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Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. (Reviews).

Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. By Howard Kimeldorf (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. pp. 167).

Sociologist Howard Kimeldorf's Battling for American Labor deserves widespread acclaim for an engaging polemic that successfully reinterprets major themes in American labor history. Drawing on careful research in union records, newspapers, and oral histories, while incorporating a sweeping command of the literature, Kimeldorf convincingly argues that twentieth-century American workers were not "conservative" proletarians in the way that they have often been portrayed by historians from Selig Perlman to Michael Kazin. He argues that their radicalism stemmed from their underappreciated syndicalism, an approach to class struggle often associated with European movements that stressed direct resistance at the point of production as the key to labor power.

Kimeldorf's workers make no peace with American capitalism. Distrustful of political reform as a vehicle for change, they strike without warning and rely on mass mobilization across industries to achieve their goals. Kimeldorf finds these strategies in nor only the IWW but also, by the 1920s, in important unions in the AFL. In so doing he shows that the AFL was not the "coffin" of labor militancy it has been described as. Instead he argues that it generally harbored its own "business syndicalist" tendencies-a syndicalist variety that relied on direct action but which also secured job control through high membership dues and a willingness to sign labor contracts. He emphasizes these strategies that did at times give way to more inclusive organizational tactics popularized by the IWW. Kimeldorf's important argument stems from his belief that workers' actions and organizations, rather than the pronouncements of union leaders like Gompers, should be the measure of their class consciousness. By looking at twentie th-century unionization "from the ground" Kimeldorf finds radicalism in workers' efforts to control their workplaces and in doing so reinvigorates the study of class conflict in twentieth-century America.

These findings rest on the careful comparison of unionization in two industries: Philadelphia dock workers and New York hotel and restaurant employees. Both of these industries experienced an organizational evolution from the IWW to the AFL in the early decades of the century. But beyond a similar organizational trajectory there were many differences between the two unions. The Philadelphia longshoremen were all male, nearly half of whom were African American, and had over ten years of Wobbly leadership through the famous Local 8 of the Marine Transport Workers union. In contrast, the New York culinary workers comprised a large number of women, a polyglot array of European immigrants, and a smaller number of African Americans. They were briefly organized by the IWW. The crucial point for Kimeldorf is that both of these cases undermine the thesis of "proletarian conservatism." While a range of factors affected each case of organizational succession, workers in both cases demonstrated an ardent "industrial syn dicalism." Wobblies successfully unionized Philadelphia longshoremen by bringing together black and white dockworkers in a union with low barriers to membership, a commitment to noncontractualism, and a practice of demanding higher wages whenever economic conditions shifted in their favor. In New York such strategies were also evident. Waiters and cooks banded together across the industry and struck at busy times in the restaurant industry--such as the dinner hour and during holiday seasons. Women were unionized so that management could not employ them as strikebreakers. The culinary union organized so that in each case the AFL eventually triumphed, but not at the cost of action on the ground. Overall, with the exception of a greater willingness to sign contracts, "industrial syndicalist" values of mass mobilization and direct action continued to define union strategies even as radical Wobbly rhetoric became a memory.

Kimeldorf argues in a concluding chapter that the syndicalism of Philadelphia longshoremen and New York hotel and restaurant workers was typical of American workers in general--even into the late twentieth century. Here Kimeldorf cites the propensity of American workers to strike, especially in wildcat strikes that defied contractualism, as evidence of their commitment to job control and empowerment. Even in the current era in which many observers trumpet the strength of global capital, Kimeldorf sees syndicalism in the triumph of militant unionization in the Las Vegas service industry and is generally optimistic about the power and agency of American workers, While these continuities could be worked out in greater detail, they are intriguing propositions that should spark further commentary. In particular, the idea that the IWW had lasting influence on the American labor movement is an important contribution.

By recasting the focus of labor history on the "special intensity" of labor relations, rather than on the comparative political weakness of the movement, Kimeldorf does a service to the struggles of generations of workers. Readable, lively, and succinct, his book succeeds not only as an argument, but also as an engaging text. Here is a social scientist who manages to write a well-paced, enticing narrative that can easily be read in one or two sittings. Battling For American Labor would be a fine addition to a variety of undergraduate and graduate syllabi.
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Author:Buchanan, Thomas C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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