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The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): Unions and Political Parties

By David Cullen

Unions and Political Parties

Since 2000 labor historians have renewed their efforts to understand the complexity of organizing a diverse workforce and the opposition to those organizing efforts. They place special emphasis on the intersection of racism and class as obstacles to creating labor solidarity, noting the few times when economic concerns have triumphed over racial prejudice in the struggle for worker’s rights. The best examples of this are Eric Arnesen’s Brotherhood of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality; Beth Tomkins Bates’s Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945; Joseph Gerteis’s Class and the Color Line: Interracial Class Coalition in the Knights of Labor and the Populist Movement; Paul Taillon’s Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877–1917; and Paul Heideman’s Class Struggle and the Color Line: American Socialism and the Race Question, 1900–1930.

Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement examines how the busines community, in cooperation with local and federal officials, opposed union efforts. Similarly, Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activity, a collection of essays edited by Pearson and Rosemary Feurer, demonstrates how anti-labor forces used race and ethnicity to defeat workers’ attempts to protect their economic interests. Another approach to control workers appears in Nate Holdren’s Injury Impoverished: Workplace Accidents, Capitalism, and Law in the Progressive Era. In it, Holdren documents how company doctors misdiagnosed job-related injuries to bypass newly created compensation laws.

At times, however, even union leadership proved as much an obstacle to organizing efforts as business leaders. Robert Fitch’s Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise; Timothy Minchin’s Labor under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO since 1979; Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin’s Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice; Kim Moody’s US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below; and Lane Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide profile the reasons for union discord among members and how the co-option of union executives by both major political parties led to the decline in union membership and influence in shaping policy that affects workers. Elizabeth Faue’s Rethinking the American Labor Movement (mentioned previously) concisely explores the interplay between the goals of labor unions and the goals of corporate leaders in the twentieth century.

A number of works provide state studies of alternative political movements designed to attract workers, including Judith Stepin-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin’s Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, which recaptures the story of Marxist influence in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and notes that eighteen of the thirty-eight CIO unions during the 1930s were influenced by communists. The CIO is also the subject of Ahmed White’s The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America

Further delving into the impact of socialism, Tony Michels’s A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York and Daniel Katz’s All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism argue that the labor movement in the Northeast cannot be understood without acknowledging the impact of Jewish immigration. R. Alton Lee’s When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America and Michael Pierce’s Striking with the Ballot: Ohio Labor and the Populist Party also probe socialist and populist movements at the state level.

Eric Thomas Chester’s The Wobblies in Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era is a much-needed study of the militant labor organization that frightened the federal government so seriously the Wilson administration ignored basic democratic rights and used whatever means necessary to destroy the International Workers of the World, while at the same time arguing that the US must make the world safe for democracy. Considering an overlooked group of labor organizers, Joseph Slater’s Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900–1962 is a useful survey of public employees.

Three excellent accounts cover the pivotal decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the decline of union influence, and the beginnings of what became known as the Reagan Democrats—workers who abandoned the party of FDR and voted Republican. These are Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class; Joseph A. McCartin’s Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America; and David Paul Kuhn’s The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution. All are written for a general audience.

For those interested in an overview of the union movement, Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States; the revised edition of American Workers, American Unions: The Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries, edited by Robert Zieger, Timothy J. Minchin, and Gilbert J. Gail; and Kim Moody’s In Solidarity: Essays on Working‐Class Organization in the United States all offer concise, engaging surveys of American labor. Sidney Lens’s The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns and Erik Loomis’s A History of America in Ten Strikes provide introductions to the history of the strike as workers’ best weapon for achieving their goals. More specifically, Michael Dennis’s The Memorial Day Massacre and the Movement for Industrial Democracy and Paul Kahan’s The Homestead Strike: Labor, Violence, and American Industry argue for the historic importance of two strikes that helped shape the labor movement.

Stephen Rice’s Minding the Machine: Languages of Class in Early Industrial America, Janice Fine’s Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, and Frank Tobias Higbie’s Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life provide much-needed studies of how workers emotionally and intellectually responded to their new status in the modern industrial state. For the relationship between media and the industrial worker, Erin Smith’s Hard Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines; Carol Quirk’s Eyes on Labor: News Photography and America’s Working Class; and Troy Rondinone’s The Great Industrial War: Framing Class Conflict in the Media, 1865–1950 are excellent introductions.

Two works reexamine the importance of the People’s Party, especially helpful for better understanding the terms populism and populist, regularly misused by political commentators. Charles Postel’s The Populist Vison refutes the traditional narrative that the populist movement was dated or limited in its membership and appeal. His chapters on religion, science, and women convincingly portray populists as more radically progressive in their approach to contemporary problems than the stilted leadership of either the Democratic or Republican Party. Gregg Cantrell’s The People’s Revolt continues Postel’s arguments through a study of Texas Populists, concentrating on their political agenda as a precursor for understanding Lone Star liberalism in the twentieth century and the party’s influence on Lyndon Johnson.  

Works Cited