Getting Organized

Book cover
There Is Power in a Unionby By Philip DrayDoubleday. 784p $35

This unusually interesting book delivers on the promise of its subtitle. It tells the truly epic story of labor in America from the early 19th-century textile workers in the nation’s first industrial city, Lowell, Mass., to the November 1999 protests when the World Trade Organization met in Seattle. As Andy Stern, then president of the Service Workers International Union, observed amid the Seattle discontent, “Trade is global, capital is global, and labor too must become global.” But, as the award-winning author and historian Philip Dray asks toward the end of this very long story, “How would one begin to write some sort of global Wagner Act, an international baseline of workers’ rights, let alone enact and enforce it?”

Senator Robert F. Wagner is one of the names Dray lists on the last page of this book by way of rounding up the leading figures in the movement he chronicles so effectively. The list includes Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Joseph Ettor, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, Joe Hill, John L. Lewis, Jimmy Hoffa, George Meany and Walter Reuther.


The Molly Maguires and the Haymarket martyrs along with Triangle Shirtwaist and place names like Lynn and Lawrence in Massachusetts, Homestead in Pennsylvania, Pullman in Illinois, Trinidad in Colorado, the New York City waterfront and the farm fields of California also figure prominently in Dray’s narrative.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom Saul Alinsky saw as “an aristocrat with an intellectual sympathy for labor”) and his New Deal secretary of labor Frances Perkins (she thought the department should be called the “Department for Labor”) are likewise integral to this history.

An investment of several hours a day for a week or more will reward the interested reader with the context needed to interpret past economic, social and cultural trends in the United States, as well as a useful range finder to view the future. Dray is gentle in posing the challenge. He is not optimistic about the state of organized labor. Nor is he optimistic about the future, although he is an unapologetic admirer of what organized labor has done to protect human dignity and promote justice in the American workplace.

Sobering statistics enliven the record Dray provides. He notes the toll of workplace suffering that “has always been something of a hidden detail of the American work experience.” He cites the years 1880-1910, when as many as 10 thousand to 15 thousand American workers a year died in on-site accidents, not to mention the thousands more who were injured or sickened, mostly in mining and railroad work.

Readers will appreciate the author’s clarifications of many familiar but not necessarily fully understood aspects in the labor narrative. For instance, in its original usage with reference to the garment industry, sweatshop “was not a reference to the temperature in the workplace (although in summer that may have been appropriate) but rather the management practice of ‘sweating’ labor.” This meant assigning specific jobs on lots of garments to ever-smaller shops or units within the same factory. It also meant that manufacturing costs were “sweated” downward, to lower-level shop owners and floor supervisors. The workers themselves had to negotiate and renegotiate wages and production deadlines. This left many workers vulnerable and with little or no job security.

Similarly, the famous response of Samuel Gompers to the question “What does labor want?” was not a monosyllabic (and dollar-focused) more, as many of us have long believed. Dray provides a fuller statement first published in 1893: “What does labor want? It wants the earth and the fullness thereof.... Labor wants more schoolhouses and less jail cells; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, and to make mankind more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”

Dray is fair but tough in assessing events associated with President Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire 11,000 federal air traffic controllers in 1981 for failure to follow his order to return to work. This destroyed the union. In Dray’s words, Reagan “turned his back on eight decades of labor progress, by whatever name it had ever aspired to be known, from industrial democracy to collective bargaining.”

I would have been happy to see reference made to the Jesuit-run labor schools that sprang up on the East coast in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. They educated union members in the exercise of their newly acquired rights under the Wagner Act. Mention is made, however, of the film “On the Waterfront,” in which Karl Malden portrays John “Pete” Corridan, S.J., who organized longshoremen against corruption on the New York and Jersey City docks.

Teachers’ unions are also overlooked in Dray’s account. To be fair, though, no single book can cover everything, and this one comes closer than any other I have read to offering a balanced and comprehensive coverage of a force for American progress that is now in danger of becoming a relic of our storied past.

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Robert O'Connell
8 years 1 month ago
Did Reagan destroy PATCO - or did the leadership of that union?  Reagan did not mislead the air traffic controllers or violate any law.  Reagan surely blew it by using funds from Iran, acquired by selling weapons, to finance the Contras, but neither Philip Dray nor Rev. William J. Byron, S.J. ahould criticize him for upholding the law in 1981.  
C Walter Mattingly
8 years 1 month ago
Let's review Mr Dray's contention that President Reagan "turned his back on 8 decades of labor progress" in his response to PATCO's demands.
The FAA negotiators had offered workers a $2500 dollar increase, plus 15% pay hike for those working the night shift and those who trained new controllers, plus a shorter work week. PATCO demanded an average 30% increase in pay, a reduction in the work week from 5 days, 40 hours to 4 days, 32 hours, and full retirement after 20 years, and flatly rejected the FAA offer. Believing it had the American public, the president, and the American economy over a barrel in that they were irreplaceable, PATCO then began an illegal strike that would set precedent for all government unions. In reality, PATCO threw down the gauntlet in a power grab.
President Reagan then responded publicly, saying he knew what it was like to lose a job and that union members should understand he had no room to negotiate, as they were breaking the law.
My question to Mr Dray is, would it have been responsible for the president to reward PATCO for breaking the law? Would it have been responsible to grant them what overall would be over a 60% increase in salary from what was already a well above average salary at that time, and a huge reduction to 20 years for life-long retirement?
PATCO, feeling its oats, struck anyway. As it turned out, the country got along with little disruption without their inflated sense of importance. By its overreaching and acting as the new Robber Barons, PATCO's greed did more to set back labor than any union action since WWII. The public saw it clearly and supported President Reagan.
Since then, the public now sees the divide that exists between government union workers who play I'll scratch your back/you scratch my back with the liberal end of the democratic party, trading votes for political contributions and support, receiving pay, benefits, and/or job security that exceeds that of the private sector. The public also turns to states where unions have traditionally been powerful, California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, and note that these states tend to be in far worse economic straights than the traditionally nonunion ones.
We can be thankful to Reagan for many things, but among them, stopping PATCO's greedy grab for money and power is certainly one of them. If government pensions and salaries now are a problem for the country, one can only imagine the problems we would have had if PATCO had succeeded.
Far from "turning his back" on labor progress, President Reagn stopped the union drive for power and bucks that was making them the new Robber Barons of the US taxpayer and treasury.
Dave Bego
8 years 1 month ago

Professor with all due respect you are a misguided ideologue living in the past.
There is no doubt that unions at one time in the late 1800's and early 1900's were not only beneficial, but necessary. However they outlived their usefulness and had to be reeled in with the Taft Hartley Act because of forced unionism through Card Check. Today because of declining membership they are trying to re-establish Card Check (Employee Free Choice Act) through legislation, which to date has failed or regulation through the NLRB with the help of their friend in the White House. Why do they need Card Check? Simply because they have nothing the American worker wants to buy!

Instead because they have nothing to sell unions wage ruthless campaigns against workers and companies to force unionism upon them! The reason? They are dinosaurs headed toward extinction and they need revenues (members dues) to survive, which in turn are used to elect politicians who will in turn pass bills or change laws to allow them to return to the pre-Taft Hartley days! 

Only the misinformed or naïve would believe that the majority of today's unions have the workers best interest in mind! Most are interested in survival and could care less about the rank and file.

Professor you should read my book, which is a true story, The Devil at My Doorstep  if you really want to learn what the majority of today's unions represent. I am a Catholic who believes we should treat everyone as we should like to be treated, with dignity and respect. 

 I am not a union hater! In fact I have managed many union facilities in my lifetime and have worked well with the rank and file members. However, I believe you should review my book and share it with your readers. It shines a bright light on the motives of most of today's unions! My guess is you will not have the fortitude to share my story, which is disappointing as your readers deserve to learn the truth. Today's unions are not about social justice, but merely power, money and their own survival!  

Please contact me if you would like a copy of the book or to engage in further discussion!

Chuck Hendricks
8 years 1 month ago
Father, I appreciate the review of a book on Labor and Unionism in America Magazine. I think it would be great to look at the current condition of the working class of America, and their attempts at self-organization and solidarity. This is not something we see enough of today. 

The union that I belong to certainly believes in creating justice, and seeks to create a better world for everyone, with a focus on the poorest people in this country. Today's unions have been at the forefront of the struggle for the rights of immigrants, woman, minorities and gays and lesbians.

I would love to see a discussion, not about the history of labor in this magazine, but rather current news on this subject.
Christopher Kuczynski
8 years 1 month ago

Thank you, Father, for bringing this book to light for me.  I have not yet read it, but intend to do so soon.  It is important for us all to remember where this country has been and the role unions have played in making lives better for millions of workers, particularly since we are in very reald danger of having much of what has been worked for taken away.  At the same time that many are saying that unions have outlived their usefulness, the gap between our nation's wealthiest citizens and poorest citizens is as high as it has ever been in our history.  The salaries and bonsues of corporate CEOs rise as a result of the profits exacted from workers who are told that we all have to make sacrifices.  Meanwhile, the narrative we tell ourselves is that the wealthy are deserving because they are the ones who "take the risks." 

I wouldn't try to argue that unions are guilty of no abuses.  What I would say, though, is that where there have been unions, wages and working conditions have improved.  If you don't think that's the case, consider all of the money that companies pay to high-priced lawyers who practice in a field called "union avoidance," and consider the less hospitable ways that American corporations have found to discourage union participation in their fvacilities abroad. 

Stephen Bauer
8 years 1 month ago
The history of the labor movement in the U.S. is one thing. The issue of multinational corporations exploiting labor overseas in underdeveloped countries is a more current issue. Does this book address anything international, or can anyone point me to any material on the global/outsourcing situation?  I am particularly interested in labor standards in the garment history.


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