There is a review of my new book in The New Republic. It’s in the print edition so you have to sign up for the newsletter to get access to it, but I can excerpt it here.
There were clearly moments when sympathetic elected officials tipped the scales toward workers. When Davis Waite, the Populist governor of Colorado, resisted demands to send the National Guard to break a gold miners’ strike in 1894, the strikers successfully stood down an effort to add two hours to their day for the same pay. Loomis contrasts this success with the Pullman strike the same year, when 150,000 railway workers at the Pullman Car Company walked off the job in sympathy with aggrieved coworkers. This time the state was not supportive. The U.S. attorney general, a former railroad industry lawyer, ordered federal attorneys to issue an injunction against the union. President Grover Cleveland then called in the military. Thirteen strikers were killed and 57 wounded. If workers picked their political allies, big business could do the same much more easily.
The major example of workers benefiting from the support of a political candidate, of course, came with FDR and the New Deal. While Roosevelt’s rapprochement with labor was driven more by electoral ambitions than political ideals, the groundswell of popular support for activism—as well as business opposition to the New Deal—hardened his determination to pass pro-labor legislation. Chief among these was the Wagner Act of 1935, which created the National Labor Relations Board, established collective bargaining rights, and legally restricted employers’ campaigns against unions for the first time. Although many of FDR’s labor policies were designed to make unions less radical by creating a bureaucratic structure around labor relations, they sent surges of energy through the labor movement and emboldened even more militant worker actions.
But as Loomis makes abundantly clear, “electing allies to office” was at best only ever a temporary solution, because those allies often failed to keep their end of the bargain and, when they did, their work was rapidly undone by their successors. Already in the late ’30s, a recession halted much of the CIO’s organizing, Roosevelt’s favor had shifted back to employers, and the congressional alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats reversed the direction of labor policy. Labor representatives and social-democratic reformers were shut out of war-economy decision-making, which gave wide latitude to big business. In 1947, the Taft-Harley Act severely limited labor activism by outlawing sympathy strikes and closed shops, and by allowing employers to spread anti-union messages in the workplace. As Cold War paranoia mounted, unions were forced to purge Communists from their ranks, which in many cases meant losing some of their best organizers.
Loomis refuses to romanticize this period or the labor movement it produced. When the UAW signed a five-year contract with General Motors in the “Treaty of Detroit” in 1950, one of America’s most radical unions agreed to moderate its demands: UAW members got wage increases and excellent benefits, but surrendered their hope of having more of a say in the production process and in national industrial policy. They also agreed not to strike for the duration of the contract, allowing GM a period of calm and efficient production. “By committing to working with companies to promote smooth operations and tamp down rank-and-file activism,” Loomis writes, unions “acquiesced to the end of political radicalism.” As Fortune magazine summed up, GM “paid a billion for peace” but in the end still “got a bargain.”
The result, as many New Left radicals would later argue, was an institutionally more conservative labor movement that would often prove hostile to more radical forces that might have renewed it from within. In an era when labor leaders should have set about consolidating the gains of industrial unions and expanding them through new and growing sectors of the economy, the movement settled into a somewhat one-sided relationship with the Democrats in Washington. Over this same period, the business class expanded its anti-union efforts from lobbying to a wide-ranging political blitzkrieg, underwriting an anti-labor cultural turn through a dizzying array of grassroots organizations and university research centers.
As is not surprising, I don’t really agree with the reviewer’s conclusion that labor needs to look outside the Democratic Party to build its own political party. In fact, I strongly reject that idea as a black hole of organizing toward nothing, even as that sentiment has never really left labor radicals. But there’s just no evidence it will work, even if the Democratic Party is a deeply flawed vehicle for unions and workers. The reviewer also legitimately dings me for talking a lot about the need to elect the right politicians but not really focusing on politics except when I do, which is fair enough, but some of that is the limitations of the book’s conceit. But any author should support a smart critique, as opposed to the ridiculousness that shows up on, say, Goodreads reviews where people just flat out miss the point of the book. Plus, it’s just pretty cool to get reviewed in a semi-major publication.
In related news, I do have a couple of events coming up. Thanks to the generosity of LGM grave series readers, I will be appearing at the Baltimore Book Festival next Sunday at 1. I do appreciate you all making that happen and of course, you can help continue to spread the word of labor history as well as perpetuate that series. Going to be fun to be there. Hopefully, I can see a couple of the other presentations in between snarking about the dead.
I also have a New York event scheduled. I will be presenting on Thursday, October 11 at 6:15 at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College located on the 3rd Floor of 325 Hudson St. So I hope to see you New Yorkers there. I may also have a Providence event coming up, but that’s a bit unclear right now. Unfortunately, there’s no actual money in the book world so any event has to be coordinated. Unless you are Michelle Obama, book tours really don’t exist anymore, but I’m happy to go anywhere if it can be worked out.
Also, it’s cool that an article in Bustle listed my new book as one of the top 5 books people can read to learn about civil disobedience. And my long-held opinion that many politicians are outright stupid people got picked up too.