Welcome Philip Dray, and Host Les Leopold.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread.   - bev]

There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story of Labor In America

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.

113 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Philip Dray, There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story of Labor In America”

BevW September 18th, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Philip, Welcome back to the Lake.

Les, Thank you for returning, and for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Thanks..We’re off. Philip are you there?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Yes, I’m here.

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Good afternoon Philip and Les and welcome back to FDL for you both.

Philip, I have not had an opportunity to read your book but do have a question and forgive me if you address this in your book.

Did you interview any of the folks at PATCO? Do they regret their support for Reagan in ’80 which led him to turn against them? (I know I see that as part of the long term decline in Unions in the USA)

I’ve never been in jobs that had a union available but have long been a supporter who does recognize what unions brought us – of course, I’m now one of the long term underemployed

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Good. So let’s start by you telling us whether or not the Labor Movement is going to survive!!!! And what you’ve learned that may help us think about that.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

No, I didn’t interview them. Yes, they did regret their support for Reagan because they thought their endorsement had won his favor.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:04 pm

feel free to answer dakine01 first

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:05 pm

So have you learned anything from you incredible research that can give us some hope about today’s union movement?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Some hopeful things I discovered about the labor movement are
1) that there is a kind of universal and renewable inclination for workers, however repressed, to organize and use their collective might.
2) that labor has shown itself able to transition from industry to industry and region to region there is reason to hope it can do so again.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Very interesting. What do you think about labor’s marriage to the Democratic Party? Can history inform us on that question?

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 2:08 pm

As a technical note, there’s a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” will pre-fill the comment number and commenter name you are replying to and make it easier to follow the “conversation”

Note: Some browsers don’t like to work with “Reply” if it is pressed before the page completes loading after a hard refresh

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Author Mike Davis has referred to that relationship as a “barren marriage.”
Certainly, from the Wilson administration on, and especially during the New Deal, there was tremendous – and deserved – support for the Democrats from Labor.
While I think Obama’s heart is in the right place, the Democrats in recent years have often failed to deliver for Labor. Unfortunately, Labor has no other real partner, and so I guess we are stuck with the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Your story took you to so many eras. Which period captivated you the most?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I would have to say the Progressive Era, 1900-1920, with its Wobblies, free speech battles, the Bread and Roses strike, as well as the innovation of industrial democracy, as seen in the resolution of the 1910 Cloakmakers’ strike in New York City. Also the incredible reaction to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the birth of the Factory Investigating Commission in NY, which put an end to the Lochner era of hands-off government regarding factory safety.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:14 pm

I can see that. It was a powerful period of change and organizing. Overall, was there one labor figure that you found the most interesting?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Many were interesting. One who was particularly fascinating was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a teenaged soapbox orator from NYC who became a Wobbly and captured the attention of the entire nation. She was a serious organizer and courageously led several free speech battles in western towns in the years 1907-1910. She was also a leading figure in the Patterson Silk strike and Patterson Strike Pageant of 1913, along with her lover Carlo Tresca, and John Reed.

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 2:18 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 14

I know this is the period when the United Mine Workers (or its predecessors) were trying to organize the coal fields of WVa and Kentucky. Were you able to find much on how the organizers dealt with the Pinkertons and such?

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:19 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 16

I can see you like to walk on the wild side. Those Wobblies obviously fascinated you. But back again to the modern era. Don’t you feel that someone we are living in a kind of post-modern labor era? It seems that most people have no use for unions or feel that they are only a narrow interest group. Your thoughts?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Of course, the Pinkertons were ubiquitous throughout labor history, most notably at Homestead in 1892, where they were defeated by an army of workers and their supporters. The miners’ antagonists in W. Virginia were from the Baldwin-Felts agency, and a guerilla war between miners and detectives raged in W Va on and off throughout the years 1913-1920, famously captured in the film, “Matewan.”

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Yes, that in part is what prompted me to write the book.
Both labor history and the absence of a meaningful organized labor front today caused me to wonder what had happened to the impulse toward organized labor, why it had been forgotten, and whether or not it could still be found today.
I think there are hopeful signs in that regard.

nahant September 18th, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Welcome, Philip Dray, to Firedoglake.
I haven’t read your book yet but anyone who would tell the true story of what organized labor has done to help all workers union or not!! Thanks to St Ronnie Unions have been attacked again and again. Just look at the union busting bankruptcy that GM has pulled off using the courts… Contract with labor and their pension Ha gone…
Keep heralding just how much Unions have done for all the working class.

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 2:24 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 19

Matewan is a great movie.

Did any Pinkertons or other mine owner hired help (Baldwin-Felts or any others) ever get prosecuted and go to jail for their actions?

(I’m sure union members and organizers were jailed with frequency just because)

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Please give us more on those hopeful signs. I worry that labor has given up the initiative to the Tea Party, rather than taking the lead on the enormous jobs crisis that we face. I can’t understand why labor has been so incredibly quiet? Any insights into this?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for your comment, nahant. You make a good point that Reagan’s actions toward PATCO had the negative influence of suggesting to management everywhere that it’s OK to hire replacement workers, fire unionists, and assault organized labor in various other ways.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:27 pm

dakine 01, generally speaking, anti-labor detectives and thugs tended to get away with their misdeeds. A good example again is Homestead, where Pinkertons killed a number of workers, were set upon by a mob, and saved by police who promised they would be prosecuted. But such prosecuted proved meaningless.

Peterr September 18th, 2010 at 2:28 pm
In response to Les Leopold @ 18

Welcome, Philip!

I think the PATCO episode was a turning point against the labor movement in the US, as seen from outside the unions. From there, I think the anti-union forces have turned to other public employee unions.

The rise of public employee unions has sparked a backlash, with more than a few voices raised today about the cushy jobs in govt when business is getting slammed. When they call the pensions and benefits outrageous, I point to the private industry compensation that far exceeds what public employees receive.When I point out that govt jobs are being slashed by the dozen, they call it featherbedding that needed to be cut anyway. When I point out that this means longer waits for fire calls, parks in disarray, and potholes going unfilled, they sputter.

But AFSCME and similar groups tap into both anti-government and anti-union sentiment, and that’s hard to beat.

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Philip, I assume you covered Mother Jones in the book. Any special information htat you might have discovered about her life and times?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Les, this is an area in which I have little expertise. I have heard that the AFL is throwing itself into the midterm elections. In terms of the hopeful signs, I would count the recent capitulation of Russell Athletic to pressure from an anti-sweatshop student league in America, as well as efforts by the steelworkers to force China to respond to charges of unfair labor practices before the WTO.
I’m also heartened by efforts from various US unions to act globally and begin the challenging transition to a global labor movement.

Scarecrow September 18th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Welcome to Philip Dray and Les Leopold. The country’s in a funk, and we’re about to have one of the elections that sets us back a generation. A few unions are fighting back, but only halfheartledly, because, I assume, they don’t see a champion, and don’t even trust Democrats or this White House. Do you agree?

And who are today’s champions? And do they have a chance?

perris September 18th, 2010 at 2:32 pm
In response to nahant @ 21

industry has managed to turn the word “union” into a pejorative, they’ve made it a dirty word and this strategy has worked perfectly for them

whenever I get into a discussion about unions with people who think they’re bad for the economy I give them this analogy;

when large company has to use steel for their product they don’t tell the steel mill what they will pay, the steel mill sets the price, the seller

they buyer can negotiate but in the end it’s the seller that sets the price

all a union does is form a corporation that supplies a resource the company needs, they then negotiate a fair price for that product, a price where the company can make a fair profit and labor can earn a living wage

we really need the term “union” to become the benevolent word it once was

and when we import products that come from countries that don’t allow for collective bargaining then those products need to face a tariff so the product doesn’t gain an unfair advantage by using slave and child labor wages

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:32 pm

dakine01, the thing that most interested me about Mother Jones was the depth of her involvement in all manner of strikes from mine conflicts to the plight of child labor. One of her acts that most interested me was the 1903 March of the Children, young textile workers who trouped with her from Philadelphia to President Roosevelt’s house on Long Island to protest the abuse of child workers in PA textile mills.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:33 pm

perris a good pt….Labor needs some re-branding, to be sure!

perris September 18th, 2010 at 2:34 pm
In response to Peterr @ 26

man I’ve been driving over the same potholes on a major parkway in my area for a few years now, and bridges are literally falling down, parks are being closed hours early and services ended months ahead of the end of season

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Although it was a symbol of the bad side of unions, do you cover the murders of Jock Yablonski and his family ordered by his union rival Tony Boyle?

nahant September 18th, 2010 at 2:35 pm
In response to perris @ 30

Very well stated and Spot on perris..

Scarecrow September 18th, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Philip — please use the Reply button at the bottom of each comment to reply to specific commenters. That way, we can all easily trace Q&A. Thanks

I noticed that Liz Warren made a point of “returning to a level playing field” as the means to reestablish the middle class. But that was a major role for unions. So is it possible modern reformers see redress in the form of better government oversight, better regulators and laws, rather than unions? Are they in conflict? And how can they work together?

perris September 18th, 2010 at 2:37 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 32

I remember we used to “look for a union label” and we were pretty much guaranteed a far superior product

I can’t even find what country a product is made anymore, it’s almost impossible to “buy american” even if we wanted to, not only because there are so few american products being made but also because it’s hard to figure out where most products come from

veganrevolution September 18th, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I’d love to see a reinvigorated IWW. I think it only has a few thousand members now. Sad.

perris September 18th, 2010 at 2:40 pm

when I was growing up most families had one income, most families were able to take vacation every year and most bread winners could look forward to retirement

now we need at least two incomes and it doesn’t look like anyone is going to be able to retire.

this represents a halving of income

Scarecrow September 18th, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Philip — if you were expanding the book today, how would you assess the current Administration? Would it include the moment earlier this year in Arkansas when a Democratic White House called unions stupid for wasting $10 million in the primary to get a better candidate for Senate? That seems like a huge signal about how the political system views today’s labor movement.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Scarecrow – I am hitting the “Reply” links but they seem not to be working with my browser. Apologies.

In one sense, it’s the undermining effect of globalization that contributes to the elimination of the level playing field. While gov’t regulation may be one answer, as we’ve seen with the difficulty in getting EFCA passed, sometimes the gov’t can only do so much. It recalls John L. Lewis’s feeling in the 1940s that too much labor law had been put on the books, thus making the gov’t s full partner in resolving labor conflicts. Lewis seemed to feel that Labor might be stronger standing on its own.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Scarecrow, that’s a very good question. But my expertise really doesn’t extend much into the present. I have opinions like everybody else, but that’s about it. I put so much research into the history of labor that I feel very hesitant to make off-the-cuff remarks about present-day labor issues.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Philip, Please tell us more about what Lewis meant about labor “standing on its own”

veganrevolution September 18th, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Mr Dray– Do you think the demise of labor unions has something to do with the fact that a hundred years ago they thrived within an “industrial” environment in which many more Americans were employed in factories? Nowadays that working class culture doesn’t exist.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Les, I think what he meant was that even though the New Deal had granted many long-overdue rights to Labor, it had also put in place a governmental regime covering union certification, elections, and grievances.
Once the era of Taft/Hartley arrived and Congress sought to modify the New Deal labor laws, the vulnerability of organized labor under these gov’t regulations was made evident.
It’s also worth mentioning that Lewis, always a difficult character, had a major falling-out with FDR, even to the point of encouraging Labor to thrust FDR from office in 1944.

Scarecrow September 18th, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Your book contains examples where the most exploited labor also coincided with the “immigrants,” which made them easier for business to demonize and to prevent broader support among working class folks. Today, that seems the plight of hispanic immigrants — so we see massive abuses in those food industries that exploit them, with government a serious threat to their security instead of a protector. What does your research teach about how to get out of that trap?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

veganrevolution, good point. Certainly the physical nature of labor in America has changed. We have fewer centralized industrial areas to compare with the Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago of 100 years ago. The mobility of the American worker, the death of the union hall, the decay of a basic identity of American workers in solidarity with one another, have all contributed to the situation you describe.

hackworth1 September 18th, 2010 at 2:53 pm
In response to perris @ 39

But look how cheap DVD players are now. /s

All the cheap goods have put us out of work.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Scarecrow, you’re right that, then as now, immigrant workers were and are often exploited. I was heartened the other day to see that immigrant carwash workers in LA, who are terribly taken advantage of, have begun to organize.
Historically, it was one of the great services of the IWW to work with immigrant groups and to demonstrate that even diverse ethnic groups of workers could be united in an effective strike, as at Lawrence, MA in 1912, in the famous Bread and Roses strike against a large textile firm.

Scarecrow September 18th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I’m in my sixties, and when I see terms like Pullman Strike, or Haymarket, or Taft-Hartley, I remember these terms were part of highschool history books — not much, but some mention. I wonder if that is still the case today? Whether the Texas School Board has managed to strip these important events from our collective education. Do you follow how/whether labor’s history is taught? And is this one of the reasons you wrote the book?

emptywheel September 18th, 2010 at 3:00 pm

A couple of the things I think your book did well (I’m not done, though) is capture the degree to which unions were fundamentally about self-representation and dignity. That seems to be the idea that gets lost in the attacks on the unions, even though it’s an idea that a lot of the white working class that is so cranky right now really responds to.

I’d love to see the parts of this book that deal w/the 8 hour day excerpted somewhere. It’s such a fundamental part of what we all take for granted, and it’d be a nice primer for folks who attack unions.

And I’d also love to see this book put out by audible (that is, on MP3 in fairly affordable form). THe narrative certainly would hold up to a reading, and it’d make the book accessible for a lot more people.

In any case, thanks for the book–I needed something like this.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Scarecrow, I don’t believe they receive anywhere near the attention they did when I was in school in the 1960s. I make a point in my book of referring to the fact that children of my generation were taught that the great heroes of organized labor were comparable to other well-known Americans such as George Washington, General Grant or Amelia Earhart. I also think it was important that parents in my day also spoke very favorably of Labor’s accomplishments, and encouraged us to respect picket lines and other Labor actions.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:03 pm

emptywheel, thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I agree that the 8-hr day was one of the signal achievements of the movement, and it’s dispiriting to see how it has been eroded in an age of 24/7 job demands, what’s known as the “electronic collar.”
Also, I think workers today feel they must often work overtime to stay ahead, and don’t have the luxury of enjoying an 8-hr day.
Ironically, the original goal of the 8-hr day was to give workers a chance to become better citizens, worship, spend time with their families, and even become consumers.

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Hi. Welcome. At Yearly Kos I got a t-shirt “Working class blogger” It’s one of my favorites.

Like Perris said above, the industry has managed to turn “union” into a dirty word, like they turned “liberal” into a swear word.

I’d like to hear about the linguistic and propaganda methods that were and are used against unions, especially from the late 70-forward.

veganrevolution September 18th, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Mr. Dray– Two questions. First: Could you explain how the the mob infiltrated mainstream unions to such an extent?

Second: Does your book address the corporatization of mainstream unions?

(To me, these are the other explanations for the downfall of unions.)

emptywheel September 18th, 2010 at 3:05 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 53

Again, I think that’s one thing your book does well that is really important: talk about how unions helped people become more well-rounded people.

Peterr September 18th, 2010 at 3:05 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 47

This also gets to the point I was making above @26.

Most folks will admit that the drive of unions early in the 20th century to get safe working conditions was a good thing for coal miners, meatpackers, longshoremen, etc. Worker safety rules, by and large, are now taken for granted.

Anti-union folks today look at unions for people like clerical workers and such and say “when was the last time there was a fatal accident for a receptionist?” To the extent that unions *ever* served a useful purpose for these people, it was back in the days when workplaces were much less safe. Now, they say, since safety issues are more standard, the purpose of unions is no longer necessary.

It’s bunk, of course, but that’s their thinking. Any suggested replies you might pass along?

freeman September 18th, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Poverty is at a historic 50 year high .

Considering this, as well as the fact that both the manufacturing base and the marketplace is shifting to new untapped markets in the developing world where workers are paid wages that rival those American workers received at the turn of the last century , do you believe that worker discontent will drive a social movement to address these issues here in the near future ?

hackworth1 September 18th, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Unions still exist largely within City Governments and they have been flying under the radar until cities began to go broke. Unlike labor and teachers unions, police, fire and utility unions have not been maligned and under attack by the right. I wonder why not.

There has been much abuse. Police and Firefighters have tended to promote individuals to Leutenant for the last few years before retirement (at 50 yrs of age and younger) to jack up their pay to increase pension benefits.

Ergo, there may be six leutenants in a small town firehouse.

Also, it was common for these Unions to have negotiated a guaranteed return of 6 percent on accumulating pension guarantees.

When the market crashed, cities had to kick in the money to float the guaranteed rate.

I’ve always been curious as to how and why these Unions have avoided the union-busting scrutiny of the right.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:08 pm

spocko, historically, language was often used against labor unions. Perhaps the most glaring example was the assault on the “closed shop,” in favor of the “open shop.” Management favored the latter, and used the term “closed shop” pejoratively to suggest its denial of worker freedom. Big business and the courts also were fond of the expression, “liberty of contract” to describe the relationship between a worker and his/her employer. This was a way of making gov’t involvement in that relationship appear undesirable.
We see this same syndrome today in the use of the term “secret ballot” used by opponents of EFCA. They’re trying to imply that “Card check” will take away the rights of the worker to cast a secret ballot, and that the latter is the utmost expression of free choice.

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

BTW, on ironic tidbid I found out fighting the right wing radio hosts. Who hate unions (“If I didn’t have to be a member to do this job I won’t be in one.”)
When the Christian Right worked to increase the fines for swearing and indecency to 300,000 -500,000 per incident the original law would make the hosts pay out of their own pocket, instead of their parent corporation.
The Union fought that on behalf of their members and the fine then went to Fox, ABC or Clear Channel.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Peterr, that’s an interesting point. I think it’s one of the great myths that labor unions have done their work and are no longer needed. One hears that frequently. While it’s true that organized labor did attain major victories which we all take for granted, the implication that there are no longer any battles to fight is simply not true. In addition, the landscape of labor-industrial relations is always changing, so new challenges arise which our predecessors would not have been able to foresee.
As far as clerical workers, while they aren’t likely to get hit by a train, carpal tunnel syndrome, of course, has been devastating to them and conservative forces have managed to keep OSHA from regulating effectively in this area.

veganrevolution September 18th, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Unions democratize the workplace. This is why we need them, apart from protecting us from workplace hazards. That’s the argument I make to union critics.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:14 pm

freeman, what you cite is the next front in labor’s struggle. Forces both in and out of the labor movement are striving to find a way to have enforceable codes of labor rights written into international trade agreements. They’re also working to encourage the involvement of human rights organizations, environmental groups, etc. in addressing the issues pertaining to low-wage, non-unionized labor in developing countries. There’s still much to do, obviously, but labor has transitioned before and so one can be hopeful that progress may be achieved in this regard.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:16 pm

hackworth1, municipal unions present a unique challenge in that their wages and benefits are paid by the taxpayer, not through companies’ profits. Thus, when hard economic times arrive and towns and cities are strapped for cash, it’s easy to turn to fat union contracts and look for givebacks. I believe in some instances there have been agreements worked out in this regard, but it’s just human nature that people have trouble “giving back” something they’ve already received.

freeman September 18th, 2010 at 3:17 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 64

But seeing the virtual merger of corporate interests with government , can the labor movement find a seat at the table ?

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:17 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 60

Excellent examples. Maybe it’s because I have a background in corp comm, but I think that the defining of terms for the media is very important.

And even selecting what you call something is important. For example, I still don’t know what the phrase ‘card check’ means. It’s not self evident to me with out more info.

What about the phrase “right to work” states. When I hear that I think, “Well that sounds like a good thing.”

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:20 pm

freeman, yes, a good question. No one said it would be easy, but people also once doubted that corporations could be exposed for their international labor practices, and that has occurred with the help of consumer groups and anti-sweatshop lobbies.
The real answer would come when corporations and gov’ts concur that sound labor policies are in everybody’s interest.

David Kaib September 18th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

It seems to me one of the barriers we face for a revitalized union movement today is that many of the people who need it are in white collar jobs and think unions are for other types of people – blue collar factory workers, etc. Are there historical parallels to that? Any lessons for how to overcome it?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:23 pm

spocko, “right to work” is another of those terms that’s been used to thwart labor organization. It sounds like something positive, but allows states to pass laws that inhibit unionization.
“Card check” refers to the ability of workers to express their interest in joining a union solely by signing a card, as opposed to undergoing an NLRB certification election. These elections are often abused by employers to protract the unionization process and to heavily lobby those workers involved.

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:26 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 62

I hear you on this one. Not being able to use your hands? Sounds like a work place safety issue, no matter how it happened.

Speaking of work place safety. One of the big issues that I worked on recently was the inability of OSHA to provide safety for the workers who were working on the oil gusher disaster. I kept following the tread to see how it was that workers were being put at risk inhaling sickening fumes.
What I found was that OSHA’s rules didn’t extend past 3 miles off shore! So that allowed BP to get away with no rules for respirators or Personal Protective Gear.

I also felt that OSHA’s rules had been watered down by industry with regards to environmental health. The were using standards for workers that weren’t as rigorous at they should be. So when there was a problem the industry could say, “Well we met OSHA’s rules!”

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:26 pm

DavidKaib, that is a legacy of the Taft-Hartley law that placed certain management positions outside the bounds of unionization. From that, perhaps, there has grown up a cultural tendency for mid-level employees to align their prospects with management. This hearkens also to a deeper theme in American life overall, which is the emphasis on the individual and the suspicion of worker collectives.
As far as lessons to overcome it are concerned, we can only look to the organizing drives of the early 20th century, in which frequently workers who had shunned union identification were led to see the benefits of union membership.

dakine01 September 18th, 2010 at 3:28 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 72

It is also a scam as I’ve been designated a “Manager” in a couple of jobs where I had zero authority and no direct reports. It was only to give me a labor classification that allowed upper management to force unpaid overtime and such.

At one employer, I think 75% – 80% of the “professional” staff were designated as “Manager”

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:30 pm

dakine01, yes, that’s a very common practice. It’s also worth adding that one problem for Labor in the past few decades has been corporations’ ability to woo workers with what used to be called “corporate welfare” – profit sharing, added vacation time, softball teams – all of the “comfort” things that make one feel at home at their job.

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:32 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 70

Okay. So you are a great writer. What would you rename “card check” to?

How about the LIKE button from Face book?

Might You want to Join a Union?


Or like Twitter.

If you want to Join a union please tweet to


and follow us into the new decade.

I’m no Don Draper, but what you call things mattes.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:33 pm

spocko, re: renaming “card check,” I’m going to turn this one over to Peggy Olson.

montanamaven September 18th, 2010 at 3:33 pm

It looks like Germany is a great model. They managed to get co-determination which is having 50 percent of the national supervising board being workers. Then at the local level, the individual outlets have worker councils who determine things like opening and closing times. The national unions though determine the wages and pensions. This leads to more say in the workplace and you can say it safely. What veganrevolution referred to as “democratic”. Is there anyway we can get some sort of German model here. They are the leading exporter of manufactured goods (quality goods) and unlike their rival China, they pay their workers well and have 6 weeks of vacation.

veganrevolution September 18th, 2010 at 3:34 pm

The other thing management does is subject us to “team building” malarkey, as if these silly inspirational speakers substitute for a better wage and more say in an organization. People fall for that crap. Unions used to fill that role.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Philip, One puzzle I’m wrestling with is what really produces profound change? How is it that in one era slavery can be acceptable and then in another, it is rightfully seen as an abomination. In the 1920s unions were falling a part. After 1933 they were exploding with members. I’m having trouble with what accounts for the transitions. Any clues from your work?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:36 pm

montanamaven, thank you for that interesting example. Such a system in America would be very difficult to realize. The very idea of unionization or of empowering unions has always been a tough sell here. Every right that American workers enjoy had to be fought for bitterly and often at great cost.
The govt was very late in getting involved in labor-industry relations.

David Kaib September 18th, 2010 at 3:36 pm
In response to spocko @ 75

I think majority sign up is the preferred framing from the union side. While not prefect, it is a whole lot better than card check.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Les, you’re absolutely right. The 1920s were a time of low union membership and the proliferation of corporate welfare across America. Some scholars believe that had the Depression never come, that trend would have continued. But it was the arrival of such dire economic times that forced both Labor to reactivate and the govt to finally act on various progressive measures regarding Labor that had been suggested and considered for many years.

seabos84 September 18th, 2010 at 3:38 pm
In response to spocko @ 54

spocko -

I’d prefer – well actually, I will ONLY support union “leaders” who can come up with the new memes to sell their product – a fair share of society’s output for those who put it out.

it is 1 thing to identify lies, it is another to analyze why the lies work –

we need NON dishrags to stick the lies down the fascist’s lying throats.

I’m in the Seattle teacher’s union, part of the Washington Education Association & NEA – we’re getting our asses kicked cuz we have a bunch of communications light weights and weenies in charge of communications. I hear the SAME whining about lying fascists that I heard about lying fascists in 1984 when I was a 7 buck an hour cook in boston, or in ’88 when I was 10 buck an hour cook, …or in 2000 when I was a micro-salary-slave with worthless options in redmond, or … lately! BTW – I ALWAYS hear the whining from people who are in charge and who live in good neighborhoods and who can afford to compromise with the lying fascists, again.


spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:39 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 76

Well she was responsible for that Glo coat ad, so, good idea.

It might also make joining the union something that women can see as something that do and not just male teamsters or mine workers.

Speaking of Union celebrities. I think of the movie Norma Rae. I met Crystal Lee Sutton, the real Norma Rae during a speaking tour in 1981. What was interesting to me was how modest she was. The Union had her out on tour and using the reflected power of Sally Field to tell the positive side of being in a Union.

Any other Union heroes in your book that might make a good Hollywood movie?

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

spocko, I’ve always thought a wonderful Hollywood movie could be made about the Haymarket riot of 1886. As you know, it was an anarchist rally in support of the 8-hr day and to protest recent police brutality. A bomb was thrown and policemen were killed. Anarchists were blamed, convicted and executed, largely on texts of anarchist literature. It was a gross miscarriage of justice. But the personalities involved were fascinating.

seabos84 September 18th, 2010 at 3:43 pm
In response to seabos84 @ 83

can’t get this edit thing to work …
spocko – I’d prefer – well actually, I will ONLY support union “leaders” who can come up with the new memes to sell their product – a fair share of society’s output for those who put it out.

it is 1 thing to identify lies, it is another to analyze why the lies work –

we need NON dishrags to stick the lies down the fascist’s lying throats.

I’m in the Seattle teacher’s union, part of the Washington Education Association & NEA – we’re getting our asses kicked cuz we have a bunch of communications light weights and weenies in charge of communications. I hear the SAME whining about lying fascists that I heard about lying fascists in 1984 when I was a 7 buck an hour cook in boston, or in ’88 when I was 10 buck an hour cook, …or in 2000 when I was a micro-salary-slave with worthless options in redmond, or … lately!

BTW – I ALWAYS hear the whining from people who are in charge and who live in good neighborhoods and who can afford to compromise with the lying fascists, again. rmm.

veganrevolution September 18th, 2010 at 3:43 pm
In response to seabos84 @ 83

That’s why the IWW (in its heyday) was so great. Labor militancy is necessary in these times. Most of the mainstream unions now are trying to destroy Soc Sec with Barry Oilbummer.

David Kaib September 18th, 2010 at 3:43 pm
In response to spocko @ 84

More than PR, I think we lack a narrative. I look forward to reading this book and hope more do as well. Very few progressives have much of a sense of labor history, or an appreciation for the central role of unions in the New Deal, i.e. the creation of the modern state, or the ways that the Civil Rights Movement built on the labor movement, etc. We need to be able to connect our current struggles with that history.

eCAHNomics September 18th, 2010 at 3:45 pm


Why have labor unions been able to survive much more in western Europe than in the U.S.? (If your work covered that.)

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:47 pm

seabos84, you’re right that labor leaders today tend to be more like labor executives. Leaders of yore tended to come from the rank-and-file and were often more two-fisted in their approach, often risking being sent to jail. One thinks of Mother Jones, Big Bill Heywood, Walter Reuther, or Carlo Tresca. Then also we can remember Cesar Chavez, who turned his struggle into a non-violent battle much akin to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. These were all outsized figures who didn’t mind putting it all out there and facing the consequence.

seabos84 September 18th, 2010 at 3:47 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 89

in my not humble opinion, western europe has better social programs cuz of WWI and WWII. they’ve experienced first hand what unbridled stupidity and greed costs.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:49 pm

eCAHNomics, we discussed this a little above. It has to do with an ingrained American distaste for collectives of any kind, let along those of workers seeking social and economic justice. Another factor is that in America, as opposed to Europe, large corporations had firmly established themselves prior to the creation of substantive govt agencies to deal with labor issues, and also before either Congress or the courts had begun to seriously address these problems.

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:49 pm
In response to seabos84 @ 83

Interesting. Communications lightweights. I hear ya. Some times you need to be aggressive. Pick a fight. Use powerful words. Tap into emotions.

I’ll tell you a tragic story about the Teacher’s Union and their waste of money. For a long time in 2005-2006 the California’s Teacher’s Union advertised on K S F O. One of the morning hosts viciously attacked the Teacher’s Union. They advertised on his show. They were helping to pay his salary. Not only did they waste their money on the show, their ads were used as a launching point to attack them.

I, and a teacher, contacted them and pointed this out. They kept advertising. They didn’t respond to our requests to explain why they were supporting this station. Finally I think my audio clips of the hosts calling for the hanging of liberals, journalists and the genocide of millions of Muslims got them to stop, but not without a lot of effort on our part to stop subsidizing the right wing hosts vitriol.

eCAHNomics September 18th, 2010 at 3:49 pm
In response to seabos84 @ 91

I recently read Europe’s Promise which covers a lot of that material. I’m hoping to get more opinions than just that one book on the subject.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:50 pm

DavidKaib, yes, you’re right that the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, even the gay liberation movement have a more favorable estimation in the public mind. It would be my modest hope that There is Power in a Union might begin to address that imbalance.

montanamaven September 18th, 2010 at 3:51 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 85

I agree. I have Green’s “Death in the Haymarket”. Write a script. Somebody also ought to make a movie about labor secretary Frances Perkins who was the last member of the cabinet to leave after each of the cabinet meetings with FDR. I assume Geithner or Gates are the last to leave Obama’s.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:52 pm

eCAHNomics, one little-known thing about U.S. unions I discovered is that during the Cold War, the AFLCIO was active in undermining left-leaning unions in Europe, S. America and elsewhere around the world. This legacy is troubling, particularly today, because as American unions reach out to foreign workers, no one could blame the latter for being somewhat suspicious of their motives.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:54 pm

montanamaven, I talked to Green last week. He’s the author of the definitive work on Haymarket. He told me that the producers of “The Wire” have expressed interest in making such a film, but that financing has not materialized yet.

BevW September 18th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon,

Philip, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon discussing your new book and Unions.

Les, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Thanks everyone,
Have a great evening.

Les Leopold September 18th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

My pleasure… But one more question: What is Philip’s next book project?

spocko September 18th, 2010 at 3:55 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 98

Ohhh. Cool.

Philip Dray September 18th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Thanks to all of you for your great questions and comments.

BevW September 18th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

For more information on the book – Philip’s website

David Kaib September 18th, 2010 at 3:57 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 92

I do not know about that. Corporations are gigantic collectives, and people do not mind them. (I am always stunned at how we can have a national conversation over economics where corporations are counted as private). And Americans used to belong to all manner of clubs and associations. Our rugged individualism narrative has always sat side by side with our nation of joiners narrative – as least since Tocqueville.

Your second reason I tend to agree with.

Also, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a Haymarket movie.

freeman September 18th, 2010 at 3:57 pm
In response to seabos84 @ 91

Ironically I would also suggest that after the war the US helped create Germany’s post war government and constitution and did a right fine job insuring that democracy would succeed .

6% of the votes gets 6% of the seats in government and the only way to run the country is through coalitions with the other parties .

It’s why the greens have been so successful in the past .

montanamaven September 18th, 2010 at 3:57 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 89

Geoghegan makes the point that after WWII, New Dealers and a strong UK labour party government helped Germany put in place strong workers’ rights and promoted unions. So, in essence, we set up this great system the Germans enjoy. We also made Germany have a even better national health care plan than they had. But then we dumped ours. Ironic.

eCAHNomics September 18th, 2010 at 3:59 pm
In response to Philip Dray @ 97

Now that is interesting.

I’ll definitely read your book. I know a lot about the cyclical behavior of the U.S. economy after WWII, but that was in a period of declining unionization. (Peaked as a % of private workforce in 1953 iirc, but can’t remember what %-maybe 35%??, now down to 8-9%?? To my credit, I still have a notebook full of stats on every strike during that period, LOL, because strikes used to influence variations in the economy. Last biggie was 1970 GM strike, also iirc.) I know almost nothing about the history of unions except for material I’ve picked up from reading other books on economic history in the U.S.

seabos84 September 18th, 2010 at 4:00 pm
In response to spocko @ 93

spocko – thanks for the anecdote.

I got into a bit of fun verbal jousting with a fellow teacher at lunch 2 days ago – “joe” and I really really really have a different point of view of how “effective” our union leadership and our union organizing and our union messaging is -

I think all 3 are either incompetent or a complete joke, and joe thinks they work hard & nobly against mean meanies. yawn. I think the incompetence goes a long way to explaining why working stiffs get to bust it for decades to build equity, so the equity can end up stolen by AHIP or AIG.

thanks for the story. ;)


montanamaven September 18th, 2010 at 4:02 pm
In response to DavidKaib @ 104

I agree with you. Now that I live in an agricultural/ranch area, there are all kinds of remnants of “cooperatives”. The idea that Americans don’t like collectives is off base. Maybe the English immigrants influenced this, but the Europeans (I’M Dutch) came with all kinds of cooperative ideas.

robertarend September 18th, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I belonged to the AFSCME union for 35 years. I was a local president for 10. What I learned was that, too often, the reputation of the entire union suffers whenever local leadership is not educated. A 6 week intensive training regime for newly elected local officers should be mandatory, with employer paid leave since both labor and management benefit from local representatives knowing what they are doing.

Too often in my 35 years have I seen a local suffer because their elected leadership was either incompetent or afraid of or trying to curry favor with management.

eCAHNomics September 18th, 2010 at 4:05 pm
In response to seabos84 @ 108

Came in late so didn’t get a chance to ask my Qs about union leadership in unions’ declining years. Joyce Miller, once the woman to hold the highest union office in the U.S. and appointed head of the Glass Ceiling Commish by Clinton (whaddevah happened to that???) was a summer tenant of my SIL in the Poconos, so I got an introduction and met with Joyce a couple of times in D.C. In subsequent discussions with my SIL, the subject of why did unions die came up, and my SIL said: Becuz of people like Joyce Miller.

eCAHNomics September 18th, 2010 at 4:08 pm
In response to montanamaven @ 110

I agree with you on cooperatives. To be sure there is a strong DIY strain in the U.S., but there have also been strong coop movements. Think it’s worth a book, or maybe one’s already been written about it. Suspect that corps put a big effort into undermining coops, but that’s just a guess, as I have no knowledge on the subject.

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