David Lee McMullen, Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson.
IN HIS CONCLUDING chapter to Strike!, entitled "My Personal Observations," author David Lee McMullen describes one of the tasks of the biographer as making connections "between scholarship and imagination." (185) Indeed, it is imagination that made possible the writing of Strike! because the entirety of Ellen Dawson's life for which McMullen has convincing evidence would fit nicely in an article of twenty to twenty-five pages. On this basis, readers will likely have one of two responses to Strike!; either they will question its publication as a book, or they will understandably admire McMullen's determination, resourcefulness, and dogged refusal to allow the memory of Ellen Dawson to be erased from the historical record.
Ellen Dawson was born into working-class poverty on 14 December 1900 in Barrhead, Scotland, one of the country's early industrial towns. Part of the metropolitan area of Glasgow, Barrhead's single largest industry was textiles, and in 1901 slightly more than hall the textile workforce was female. (13-14) McMullen provides compelling evidence of overcrowded housing, primitive sanitary conditions and the high infant mortality rate, but little of it directly related to women in the textile industry that was to become Ellen's Dawson's life. He provides more information about wages and working conditions in the foundries than in the textile mills, focusing on Dawson's father Patrick.
Following a chapter on Barrhead's industry, workforce and living conditions McMullen details the associational life of Barrhead's working class. Next, a chapter on co-operation gives us a revealing look at the Barrhead Co-operative Society and the local Women's Guild. By now the main characteristic of the first half of the book has been established: a well-researched and evocative look at the working-class world in which Ellen Dawson was raised, accompanied by a problematic attempt to locate Ellen Dawson within that world. Lacking membership rolls for either the Co-operative Society or the Women's Guild, McMullen can only suggest that the evidence "seems to indicate" (23) that members of Dawson's family belonged to the Co-operative Society, and that the Dawson women "may well have been" (25) members of the Women's Guild.
McMullen's chapter on labour radicalism and the "Red Clydeside" is crucial to his claim that Dawson became a leftwing labour organizer in the American textile industry as a result of being radicalized as a youth. The impact of World War I and the labour radicalism of 1919 are described, but in the words of other women activists such as Mary Macarthur and Mary Brooksbank. Ellen Dawson remains silent, although this does not restrain McMullen from claiming that she was "a disciple of Red Clydeside." (50) The strength of McMullen's chapter is his short biographies of John Maclean, James Maxton and Mary Macarthur, not what he has to tell us about Ellen Dawson's radicalization. The problem is that McMullen has no real evidence of this process of radicalization. Once again, almost everything he argues is based on inference. For example, McMullen follows his biography of Macarthur with the claim that there is "every reason to believe" (35) that a young Dawson saw Macarthur speak and was inspired by her.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that as a young girl Ellen Dawson was more influenced by and involved in the Catholic Church than she was involved in and influenced by labour radicalism. In his introduction, McMullen observes that Dawson was born and died a Catholic, and "lived most of her life as a devout Catholic." (xxiv) McMullen does hot even consider the possibility that Ellen Dawson spent her youth involved with the Catholic Church, not being radicalized by the working-class culture in which she lived. McMullen may be right, but he does not convince the reader that he has ruled out being wrong.
In 1919 Dawson moved with her family to Lancashire. McMullen is unable to explain why such an impoverished working-class family was able to rent not one, but two dwellings there. (52) Nonetheless, the author is able to provide evidence of Dawson's employment as a spinner and weaver between December 1919 and April 1921, at which point Dawson and her brother set sail for America. As the scene shifts to America there is the expectation that we will begin to hear Dawson's own voice; instead we are given the words of another young Scottish immigrant, Agnes Schilling, explaining why she left Scotland. (59)
Ellen Dawson came into her own in the textile strike in Passaic, New Jersey, when some 16,000 woollen mill workers went on strike between October 1925 and February 1927. Driven to militant action by unsafe working conditions, low wages, brutal foremen, and uncaring owners, the largely immigrant workforce fought a compelling struggle against great odds. Ellen Dawson was a significant figure, first as secretary of the communist-directed United Front Committee of Passaic Textile Workers, then as secretary of Local 1603 of the United Textile Workers of America when control of the strike passed to the American Federation of Labor. While McMullen does convince us that Dawson has been unfairly overshadowed by better-known strike leaders such as Albert Weisbord, doubts remain. James Cannon, writing in the June 1926 issue of the Labor Defender, identifies Lena Chernenko and Nancy Sandowsky as the "moving spirits of the picket line" in the Passaic strike, while McMullen writes that Dawson "walked on picket lines." (75) Chernenko and Sandowsky are nowhere to be seen in Strike! Nonetheless, newspaper coverage, notably in the New York Times, does reveal that Dawson toured and spoke on behalf of the relief effort in the company of legendary labour leaders such as "Mother Bloor." McMullen insightfully observes that Dawson had a higher profile outside Passaic than in Passaic itself, where she was "less uniquely newsworthy than when she was in another community organizing the workers." (77)
In 1928 Ellen Dawson was involved in the New Bedford, Massachusetts strike, when 30,000 cotton mill workers protested a ten per cent wage cut. McMullen focuses on the 60 per cent of the workers who were women, quite understandably dealing with the challenges of organizing women workers in "male-dominated immigrant communities." (116) All of the actual comments McMullen provides on organizing women workers in New Bedford, however, come from Sophie Melvin, Ann Craton and Elizabeth Donneley, not Dawson herself. Consequently, McMullen inadvertently pushes Dawson even further into the background. McMullen does, however, make a convincing case for Dawson's importance; she was arrested several times and sentenced to three months in prison, and then to an additional twelve months. (125)
In his account of Ellen Dawson's work in the 1929 Gastonia strike McMullen is finally able to bring her into focus and put some flesh on the bones of the heroic image he has attempted to portray thus far. The issue is race, and McMullen provides convincing evidence that Dawson's commitment to racial equality was genuine, a genuineness testified to by Black communist John H. Owen. (160) Here, at last, after 160 pages, we meet the Ellen Dawson that McMullen told us we would find at the beginning of the book. Yet even here we are presented with a conundrum. McMullen notes that Dawson spoke at the first public rally held in Gastonia by the communist-led National Textile Workers' Union on 30 March 1929. On page 138 he comments that she was the "first speaker," and on page 145 says she was "preaching a message of worker solidarity." Neither description does justice to the power of Dawson's speaking evoked in a quotation to be found in John Salmond's 1995 book Gastonia 1929. This quotation is not in McMullen's book, but it is on Wikipedia. Literally starved for direct evidence of Dawson's impact, why does McMullen not provide this most compelling example?
In October 1929 Ellen Dawson was embroiled in a deportation trial in Trenton, New Jersey. Judge William Clark ruled in Dawson's favour, stating that she could not be prosecuted for her opinions. Dawson was not so lucky where her position in the Communist Party was concerned. Following her expulsion from the United Textile Workers of America, she had joined other communist militants to organize the National Textile Workers' Union of America. (133) Dawson became the first vice president and, according to McMullen, "the first woman to be elected to a national leadership position in an American textile union." (134) In February 1929 Dawson attended the Sixth Annual Convention of the Workers (Communist) Party of America, the organization headed by Jay Lovestone, and was named to the party's Central Executive Committee. (137)
Jay Lovestone went to the Soviet Union in March 1929, where he angered Joseph Stalin. By the time he returned to the United States in June he had been expelled from the Communist Party as a "right deviationist." As a supporter of Lovestone Ellen Dawson suffered a similar fate; she lost her position on the Executive Committee of the Communist Party and was expelled from the National Textile Workers' Union. Here McMullen provides a compelling account of the way in which individuals with little or no experience in the mills replaced working-class activists like Dawson, who had actually worked in textile mills for many years. In the end it was the workers who suffered, an old story that has still not gotten old.
Jay Lovestone and some 200 of his followers created their own Communist Party organization, and Ellen Dawson remained active in it until 1931. At that point, however, she appears to have ceased her radical activities for reasons that remain unclear. McMullen then deals with the remaining hall of her life in a chapter of six pages. She married in 1935, and retired in 1966. The next year, on 17 April 1967, she died.
Strike! has much to commend it. It brings to life a long-neglected working-class organizer who deserves to be remembered and respected. In the process of writing it the author has brought alive the history of working-class Scottish immigrants, the immigrant communities of Passaic and New Bedford, and the poverty and struggles of textile workers in the American south. That said, McMullen has pushed to the limit the possibilities of working-class biography, and alerted us to the fact that there may be a point beyond which we should not be willing to go. At some point the inferences we need to make, the choices we must impose on our subjects, and the assumptions we have to make in and of themselves become the kind of condescension that Edward Thompson warned us against. In attempting to rescue working-class women like Ellen Dawson from the condescension of later generations we risk doing the same thing ourselves. On balance David Lee McMullen has made the right choice, but perhaps there are other working-class activists who, their contributions notwithstanding, are best left to rest in peace.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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