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American Labor in the Era of World War II.

Edited by Sally M. Miller and Daniel A. Cornford. Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, 1995, 228 pp.

These two books contribute to an understanding of modern labor history and collective bargaining developments that have outacted a growing number of labor scholars seeking fresh answers to persistent questions. Given the shrinking role and influence of organized labor in American society, what has really happened to the union movement, when, why, and how did it happen since the advent of the Congress of Industrial organizations (CIO) and the resurgence of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1930's?

The Miller-Cornford volume consists of selected papers from the 1991 Southwest Labor Studies Conference. Its focus was primarily on World War II experiences. Topics include the San Francisco machinists, West Coast shipyards, Harry Bridges and the Longshoremen's union, the role of the CIO leaders, the role of government, and civil rights struggles in Southern California. A good panorama of demographic changes and the transformation of California into a war-industrial economy alone makes this work worth reading. The authors provide a very useful introduction that outlines the various schools of thought on current labor history, and the controversial interpretations, from revisionist to mainstream. Clearly, mainstream scholars like Neil Chamberlain, Sumner Slichter, Richard Lester, and others have been shunted aside for the views of the newer generation of scholars like David Brody and Nelson Lichtenstein for interpretation. Unfortunately, the roll" the AFL and laws like the Davis-Bacon Act--so important in collective bargaining in the military-industrial complex--are overlooked--a serious deficiency. Special mention should be made, however, of the excellent chapter on the longshoremen's struggles over job control during World War II.

In many respects, the Miller-Cornford book provides a useful prologue to David Wellman's study, The Unions Made Us Strong: Radical Unionism on the San Francisco Waterfront. Wellman's thesis speaks for itself "This is not another sad tale about the demise of radical labor in America. It is not the story of how America's premiere militant union was defeated by bureaucrats, corporate liberals, collective bargains, or postindustrial technology. Quite the contrary. It tells a story of workers who currency and regularly fight their employers over control of the work place, even though their union contract has officially settled the issue."

Furthermore, Wellman insists, "It is easy to discount and diminish the legacy of the old left in America. The good fight they fought can be discredited by their support of the Soviet Union and its subsequent failures. However, when one looks carefully at the surviving unions they helped build, the old left is not so easily dismissed. Although they failed to achieve their socialist goals, the militant democratic unions they helped establish that would enable working class America to participate in the decision-making affecting their lives are a lasting achievement and profound contribution to American political culture."

No less an authority than Harry Bridges disputes Wellman's thesis. As Wellman admits, "although its founding president, Harry Bridges, and his supporters expressed socialist beliefs, the ILWU [International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union] never did. The union;never put forth a socialist vision for the future. Its constitution made no reference to "ultimate goals," or "collective ownership." In fact, being remarkably candid, Bridges is reported to have said, "You can't go getting mad at the employer because under our system he's in business to make profits. So you have to try to work out a solution within the system, and ours is admittedly a pretty selfish solution." So much for Wellman's "radical unionism" thesis.

Over a period of time, Bridges won the admiration and appreciation of the employers' association because it realized Bridges left his political ideology outside the bargaining table. He was a shrewd and successful union leader. The automation agreement developed in that industry was a model, criticisms from the left aside. Bridges and ILWU survived all the bitter antagonisms because he understood first things first: union building was more important than ideology. (Incidently, Bridges' seminar before a large and enthusiastic audience et the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University, was a tour de force, given his realistic comments along those lines.)

Leaving aside the flawed first section of Wellman's book, "Labor Radicalism Revisited," parts II, III, IV and V--essentially a well researched Ph.D. thesis--are very valuable in revealing life, work, and social conditions centered around the San Francisco waterfront. Chapters like "Work, Knowledge and Control: Conventional Longshoring" and "Who Decides How to Work," are insightful, as well as informative. Very thorough research on how day-to-day bargaining works yields original findings.

What would be invaluable for labor scholars and practitioners of collective bargaining would be a comparative study of the West Coast ILWU, and the East Coast longshoremen, a bastion of business unionism.
COPYRIGHT 1996 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Widick, B.J.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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