.” But in the “real” world of work and politics “beyond Communist theoretical journals and FBI reports,” he insists, “the Party was not a monolith.”
Communists were as prominent in the West Coast longshoremen’s union as in any labor organization in the country—in part because of Harry Bridges, the fiery Australian immigrant who led the ILWU for decades. Bridges had been a tough, aggressive radical since he first went to sea, at age fifteen. “I kept traveling around,” he later recalled of his voyages to London and to various outposts of the British empire, “and the more I saw the more I knew that there was something wrong with the system.” By 1922, he was working on the San Francisco docks and had become a fixture of union activity there—a tall, lean, hawk-nosed firebrand with a Cockney accent who listened to everyone’s complaints and assured them “The class struggle is here.” Bridges attracted attention in part because of his brashness, his cocksureness, his apparent eagerness for confrontation. (He once toured Atlantic Coast ports to mobilize eastern longshoremen to defy their own union leaders, whom he called agents of the shipowners and strikebreakers). But he was also an electrifying speaker and a talented organizer to whom even Party activists deferred. “When it came to practical knowledge and what to do from one day to the next,” one Communist longshoreman recalled, “we just naturally turned to Harry. He always had an answer.”
Bridges was probably never a Party member,6 but he surrounded himself with Communists as he built his union and steered it into the CIO. The Party made similar inroads in other maritime organizations. The Sailor’s Union of the Pacific (SUP), the principal seamen’s organization in the West, remained largely non-Communist. But Party activists led the efforts to draw seamen into the unions on the East Coast, and it helped to create several short-lived organizations that brought seamen and longshoremen together, an effort reminiscent of the IWW dream of “One Big Union.” It was out of one such organization, the Marine Workers Industrial Union, that Bridges—who had once been a Wobbly himself—emerged to take over the ILWU.
However obedient Communists may have been to national and international leaders in other ways, Nelson sees no evidence that they behaved as a disciplined, centrally directed cadre in their union activities. The longshoremen were among the most militant of American workers, and also among the most contentious. They debated and brawled, challenged each other and often voted down their officers (including Bridges). Leaders of many locals were fiercely independent, and only on a few big issues did the union—or even the Communists within it—speak with a single voice. The leaders of the non-Communist SUP worked closely with Bridges and with Party members in the ILWU through the strike of 1934; they broke away only after Bridges had rejected them as partners in collective bargaining in search of a better deal for his own men.
It is, Nelson suggests, hard to imagine how the maritime workers could have organized workers with anything like the same fervor without the involvement of the Party. At the same time, he argues, the Communists profited from, but were never able to control, the preexisting cultural radicalism of seamen and longshoremen. Bridges, for example, did not hesitate to defy the Party when its directives conflicted with what he considered his union’s interests—as he did in the late 1930s in rejecting a Communist call for an end to wildcat strikes. Yet Nelson is less interested in joining the old debate over the role of the Comintern than in explaining the rise of a militant union movement in the maritime industry. He does so by telling the story of a turbulent and colorful movement with eloquence and skill.
The Communist party, Joshua Freeman makes clear, was at least as important to the organization of New York’s Transit Workers Union as it was to the mobilization of seamen and longshoremen. Mike Quill, the union’s tempestuous leader for more than thirty years, was an open ally, and perhaps even a member, of the Party. (“I would rather be called a Red by the rats than a rat by the Reds,” he once said.) Many of Quill’s associates in the close-knit, autocratic TWU leadership were even more closely tied to the Party than he was. Freeman’s account of the union’s birth and early growth seems in many ways to confirm Harvey Klehr’s characterization of the TWU as a “Party club.”7
But whatever part Communists played in creating the TWU, Freeman suggests, was secondary to the union’s roots in the ethnic culture of New York transit workers. In particular, the TWU attracted support by associating itself with Irish republicanism. There were, to be sure, important non-Irish figures in the TWU (among them the Hungarian immigrant John Santo, the union’s secretary-treasurer and a member of the Party). But the principal leaders of the organization, like most of the transit work force, remained Irish until long after World War II. Many labor historians have argued that workers must overcome ethnic exclusiveness before they can create class solldarity. Freeman makes clear that, in some cases at least, ethnic culture can be a powerful source of class-consciousness and militancy.
Much more effective than the Communists in recruiting transit workers to a union in 1933 and 1934 were members of the Clan na Gael, a clandestine Irish nationalist group many of whose members had belonged to the radical Irish Republican Army before emigrating to America. Chief among them was Mike Quill, who had joined the IRA in 1920 at the age of fifteen. (His father’s farm in County Kerry had been a local headquarters for the republican cause.) Quill arrived in America in 1926, took a job as a gate man on the IRT, and was later promoted to ticket agent. He fell in with the Clan na Gael and in the early 1930s joined the group within it that was trying to organize a union. Soon he was devoting virtually all his time to the effort, even spending his nights on a cot in the union offices.
He rose quickly. He had the natural affability and gregariousness of a Tammany politician; a fiery, highly theatrical oratorical style that made him, in the words of a CIO publicist, the “one other CIO leader who had much of [John L.] Lewis’ crowd appeal”; and a caustic irreverance toward authority that he retained even three decades later in his famous confrontation with John Lindsay in the 1966 New York City transit strike, only weeks before Quill’s own death. (Mayor Lindsay, he said, was “strictly silk stocking and Yale. This nut even goes in for exercise. We don’t like him.”) Quill was also intensely ambitious, willing to do almost anything to maintain control of what he soon came to consider “his” union.
In 1933, Quill and other Irish republicans joined forces with the Communists in the transit system and quickly gave energy to the Party’s flagging organizational drive. They started by recruiting former IRA members and other republicans. After that, most Irish-born workers began to join up, followed by members of other ethnic groups. In 1937, the TWU (by now affiliated with the CIO) won an election among transit workers with 92 percent of the vote. The victory produced a series of new contracts that raised wages, increased benefits, and improved working conditions.
The union also offered members programs and benefits of its own: a medical plan, a credit union, and organized social activities. Quill had first gained prominence in the Irish community by presiding over dances in ethnic social clubs, and he sought to create a similar communal spirit within the TWU. Dances, picnics, and other events helped the union supplant some of the older, more conservative, more ethnically exclusive, fraternal and religious organizations (such as Holy Name societies and the Knights of Columbus) that had previously had first claim on the loyalties of workers. Above all, Freeman argues, the union gave workers who had once been passive a sense of liberation and empowerment, an escape from what many transit employees likened to slavery. “On account of this organization coming into existence,” a turnstile mechanic said at the time, “we are able to go to our bosses and talk to them like men, instead of…like slaves.”
Freeman’s book devotes more attention to the workings of union politics and organization than to the lives and actions of workers themselves—necessarily so, since the triumph of the TWU was a victory of leaders more than of the rank and file. In doing so, he provides one of the best histories we have of an American union. He also further illustrates to what degree the union battles of the 1930s emerged out of a cultural (in this case ethnic) milieu, rather than simply from economic position or class identity, and how those battles transformed that milieu by seeming to open new possibilities to men and women who only a few years earlier were resigned to a life of powerlessness and economic hardship.
For the Rhode Island textile workers whose drive to unionize Gary Gerstle describes, ethnic issues were even more important than for the Irish transit workers in New York. But in the beginning at least, ethnicity served as a powerful obstacle to effective union organization, not as a basis for it. The Woonsocket workers were overwhelmingly French-Canadian immigrants from Quebec, whose isolation from conventional American culture was nearly complete. An intensely conservative Catholic clergy dominated the community and encouraged working-class families to think of themselves as an embattled “remnant” in a Yankee-Protestant world. The first commitment of most Woonsocket workers was to la survivance—the “perpetuation of French-Canadian faith, language, and manners.” Many spoke no English. In 1881, a Yankee critic said of French-Canadian workers, “They care nothing for our institutions, civil, political, or educational.” Fifty years later, that verdict remained generally unchallenged. The French-Canadians were widely considered the most parochial and passive labor force in America.
It therefore seemed anomalous when Woonsocket emerged in the 1930s as the most militant industrial community in New England. Workers there created the Independent Textile Union (ITU), which by 1934 had mobilized most of the textile work force, staged a general strike, and displayed a militancy that a few years earlier would have seemed inconceivable in a French-Canadian community. By the end of the 1930s, working-class life in Woonsocket had been transformed. Labor Day had replaced religious holidays as the most important ceremonial event of the year. Workers had secured recognition of the textile union, and increased their control within the factories. Perhaps most important of all, they had developed a sense of their own importance to, and power in, the city.
What enabled these textile workers to overcome their parochialism, Gerstle argues, was a broad cultural change that had gradually transformed towns like Woonsocket. The prosperity of the 1920s, and even more importantly, the success of American mass culture in penetrating the workers’ previously insular world, weakened the clergy’s hold on the community. Many workers began to define themselves less as Catholics and Francophones and more as Americans. During the 1930s, union organizers had their greatest successes by exploiting that process of cultural redefinition—by making workers feel that to join the union and take part in union activity was to become more involved in American life. It is true that some of the most important activists were Franco-Belgian workers, steeped in European socialist and anticlerical traditions, who had come to Rhode Island in the 1920s. Others (among them Lawrence Spitz, the union’s most militant leader after 1936) had close ties to the Communist party, if they were not actually members. But the ITU’s most effective tactics, Gerstle argues, were not appeals to socialism or communism. They were efforts to tie working-class demands to the concept of Americanism.
Gerstle is not the first historian to note the importance of American identity as a cultural and political force in the 1930s. Virtually everyone who has written about the Communist party during the Popular Front period has noted the pervasiveness of American symbols and images (and of Earl Browder’s slogan, “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism”). Warren Susman wrote twenty years ago about how the Depression strengthened the concept of an “American way of life” in popular culture.8 Freeman and Nelson, too, note the importance of an ideology of Americanism to the militant visions of maritime and transit workers. But Gerstle goes further. He describes the version of Americanism promoted by some of the unions as central to the process of mobilizing class consciousness.9
Gerstle concedes that Americanism has often been an intensely conservative notion. But it has had a radical side too, as the textile workers of Woonsocket emphatically demonstrated by giving the concept a heavy tinge of republicanism. Their version of Americanism juxtaposed the strength and dignity of ordinary citizens against the greed and corruption of “un-American” plutocrats. In the stories, editorials, and illustrations of the TWU newsmagazine, in the rhetoric union leaders used when addressing gatherings of the rank and file, and in the political activities in which TWU members became increasingly engaged, the workers of Woonsocket used “Americanism” as a justification for virtually all their demands. They invoked the image of the Pilgrims, Washington, and Lincoln as the forebears of modern union activists. They formulated the idea of “industrial democracy” in deeply patriotic language. “Our forefathers stated their rights in the Declaration of Independence,” the ITU Newsletter wrote in 1938. “But to have a free government you must have recognition and respect of your rights in the workshop.” The floats in the 1937 Labor Day Parade, the city’s first in many years, mixed such radical images as models of workers breaking their chains and caged monkeys portraying strike-breakers with patriotic imagery: floral facsimiles of the American flag and the Liberty Bell, a “living Statue of Liberty” expressing “the continuance and extention [sic] of Liberty for the American People.” To the workers of Woonsocket, at least, militant unionism became twentieth-century Americanism.
The transformation of ethnically insular workers into passionately American activists is an important story, which Gerstle recounts with unusual subtlety. At times, his claim that Americanism can be divided into four distinct categories (which he calls “nationalist,” “democratic,” “progressive,” and “traditionalist”) sounds slightly too rigid to describe so amorphous a concept. But no one has explored the meaning of Americanism to workers and immigrants with more intelligence and insight. In describing the complexity of political language and the way it affects public commitments, Gerstle’s book also makes the same strong case that Nelson and Freeman present for the importance of an approach to labor activism that emphasizes the culture of workers.
If the 1930s were notable for the fervor, radicalism, and broad sense of possibilities that characterized much of the union movement, as these three books suggest they were, then the question of what happened to that movement in later years becomes all the more worth raising today. Union activism did not disappear, of course. Even in the 1980s, perhaps the low point in the postwar history of the labor movement, examples of significant activism and militancy could be found: for example, in the recent bitter two-year campaign by meatpackers in Minnesota against wage and benefits concessions demanded by Hormel, a strike sustained despite opposition from the national union; in the growing activism of health care workers in New York City and elsewhere as they struggle against the efforts by hospitals and other medical facilities to reduce their own spiraling costs; in the signs of radicalism that have appeared in union locals in which veterans of New Left organizing drives have risen to leadership.10
But sustained labor militancy has been the exception more than the rule in postwar America, as the troubled recent histories of textile, maritime, and transit unions suggest. It is unlikely that any organization could have protected New England textile workers from the decline and gradual disappearance of the industry from that region. The ITU was moribund by the end of the 1950s. The maritime and transit unions successfully entrenched themselves and continue to shape labor relations today, although both have had long histories of bureaucratic stagnation and corruption. Even after Quill broke with the Communist party in 1948, the TWU remained an exceptionally autocratic union, controlled with conspiratorial secrecy and strongarm tactics by a tight circle of leaders. Some of the maritime unions became a symbol in the 1950s of the influence of gangsterism in the labor movement (as the film On the Waterfront suggests), although Harry Bridges’s ILWU, unpopular as it was because of its Communist ties, remained reasonably honest and democratic.
In part, no doubt, the decline of labor militancy was simply a result of institutional success, which can dull the crusading spirit of any movement. But it was also a result of distinctive changes that took place during the 1940s, which Gerstle, Freeman, and others now identify as a critical period in labor history. Experts on labor law have been arguing for more than a decade that the 1935 Wagner Act was, in the words of Karl Klare, “deradicalized” in the 1940s. Judicial decisions such as NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937), which appeared to sustain the Wagner Act, in fact significantly narrowed its potential scope by rejecting “any inference that the law would inquire into the substantive justice of labor-management relations or the fairness of the wage bargain,” as opposed to simply protecting the process by which that bargain was reached. Wartime labor policies (most notably the “no strike” pledge the government extracted from unions) dampened militancy. The emergence of professional labor relations experts in the NLRB, most of them more interested in labor peace than labor progress, weakened the collective bargaining process. And the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, while not the “slave labor” bill the union movement predicted, reduced the freedom with which labor activists could maneuver when they tried to organize in new industries.11
The 1940s also took a heavy toll on labor radicalism. The powerful tide of anticommunism forced most unions to purge themselves of real and suspected Communists, a process that drove out of the movement many of its most active and militant members. Even non-Communist leaders responded to the pressures by toning down or abandoning their most expansive goals. Walter Reuther, for example, spent the war years pressing for what Nelson Lichtenstein has described as “a practical social democratic reorganization of the auto industry.” By the end of the 1940s, he had largely dropped such ideas and restricted himself to more conventional demands for higher wages and benefits.12 Mike Quill, even before his break with the Communist party, responded to pressure from conservative, anticommunist Catholics in the TWU (many of whom followed Father Coughlin for a time) by muting his militant rhetoric and narrowing his political goals for a while. Harry Bridges, one of the few important labor leaders to resist anti-radical pressures, found himself the target of a decade-long federal effort to deport him to Australia, which sapped his own and his union’s strength. In 1949 the ILWU was expelled from the CIO on the grounds that it refused to rid itself of Communist officials.
The events of the 1940s proved, moreover, how the labor movement’s use of “Americanism” could be doubleedged. Gerstle identifies a strong “traditionalist” quality in patriotic language, a language “rooted in nostalgia for the mythic, simpler, and more virtuous past…when family values were paramount; when individuals were hardy, virtuous, and God-fearing.” The strongly nativist tone of such language, which drew on idealized images of Protestant small-town life, made it unappealing in many working-class communities in the 1930s. But by the end of World War II, traditionalist Americanism—heavily promoted by the government and by Catholic Church propaganda—began to find an audience among Catholic workers who, flushed with their new prosperity, were eager to enter what seemed to them the mainstream of American culture. To be a good American meant not only to defend one’s country but to identify with its political authorities. By absorbing such “government-sponsored patriotism,” Gerstle writes, textile workers (and, by implication, many other workers as well) would “lose control of the language of Americanism and of defining what it meant to ‘be American.”‘
Freeman, Gerstle, and Nelson describe the narrowing of labor’s goals in the postwar period in the same funereal tones that most recent scholars have used. But in their descriptions of the Great Depression, they seem to be moving away from the harsh New Left appraisals of a generation ago and adopting a less censorious, more “social democratic” view of labor’s achievements. For them, as opposed to historians who have criticized the unions for abandoning the ideals of socialism, the main problem of the labor movement during the last sixty years has not been the tactics and the goals of the 1930s. Establishing trade unions and winning the right of collective bargaining were worthy aims and valuable achievements. The problem has been labor’s inability to sustain and improve upon those accomplishments in the postwar era.
Their concerns are shared today not only by workers in those industries in which unions are again becoming militant, but also by a growing number of managers, who are increasingly troubled by their inability to develop a sufficiently productive work force, and are impressed by the apparently more successful model of Japanese labor relations. Suddenly, the rhetoric of 1930s militants about “industrial democracy” and control of the work place is being used by some of the same people against whom it was originally employed—by corporate executives, industrial relations experts, and advocates of “industrial policy.” Charles Heckscher of the Harvard Business School, for example, has called recently (in a study sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund) for a “new unionism” based on a genuine “partnership” between labor and management. And while his proposals for reorganizing the work place fail to suggest any plausible methods for attaining this long-sought and never-achieved goal, they reflect the dawning recognition among some representatives of capital of what many workers were saying fifty years ago: that a productive work force needs to be involved in the organization and control of its work.13
Harvey Swados, an auto worker turned writer whose novels and short stories described life on the postwar assembly line, wrote in 1957 of the costs to labor and capital alike of an estranged labor force. “Sooner or later,” he said,
if we want a decent society—by which I do not mean a society glutted with commodities or one maintained in precarious equilibrium by overbuying and forced premature obsolescence—we are going to have to come face to face with the problem of work…. We will have to start thinking about how [laborers’] work and their lives can be made meaningful.”14
Swados’s concerns were largely ignored in the booming industrial world of the 1950s. Perhaps in the 1990s they will find a wider audience again.
June 28, 1990
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. ↩
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. ↩
Workers on the Waterfront was awarded the 1989 Frederick Jackson Turner Prize of the Organization of American Historians. ↩
O’Neill, Bound East for Cardiff (1914), The Personal Equation (1915), The Long Voyage Home (1917). ↩
Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (Viking, 1957) and American Communism and Soviet Russia (Viking, 1960); Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, 1984). See also Draper’s two essays on the subject in his recent collection, A Present of Things Past (Hill and Wang, 1989). ↩
Harvey Klehr notes that the federal government, despite strenuous efforts, was never able to prove that Bridges had been a member of the Communist party. But he argues that “if Bridges never formally joined the Party, he certainly was a devoted ally and helpmate for many years.” Heyday of American Communism, pp. 125–126. ↩
Klehr, Heyday of American Communism, p. 234. ↩
Warren I. Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (Pantheon, 1984), pp. 75–85, 154–158. ↩
Daniel Rodgers, Contested Truths: Key Words in American Politics Since Independence (Basic Books, 1987), is a provocative discussion of the battle over the meaning of central political terms such as Americanism. ↩
Hardy Green, On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement (Temple University Press, 1990); Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: A History of Hospital Workers’ Union Local 1199 (University of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 99–316. ↩
Karl E. Klare, “Judicial Deradicalization of the Wagner Act the Origins of Modern Legal Consciousness, 1937–1941,” Minnesota Law Review 65 (1978), pp. 265–339; Christopher Tomlins, The State and the Unions (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 99–316. ↩
Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War at Home (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 85–89; and “From Corporatism to Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era,” in Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 122–152. ↩
Charles C. Heckscher, The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation (Basic Books, 1988), pp. 114–116, 155–157. ↩
Harvey Swados, “The Myth of the Happy Worker,” reprinted in On the Line (1957; rev. ed. University of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 237, 246-247. ↩