Wednesday, 9 February 2011

There is Power in a Union


A friend of mine has recently brought this new book (published in September last year) to my attention. To my shame I wasn't aware that it had been published but on reviewing it found it to be one of the most readable and honest books on the development of the labour movement in the US - of which there are hundreds.

To save time (forgive me for this) in doing the book justice I have lifted the book's review from the UCS bookstore - from where all good trade unionists should buy a copy:

This sympathetic, thoughtful and highly readable history of the American labor movement traces unionism from the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1820s to organized labor’s decline in the 1980s and struggle for survival and growth today.

Philip Dray’s ambition is to show us the vital accomplishments of unionism over the past 200 years and illuminate its central role in our social, political, economic, and cultural evolution. There Is Power in a Union is an epic, character-driven narrative that locates this struggle for security and dignity in all its various settings: on picket lines and in union halls, jails, assembly lines, corporate boardrooms, the courts, the halls of Congress, and the White House.

The author demonstrates, viscerally and dramatically, the urgency of the fight for fairness and economic democracy — a struggle that remains especially urgent today, when ordinary Americans are so anxious and beset by economic woes at the hands of employer greed and a new global capitalism that threatens to create a permanent underclass. He notes that security of full-time employees is also threatened in the new 24-hours-a-day workplace dominated by computers and e-mail, which he calls "the electronic collar." Illustrated with dozens of photos, posters and more.

"The unending struggle between unions and big business has never been more vividly told. Philip Dray is a marvelous storyteller who brings history memorably alive, and you will not soon forget the tales of murder and greed, commitment and sacrifice that fill these pages. But this is more than history; the compelling saga of labor as a crucible for social change should prompt some honest and hard debate about what’s happening to workingmen and -women today."



ToadBoy said...

Where the reviewer refers to a 'sympathetic' treatment, how sympathetic. What troubles me about many labour history books is its blindspots when it comes to documenting the abject racist, sexist, homophobic exclusion and attacts on workers - often in collusion with the state and/or employers. what can we expect of this one?

Ian Manborde said...


My first thought is that you get a copy of the book and check yourself.I know that my sound slightly sarcastic (although it isn't meant to be) but you should be your own judge.

All I can say is that having read the reviews and a sample chapter (+ it is book of the month on reputable labour movement sites) it does deal accurately with the issues you raise.

Furthemore, if you check out the back catalogue of the author, Phil Dray, you'l see that he writes specifically around the political, social and indutrial experience of black workers in America.

One I am familiar with (published in 2003 I think) is At the Hands of Persons Unknown which investigates the extent of extra-judicial and/or unlawful murders of black people in America. A review of the book reads:

"Lynching, the extrajudicial punishment inflicted by vigilantes and mobs on often innocent victims, was far from an unusual occurrence, though some historians have depicted it as such. Instead, writes Philip Dray, lynching was part of a "systematized reign of terror that was used to maintain the power whites had over blacks." Drawing on records held at the Tuskegee Institute, Dray argues that from 1882 until 1952, not a single year passed without a recorded lynching somewhere in the United States, most often in the Deep South and Mississippi Delta regions. This violent "justice," meted out "at the hands of persons unknown" (with, therefore, no possibility of attaching guilt to the perpetrators, though, as Dray points out, such seemingly spontaneous events required organization and planning) held African American communities in terror and was one force behind the exodus of black southerners to the north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dray's extraordinary study reveals a pattern of crime against humanity, one that, he writes, diminished gradually for various reasons, not least of them the work of reformers and ordinary citizens "who knew we were too good to be a nation of lynchers."

So, worth a read I think.


Peter Chigana said...


I also can recommend Philip Dray's books.

I remember one in particular I had on loan from the University social science library whilst at Ruskin. It was called Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen.

As a I recall this book either won him the Pulitzer Prize or was in the final list.

I have just checked and the person who first queried your selection of his new book is able to read the first chapter of the Capital Men book at the New York Time web-site:

Dray is known to provide scholarship to the field of the place of race in the history of the USA.

The person who wrote in should, as you say, buy the new book and get a better version of US labour history than is sometimes peddled.

Good bless.

Peter Chigana

John Clements said...

This sounds an interesting read Ian,

Can I ask for your advice please on the separate topic of labour movement history in Australia.

I had read your piece in a previous blog about a new power (Power Coalitions I think) which got me thinking about how that particular movement came about and how/whether the UK played a part due to the tranportation of prisoners and general 'Pom' migration to Australia from the UK.

I look forward to hearing from you.



Ian Manborde said...

Hello Peter,

Many thanks for keeping in touch via the blog.

I hadn't come across this particular Philip Dray book, perhaps as it does not focus on a distinct labour/TU theme.

Still, it helps address the initial query I had on posting this item. So many thanks for this.

I note, on a separate point, your additonal comment on the item I posted re Egypt. As you know I wouldn't attribute the outcome of the protest movement as down to God, as opposed to the protestors themselves. Regardless however, these are interesting, progressive times.

Thanks Peter.


Ian Manborde said...

Hello John,

Many thanks for your posting, and the query regarding Australia.

There are many books on this topic. One that springs to mind and is relatively recent can be seen here:

Given your reference to the recent book by Amanda Tattersall you may find this book in particular useful as it provides a global overview of the growth and decline of the movement in a comparatively short book.

Hope you find it does the job.