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In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City: 1933-1966.

In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966 In Transit is a richly detailed and analytically sophisticated book about a remarkable organization, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), in New York City during the heyday of industrial unionism in the 1930s and 1940s. The overall story of the TWU's development is closely intertwined with New York and New Deal politics, the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its bitter internecine quarrel with the American Federation of Labor, and the impact of the Second World War and the early Cold War on American society. But the most important--and fascinating--of the book's many threads concerns the relationship between the TWU's Communist leadership and the union's Irish Catholic, and relatively conservative, membership. Joshua Freeman engagingly demonstrates how this unlikely bond developed in the 1930s, and how it finally came unraveled in the dramatically altered political climate of the late 1940s.

By employing both the stick of repression and the carrot of company welfare programs, the principal transit companies in New York had successfully resisted unionization for many years. But the coming of the New Deal and the mayoralty of Fiorello La Guardia provided the initial spark that turned an undercurrent of transit worker discontent into a belief that change was possible. Two groups emerged to weld this inchoate impulse into a wave of effective organization and, ultimately, a powerful union. The first was a network of Irish republicans, centered in Clan na Gael, a secret society with close ties to the Irish Republican Army. Foreign-born Irish made up slightly less than half of the transit work force, with "country people" from Ireland's poorer counties predominating. In many instances, their relationship to the dominant institutions in their lives, including the transit companies, reflected the Irish rural virtues of loyalty and passive obedience. But the republicans were different. Many of them had fought against the British and the Irish Free State and had suffered imprisonment for their beliefs. Some of them, in the progressive wing of the movement, believed deeply in socialism and industrial unionism. And yet their passionate Irish nationalism provided them with a large measure of credibility among the more conservative immigrants from Erin whom they encountered on the job and in the wider social network of Irish New York.

Few of the republicans, even the "progressives" among them, had any trade union experience. When they decided to organize on the job, they eventually turned to the second group that would play a key role in unionizing the industry, the Communist party. The Communists had already made transit a focal point of their campaign to revitalize the party's trade union work. But they had little access to the semiskilled, and mainly Irish, workers who predominated in the transit system. Here, of course, the republicans were critical. Without the experience and organizing skill of the Communists, the TWU might never have amounted to much; but without the republicans' organic ties to the transit industry's work force, the Communist presence would have been little more than an embarrassing liability. It was the coming together of these two groups, in the context of the New Deal and the CIO, that made the TWU a dynamic reality.

The union's beginnings were hardly auspicious. In December 1935, more than a year after its founding, the TWU was collecting dues from only about 900 of the 40,000 workers in the New York City transit system. But by 1937, with the example of the CIO's extraordinary upsurge in the automobile and steel industries spurring them on, transit workers were ready to take bold action. A sit-down strike at a Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit powerhouse became a turning point in the union's history; and when the Supreme Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act in April 1937, "the union grew by leaps and bounds" (p. 100).

What were the fruits of the TWU's victory? Freeman points to the specific gains--"better pay, vacations, holidays, sick leave, improved working conditions"--but also identifies something even larger, namely, a tranformation in the workers' individual and collective sense of self. To be sure, none of this came easily or automatically. In an industry where workers had put in as many as seventy hours a week on the job, many of them without pay, it took more than a decade to win the forty-hour week. But the gains were real, and many transit workers readily transferred their allegiance from the employers to the union, which had, they believed, "abolished slavery" (p. 127).

Most of the key republicans who had started the union organizing drive, including--apparently--TWU president Michael J. Quill, soon joined the Communist party; and as the union grew, many of its secondary leaders also became Communists. Freeman argues that in the case of the pioneers, "their decision to join the Party was usually an extension of their desire for a union" (p. 71). Moreover, says the author, TWU Communists generally showed little interest in the party's larger agenda. For them, communism often meant little more than "effective unionism," and their main concern was "how best to pursue grievances" (p. 157). Although this may well have been true in the mid- and late 1930s, a decade later the great majority of the TWU's Communists would demonstrate a very different priority, in a painful and even dangerous context, when they chose to side with the party against the CIO, the Democrats, and the liberal mainstream. Clearly, by this time, they were no longer concerned mainly with "how best to pursue grievances."

But even in the 1930s politics and ideology were by no means unimportant. The TWU emerged at a historical moment when the Communist party was preoccupied with building a broad popular front to ward off the threat of fascism and had begun to embrace the democratic and nationalist currents that were so much a part of American political culture. As long as Communist politics was similar to the politics of the New Deal and of the CIO, it was relatively easy to be a party member, even in a union permeated by the culture of Irish Catholicism. As one veteran Communist put it, the great majority of the TWU membership "was willing to settle for this formula: maybe they're reds, maybe they're not, but they're nice guys, they bring home the bacon, so I shrug my shoulders, I go home and I sleep well" (p. 159).

In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, it became increasingly difficult to "sleep well." Two issues--the contention over a proposed fare increase in the New York transit system, and Henry Wallace's presidential candidacy in 1948--precipitated the crisis that led to the ousting of the Communists from the TWU leadership. Since public transit was a vital service to the working class and to the public at large, the Communists had long been outspoken in their opposition to any fare increase on New York subways and buses. For the party, and for most others on the left, including the TWU, the five-cent fare had developed into a kind of political sacred cow. But as the indebtedness of the transit system mounted, and it began to appear that a wage increase for transit workers would be impossible without a fare increase, the TWU changed its position. Although the Communists had been unusually careful not to interfere in the affairs of the TWU, a new and more contentious party leadership now rebuked the union in the pages of the Daily Worker for its "opportunism" (p. 291).

At the same time, CIO president Philip Murray was cracking down on left-wing dissent within the industrial union federation. The litmus test of loyalty to the CIO in 1948 became support for Harry Truman and the Democrats against Henry Wallace and the Progressive party (in which the Communists were a major component). When the Communist party's increasingly sectarian leadership in New York demanded that left-wing unionists support Wallace "even if it splits the CIO right down the middle," Mike Quill had had enough (p. 292). As a public-sector union in a volatile political environment, the TWU clearly needed allies, and the deterioration of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union was recasting the Communist party as more of an albatross than an ally. "If Quill had to be dictated to by someone," writes Freeman, he preferred Murray to the Communists (p. 298). Hence he broke with his longtime comrades, announcing that he would choose "wages over Wallace" (p. 297).

After some hesitation, most of Quill's associates in the TWU leadership decided to stand by the party. In the fratricidal warfare that followed, it was perhaps inevitable that Quill would triumph. Not only was the larger political climate favorable to his position, but the Irish Catholic core of the membership adored the TWU president--and they could do so all the more unreservedly once he had shed the image of "Red Mike." As Quill forged new alliances, with the CIO mainstream, the Democratic party, and the Catholic Church, he strengthened the position of what had finally become his union, and he was able to "bring home the bacon" more effectively than ever before. The TWU became not only one of New York City's most powerful unions, but also an important pioneer in the rise of public-sector unionism across the nation.

There are many more threads to the Transport Workers' saga than a brief review can encompass, and Freeman tells the story not only in great (sometimes excessive) detail, but also with a clear and sophisticated sense of the TWU's relationship to the larger currents of the labor and political history of the United States during the New Deal and CIO eras. Indeed, the publication of In Transit provides historians with a superb model of the institutional history of a union together with an evocative and richly textured analysis of the culture of its leadership and working-class constituency. Combining the best aspects of the "old" and the "new" labor history, it is a model others would do well to emulate.

Bruce Nelson is assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College. He is the author of several articles on labor history as well as of Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (1988). He is presently writing a book on industrial workers and electoral politics in the CIO era, 1935-1950.
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Author:Nelson, Bruce
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1990
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