Labor’s voices

Work and Struggle:

Voices from U.S. Labor Radicalism

The publication of Work and Struggle: Voices from U.S. Labor Radicalism is quite timely. This concise and inspiring volume of working-class history has arrived at precisely the moment when the battles to defend the rights of public sector workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and beyond have opened a new chapter in the history of the U.S. labor movement. After thirty-five years of one-sided class war, unions now face the real threat of extinction unless the working class reemerges as a fighting force.

The early signs from Wisconsin are particularly promising, but after three decades of sustained attack, workers who are rebuilding the labor movement today have little connection to labor’s past and the vital lessons it provides. Working-class struggle is notably absent from the U.S. history curriculum in most high schools, and the role of labor radicalism is yet more difficult to discover, especially for members of the working class.

Work and Struggle is just the kind of book that workers need today. It is written in accessible and engaging prose, providing a survey of the official and unofficial leaders and struggles that gave birth to the U.S. labor movement in the nineteenth century and led it through its ups and downs to the mid-twentieth century. The book begins with a short (under sixty pages) history of the labor movement and radicals’ roles within it.

Most of the book, however, is devoted to the biographical sketches of individual leaders and thinkers who played a role in influencing the class struggle in their time. This unique approach to labor history allows the reader to learn about labor radicalism through the words and actions of the same individuals who created that history. None of these individuals are promoted as one-dimensional heroes, but rather as real-life human beings—fighters for social change even as they are sometimes limited by the biases and political challenges of their times.

Some of these figures are more familiar than others, and not all the people profiled in the book would fit into the standard category of “labor radical.” To be sure, labor leaders and socialists Eugene Debs and Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones are fairly well known for their working-class radicalism. But American revolutionary Thomas Paine and the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, legends in their own right, are not often associated with the labor movement—yet their ideas provided insight and guidance for working-class fighters well beyond their immediate audience and for future generations. And the politics of Knights of Labor leader Terence Powderly and CIO leader John L. Lewis are in each case eclectic, yet both played a role in “radicalizing” the labor movement in ways perhaps they did not intend—each inspiring strike waves that grew beyond their control and advanced the cause of labor in ways that could not have been predicted.

The book also profiles individuals who are much lesser known to the reader. Genora Dollinger, for example, is too rarely acknowledged for her role in the Flint sit-down strike of 1936–37. By providing Dollinger’s biography, Work and Struggle highlights the role she and other women socialists played in creating the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigade, thereby acknowledging the crucial role that Flint women played in the battle against the police in winning that historic class battle.

The labor movement is not made up of nameless and faceless bodies, but many thousands of individuals who played a role in the collective struggle at every crucial point in history. As author and editor Paul Le Blanc acknowledges, he could have easily replaced the fourteen activists highlighted here with a different fourteen, but the result would be the same: “Lists of fourteen could be multiplied for pages and pages—because there have been so many vitally important people in the ranks of labor. One is reminded of the line in Shelley’s revolutionary poem, contrasting masses with wealthy elites—‘We are many, they are few.’”

As we begin to chart the future path for the labor movement, activists will be well served by reading this recounting of its past.

 

Issue #102

Fall 2016

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