May 1, 2011
BOOK OF THE WEEK: WEEK EIGHTEEN, 2011
Dray, Philip, There is Power in as Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010) ("While the analogy between Northern factory work and Southern plantation slavery was never entirely convincing, labor reformers might be forgiven for believing their problems to be at least equally systemic. What the women mill workers of Lowell had learned in the turnouts of 1834 and 1836 was that they were no longer the special daughters of New England serving in the nation;s industrial showplace, but 'had become full-fledged members of the working class.' Was not the factory's exploitation of poor workers a 'peculiar institution' all its own?" Id. at 37. "But the real weakness in the effort to include blacks in the NLU [National Labor Union] was likely the fact that worker equality was not the chief motive; rather it was the need to deny employers the option of hiring blacks as scabs or as low-cost wage competitors. . . . While Sylvis didn't hesitate to couch the appeal for racial solidarity among workers as 'a second Emancipation Proclamation,' his and the NLU's efforts had less in common with that glorious document than with the anxiety that a black pleasantry would be exploited by capital to the detriment of white labor." Id. at 83. "Only seven years shy of the twentieth century, such was the absurd character of the struggle for workers' rights in America--desperate men on a hijacked train determine to cross the country to petition Congress for relief, and heavily armed soldiers waiting in ambush to stop them, prepared to shoot and kill their fellow citizens, if need be." Id. at 167-168. "Those escaping the nine-to-five grind, sometimes described as the 'creative classes,' are generally college-educated individuals who support themselves as graphic artist, freelance writers, Web designers, Internet publishers, interior decorators, photographers, food specialists, or public relations consultants. Some make ends meet with temporary jobs. Ironically, while such status confers tremendous freedom and mobility, it has largely removed its practitioners from the sphere of potential labor organization, and most, despite their credentials and qualifications, are in fact locked in a struggle to make a living different only in style from the plight of nonunionized workers a century ago. With no employer health coverage, no workplace safety protections, no employer-managed benefits, pensions, or 401(k), no sick pay or vacation pay, not even the opportunity of collective bargaining, many are fore their worldliness a voiceless 'Precariate.' as scholar Andrew Ross has dubbed them, cut off from society's traditional sources of livelihood security." Id. at 660-661. "Organized labor today may have been reduced to a whisper of its former greatness, and no one can divine or guarantee its future, but we can know the past. It is this book's faith that there is power in a union, as the labor song goes, and that in neglecting the valuable history of unions we risk losing something worthwhile in ourselves." Id. at 9. Also see the review 'Different Drummer: American Workers,' The Economist, September 11th 2010, at 101. In There is Power in a Union, Dray has written an book well worth reading. However, the problem is that in reading the book, learning the history, etc., few of us will see ourselves on those pages. In the 'I-centered' mentality of early twenty-first century America, where the question 'Which side are you on?' would be answered with the retort 'I am on the I-side!,' the potential for solidarity with (let alone empathy for) other workers is quite small. The future is bleak.).