[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Les Leopold, Host:
When Philip Dray came by to discuss his book project on the entire sweep of American labor history, I thought he was out of his mind. I knew that he was an accomplished author who had written an award winning-book on lynchings (“At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America”).
But why was he writing a book on the labor movement and how did he get Doubleday to go along with it? Who even cares about unions these days—besides a few thousand labor movement stalwarts around the country, like me? Was there a new retro-nostalgia mood sweeping the country that I was missing? God, I hoped so. Having written a labor biography, “The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi” (2007, Chelsea Green), I knew what the guy was up against.
Not only was his topic a hard sell, it was vast. A history of the entire U.S. labor movement? The man seemed undaunted by the monumental task before him.
Obviously, he didn’t pick up my discouraging vibes as he went on to write a gem of a book, “There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America.” And given how artfully he writes and how sensitive he is to the nuances of complex historical events, it might even sell. It certainly should.
Phil Dray actually has succeeded in writing a popular history of the entire labor movement. And it has verve. It ‘s not dull, and it doesn’t cheerlead for all the great labor causes, dead and buried. From the first factory struggles in Lowell, Massachusetts, to the air traffic controllers’ strike that President Reagan dive-bombed, Dray’s narrative takes us deeply into why working people organize, what they have won and the price they have paid to humanize our society.
Dray provides captivating accounts of so many eras and struggles that you wonder how he could have mastered all the material. But master it he did. He has an uncannily accurate feel for the tensions that evolved in the labor movement during the heyday of anti-communism. He also understands how the anti-war and student movements fueled enormous stresses and strains within union bureaucracies. He’s able to discuss frankly the grimy issue of union corruption without soiling the entire labor movement in the process.
It’s a tour de force and maybe today, online, he can tell us how the heck he pulled it off. I hope it’s not a trade secret.
Here’s my first question: What did you learn that can help us today? The labor movement is an utter mess. For the first time in a hundred years it seems that unions are nearly irrelevant. This at a moment when we’re facing globalization, an enormous fiscal crisis that undermines the economic well-being of all working people, and a global environmental crisis to boot.
Did you uncover a spark that could help rekindle a dynamic labor movement that would sweep the land? What clues does your hopeful account of our collective history leave for us as we work to build a new kind of workers’ movement? How can we tackle the concentrated financial power that now dominates our politics and economy? Can a new labor movement become the popular alternative to the Tea Party? Help!
Of course, having read the book, I know some of the answers. When you dig deeply into labor’s story, you’ll find one common strand: every one of labor’s momentous victories happened through years of slogging against very, very long odds. As Dray shows us again and again, it’s almost a miracle that workers ever succeed in organizing themselves, given the array of forces on the other side – the government, the courts, powerful companies, strikebreakers, Pinkertons. I think Phil Dray found kindred spirits when he took on the impossible task of writing this book. Like the labor warriors he writes about, he’s prepared to fight on through long odds.
In his introduction, Phil describes the labor heroes who light up his book:
“These were in a very real sense the makers of our world. Yet most today are little known, if they are remembered at all. This is unfair to them, and to us. 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 its past. It is this book’s faith that there is power in a union, as the old labor song goes, and that in neglecting the valuable history of unions we risk losing something worthwhile in ourselves.”
Clearly Philip Dray writes to hang on to his own humanity and to share it with the rest of us. For that I am very thankful.
Welcome, Philip Dray, to Firedoglake.