Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean
for Working Americans By Stephen Franklin.
Guilford Press, 308 pages, $23.95
Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of
Labor's Last Century By Howard Zinn, Dana Frank, and Robin D.G. Kelley.
Beacon Press, 174 pages, $23.00
From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of
Labor in the United States By Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty.
The New Press, 364 pages, $27.50
Someday, when our own time is a distant memory,
scholars will blow the dust
off the 1935 Wagner Act, the enabling legislation for the American labor
upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s, and stare blankly at some long-lost language
that doesn't jibe with the pattern of history. The act promised to correct a host
of imbalances and injustices by "encouraging the practice and procedure of
collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom
of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their
own choosing." Encouraging? Here it was written into law that the state
was not supposed to be hostile, not even neutral, but was supposed to assist
workers' efforts to win collective representation. Ancient history indeed.
The last 60 years of labor history seem to have vanished into oblivion as
labor's single long-term success in organizing masses of unskilled workers, the
formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), has been undermined.
The victor has written at least the popular version of history, and despite the
prodigious outpouring of a generation of "new labor historians," organized labor
and workers are nowhere to be found in that narrative. In the face of what United
Auto Workers' President Doug Fraser back in 1978 called a "one-sided class war,"
not only did the energy and mission of the old CIO vanish but so did the members,
their jobs, and the public memory of what happened. While the current slogan
repeated among labor folks is "Unions are back," a skeptic could be forgiven for
answering that yes, labor is back--to square one.
With the percentage of private-sector workers belonging to unions down to a
60-year low in the United States, the world of American labor relations has
essentially returned to the pre-New Deal era. It's just like the bad old days.
Unions would have to organize more than a million new workers a year to see a
consistent and measurable increase in the percentage of the labor force belonging
to unions--an overwhelming proposition. If you advocate for a union where you
work, there's a good chance you'll be fired. Go out on strike and there's a
decent chance that you'll be permanently replaced. Should you and your coworkers
feel the need to band together, you probably won't have to face down brass
knuckles and goon squads, but you would, at minimum, have to take on a flying
squadron of lawyers.
The story of this upended peace in industrial relations has received short
shrift in the popular press, but it approaches a veritable genre in the
labor-studies world. Books such as Jonathan Rosenblum's Copper Crucible,
Julius Getman's Betrayal of Local 14, and a spate of others on the
struggle of Hormel meatpackers in Austin, Minnesota (also covered in a
controversial Barbara Kopple film, American Dream), tell remarkably
similar tales. Workers were happy, if naive, in the era that followed World War
II, working hard, enjoying the fruits of the postwar labor-relations system,
saving to send their kids to college, and spending their modest paychecks in a
virtuous circle of Keynesian logic. They also did not go to union meetings very
often and did not seem to care much about the majority of their sisters and
brothers, who toiled outside the narrow confines of the collective-bargaining
system and were denied similar benefits and remuneration. When contract
negotiations came up at some point in the 1980s or 1990s, management decided that
it was time to shatter this blue-collar paradise. Labor, already weak from a
series of compromises in the postwar period, went down to defeat. As Rosenblum
argues (with only a bit of overstatement), these stories document both the end of
the right to strike and the end of solidarity.
And the tales keep coming. In journalist Stephen Franklin's
Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working
Americans, we get a dramatic and detailed examination of events in Decatur,
Illinois, an otherwise sleepy midwestern town that became known as "the War
Zone." The three strikes--actually two strikes and a lockout--took place at
Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone, and the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company,
against miserable changes in work rules, the dissolution of industry-wide
bargaining, and an assault on wage rates. The corporations "were not fighting to
stay alive," explains Franklin, one of the few newspaper writers to take labor
issues seriously in an era that seems to have erased working people from the
reporter's beat. "They were not racing to keep ahead of ruthless competitors
about to overtake them. They were monoliths, and they had prevailed because they
had had the power to do so." In contrast to management's well-laid plans,
Franklin reports, the workers were simply not prepared for the company attack.
"The unions had pinned their futures on their blue-collar identities," he writes.
"A big mistake. They had grown careless, lazy, blinded by onetime success, and
too weak to bend back the forces pushing them aside. Blue-collar workers had
grown too reliant on their time-clock-driven lives. They believed too much in
tradition. They counted too much on good faith and loyalty." And they lost.
Despite its countless examples of rank-and-file solidarity, inventiveness,
and renewed militancy, the emotional impact of Franklin's story is akin to
hearing a Bruce Springsteen song played on slow speed after the better part of a
cheap six-pack. The workers came home from Vietnam, got kicked around by the
company, stood up for themselves when the company tried to dismantle their
middle-class existence, and, at least in the case of many of the stalwarts who
refused to cross the picket line, ended up eventually looking for work elsewhere.
In between, there were torrid debates over strategy and the shredding of the
community fabric--punctuated by priceless moments of fellowship. The book is
positively riveting in capturing some of these moments, such as when the women's
support group for the Staley workers found some candy bars buried in a shipment
of donated food and clothing and, like little kids, reveled in the niceties of
life too long denied. Or when the cross-pressures of the strike delivered a
lonely man to a gray, frozen field, confessing his thoughts of suicide to the
author but not wanting his wife to know how depressed he had become. "Betrayed
and abandoned," Franklin laments. "Does anybody care about this?" And that seems
to be the rub of American working-class history: Is anybody paying attention?
Such plaintive cries are suggestive of the loneliness Franklin portrays. These
workers, whose local forms of solidarity allowed them to survive these disputes,
seem to inhabit some distant outpost on the map of labor history, like marooned
Japanese soldiers who don't know that the atom bomb of neoliberalism has been
dropped on the heartland and that the rest of the working class has surrendered
to the free-market shock troops. Even when a group of Decatur workers known as
the "road warriors" took their struggle out of the heartland and tried to crash
the 1995 AFL-CIO retreat in Bal Harbour, Florida, their message of hope and
solidarity found the national leadership in a state of soporific isolation. "They
were out of touch. They were mostly old. They were mostly men. They were mostly
white," explains Franklin of labor's old guard. "A few of them would doze on the
dais as their long public meetings droned on." Although John Sweeney and the "New
Voice" candidates were about to take over the AFL-CIO when the workers made their
visit, the national labor leaders, argues Franklin, were asleep at the helm of
labor history when it mattered most to the rank and file.
Some of the workers in the War Zone went in search of a more profound sense of
history than those dozing at Bal Harbour seemed to offer. Once a week, Decatur
workers motored over to the local community college for a labor-history class to
try to figure out what dark secrets in the American past had allowed all of this
to happen to them. What they found was an odd comfort and a personal relationship
with an oppressive past--and here Franklin waxes lyrical: "The terrible defeats
labor had suffered on the railroads and in the steel mills and coal mines, the
saga of the Homestead workers' defeat and labor's crushing setbacks at the turn
of the century seemed too familiar, too painful, too immediate," he writes. "They
identified with the defeats as if they were their very own and they were reliving
them." What some community-college instructor might have told them is that the
postwar-era system of collective bargaining that they were struggling to protect
was the exceptional period in labor history: It was a brief respite in a
200-year-old tale of blatant, often violent, hostility to the cause of
unionization. We've come full circle, they might have learned, and arguably are
now closer to the New Gilded Age than to the New Deal.
Despite the many merits of Franklin's book, it is not going to help generate
that much-needed sense of the past. The history here is episodic and ultimately
unsatisfactory; the story remains well grounded in anecdote but lacking in scope.
While the trajectory of the postwar era that delivered these workers to their
fate is not covered, even the analysis of the 1990s lacks argumentative arch. The
story is so broken up--into journalistic chunks, one could say--that it ends up
being a series of tragic laments rather than a sustained explanation of what went
wrong. None of the great issues in working-class history are approached: Are
American workers particularly weak in the solidarity department? Do historical
circumstances explain why capital's interests control the state? Is this simply
part of a global pattern? Why did capital ever bother to respect labor's rights
in the postwar era in the first place? Readers deserve to hang their hats on
something after reading this book, but little remains except solidarity trumped
by a profound sense of melancholy and victimization.
Another new study, also called Three Strikes--this time,
actually two strikes and a boycott--is designed to fulfill the craving for a
usable past expressed by the Decatur history students. The book brings together
three well-known progressive scholars to address three historic labor battles,
with the intention, as they state in their joint introduction, of capturing the
"fighting spirit of labor's last century to see if there are any lessons for the
struggles yet to come." It may be indicative of the state of labor history and
its relationship with present-day issues that all three of these disputes, each
presented as an occasion for insight into future success, are stunning defeats.
Are we to conclude from this that defeat is the most important lesson for the
future of organized labor?
Howard Zinn, author of the ever popular People's History of the United
States, opens the trilogy by returning us to the famed Colorado coal strike
of 1913-1914 that ended in the horror of the Ludlow Massacre. One wonders if
events in Decatur might have been like Ludlow if the bosses still used machine
guns and armed troops to squelch strikes instead of legalistic options for
crushing resistance. (Although Decatur workers did not face Gatling guns or
Pinkertons, they did have to contend with a private security army in blue
jumpsuits that specialized in strikebreaking--including videotaping conflicts for
later use in court.) Sixteen persons, including 11 children, were slaughtered by
Colorado National Guard troops at John D. Rockefeller's mines in the episode; and
it is so dramatic a story that, unlike most events in labor's past, it made a
mark in the basic textbook narrative of U.S. history. Zinn reminds us how power
relationships have been constructed in the United States as well as how a
critical view of the past must also include the wreckages of alternative futures
and directions not taken. But it is unclear whether this will have the
educational and inspirational impact that he desires. As Mary Harris ("Mother")
Jones famously explained after the defeat, the union "had only the Constitution.
The other side had the bayonets. In the end, bayonets always win."
Another lost future is reclaimed in Dana Frank's examination of the largely
unknown "girl" strikers who fought for union recognition in 1937 at a
Detroit-area Woolworth's, just after the more widely known Michigan auto-plant
takeovers in Flint. Frank's previous work has explored the crossroads of
production, gender, consumption, and national identity, and her skills in these
areas shine. While the mid-1930s period is typically thought of as the era of
organizing basic (male) industry--auto, rubber, electrical, and steel--Frank's
exploration of one episode in a broader miniwave of service-sector organizing has
obvious resonance with contemporary struggles. Woolworth's, an earlier version
of the de-skilled, chain-operated megastores of today, was--just in case you
don't get the postindustrial tie-in--"like striking Wal-Mart, the Gap, and
McDonald's all at the same time," according to Frank. It is a story, she
explains, of young women using the sit-down strike to occupy a store for a week
and actually winning. As the author puts it: "What's the lesson? With enough
allies, with enough inspiration, and with enough daring, anything can happen."
Well, that's sort of the lesson. Frank's narrative ends abruptly after the
workers win union recognition--but we learn in a couple of throwaway lines in the
epilogue that the employees lost the union just six months later. In essence, the
union won a skirmish while management won everything else. "As individual women
left the store," Frank admits, "management deliberately replaced them with
anti-union workers, who didn't then fight to keep the union." What else would we
have expected them to do? If this is really meant to become useful history, the
central question needs to be: How did management gain the upper hand in such a
short time? Were the sit-downs merely a fad sweeping the nation in 1937 that
management conceded to, knowing the company would be able to outmaneuver the
union in short order? While jubilant young women dancing in the aisles of a
liberated department store makes for a good read, the story that needs to be told
is how the union quickly found itself outfoxed.
Of the three essays, Robin D.G. Kelley's rises to the top because it embraces
ambivalence and complexity, perhaps the most important tools for understanding
the American working classes. Kelley, who has made his reputation exploring race,
labor, and popular culture, focuses his contribution on a failed attempt to
"bring back flesh" to the theater in the 1930s--that is, to return live musicians
to a venue taken over by mechanically reproduced music. Thankfully, his analytic
vision takes him beyond the usual litany of oppression and the tired
solidarity-in-the-face-of-adversity narrative. "What happens," he asks, "when
working-class consumption of popular culture overrides the interests or concerns
of popular culture workers?" Similarly, he requires us to confront "the limits of
solidarity" between traditional blue-collar union members and those who produce
popular culture. We also have to consider musicians, who are not typical workers
but people who "straddle class lines and historically possess a kind of cultural
authority that may belie their material class position." Finally, we have to
contend with a union that was unprepared to deal with the vexing problem of live
performers trying to make both money and art in the "age of mechanical
reproduction." All of this adds up to an ambitious undertaking; and if Kelley
does not entirely succeed in answering all his questions in this offbeat
examination of labor's past, hats off to him for asking them.
Strikes tend to bring to the surface what were once called
"contradictions in the system," but widening the historical lens to the grand
march of U.S. labor history is a more formidable and complex project. Priscilla
Murolo and A.B. Chitty take up the challenge in From the Folks Who Brought You
the Weekend by synthesizing much of the "new labor history" into a democratic
narrative of the American working class. The dream of somehow pulling together
the countless community studies and social histories written by the last
generation of scholars into a sweeping history is a long-standing one (and one
that many have long given up on), but these authors accomplish the task with
verve and style.
From the Folks has several things going for it over previous efforts to
create a full narrative of labor and working-class history. It is broadly
inclusive in its view of who is a "worker" and it is attentive to the gender and
racial dimensions of working-class history. It is also good at placing U.S.
labor history in a global context--from the conquest of the continent through
the Spanish-American War and up to the World Trade Organization--an
extraordinarily important and useful framework. Finally, it is an enjoyable
introduction to American working-class history, a national story full of the
richness of local history. In addition, a series of illustrations by comic artist
Joe Sacco enhances the readability by providing humorous, if biting, relief from
the packed text.
While Murolo and Chitty offer up a well-crafted and potentially popular
introductory survey, they have not opened up new understandings of vexing
problems. There is simply not enough that is new or engaging here--or even
revealing in a synthetic way--to provoke much intellectual or political
excitement. The reader pines for a fresh, more complex read on the subject. The
synthesis of the last generation of scholarship seems suddenly dated. While the
authors' emphasis is clearly on resistance, more needs to be done with the
equally important, seldom understood opposite side of the coin--accommodation.
Without even an introduction to frame their argument, the authors have succumbed
to the major problem of the survey genre: acknowledging everything but not quite
getting at the core of anything. It may be a problem with the subject
itself--plenty of labor conflict scattered along the historical time line but
rarely anything that adds up to a national story of struggle upon which a big
history can be based. In the end, hundreds of years of social and labor history
may simply be too large and too diverse a subject to allow any summary that would
not be simplistic and argument driven; but it somehow still seems that history
has to be more than just one damn thing after another.
The litmus test of any good labor history may be found in a question raised in
the Colorado coal strike. "We ask, sir, your solemn consideration of this
question," the state Federation of Labor demanded of the governor. "How much
longer will workingmen continue to follow the Stars and Stripes when they
repeatedly see the principle for which the Stars and Stripes have stood
contemptuously disregarded by those in whose hands, for a time, lies might
without right?" Despite the rhetorical intention of the question, the answer is:
a surprisingly long time.
Why that is so will require that a new "working-class realism" take root in
the field and transcend the "oppression-resistance" community-based model
unearthed and enshrined by social historians. It will have to encompass the full
complexity of working-class history: understanding state power, mass media,
business, consumption, gender, nationalism, law, religion, mobility, education,
race, geography, and community, to name only a few variables. It will have to
break out of isolation and find ways of entering into a direct dialogue with core
narratives of American history. It will have to recognize that workers' most
powerful expressions have fallen less under class consciousness than under more
nebulous rubrics of "civic nationalism," as Gary Gerstle formulated it recently
in American Crucible, or within a collection of malleable anti-elitist
sentiments that Michael Kazin has labeled the "Populist Persuasion."
Such a working-class realism would be capable of explaining how workers can
simultaneously defend and attack much of the free-market system and ideology. It
would understand why class conflict is frequent in American history and, at the
same time, why the class struggle has been coordinated and waged not in the
streets but in the corporate boardrooms. Such a history would be capable of
explaining to those in Decatur exactly what went wrong--why substantial union
power in the United States lasted a mere generation and a half. It could also
tell us why, despite all of the changes in labor's fate, rescue workers and
building-trades people caught up in the aftermath of September 11 at ground zero
still spoke with passion and reverence not about their "co-workers" but about
their "union brothers and sisters."
Such an analytical project will be complicated, it will be messy, and it will
be a lot of work. It would have to shelve contemporary political concerns in
order to tell it like it was, because good history makes for good strategy--and
what labor needs now more than anything is good strategy.