American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor
By Jacqueline Jones
W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1998, 543 pages.

For most of the past two decades, America has been having one of its periodic love affairs with Wall Street. Like the early 1890s or the late 1920s, this is a time when plenty of otherwise sensible people have been smitten by the lure of the market, and nowadays it’s the investor who is king, rather than the explorer, the inventor, or the industrialist.

In such a time, it is easy to forget or to undervalue the important role played by all those other people, those earlier American men and women who went out, rolled up their sleeves, and actually did something. Without them, of course, our country would have no wealth – no roads, no farms, no Manhattan skyscrapers, and no surplus to invest in Internet stocks or in overnight global equity trading.

So it is good to have such a fine and important book as American Work from Jacqueline Jones. In her big new study of U.S. labor history, Jones does something significant: She takes it as her starting point that work matters, and she takes it for granted that the American work force has always been female and male, black and white.

Jones draws on a vast amount of research to trace the origins of current problems. Welfare, affirmative action, set asides, and McJobs–all are shown to have deep roots in American history.

Jones, who teaches history at Brandeis University, draws on a vast amount of research in court records, letters, diaries, newspapers, and other sources to trace the origins of our current problems. Welfare, affirmative action, set-asides, the proliferation of McJobs – these and other issues are shown to have deep roots in American history.

Along the way, Jones manages to avoid one of the pitfalls of traditional labor histories, which is that they tend to be a catalogue of the institutional fortunes of organized labor only. In those books, unorganized workers – who are usually black or female or both – tend to be nearly invisible. This book aims to tell the history of all working Americans.

Jones begins her tale around 1600 in the South, and in the beginning she finds that most laborers in the New World were not free. Most, but not all, of the Africans were enslaved. But what is less well known, most whites were ensnared in a temporary form of slavery known as indentured servitude. (The crucial difference being that an indenture always had an expiration date and could not pass on to one’s children.) “In the southern colonies,” she observes, “there existed old black servants but no old white ones.”

Jones also provides a great deal of marvelous detail about the period from roughly 1650 to 1750, a century that most standard U.S. histories leave blank in the long interval between initial settlement and the run-up to the Revolution. In Jones’s telling, this was a crucial period in the history of work because America was then truly a tri-racial place (red, white, and black) where white domination was not a sure thing by any means. It was also a crucial period because it was then that English settlers constructed the view that dark-skinned people from Africa were a single, separate race whose members were somehow specially suited to heavy labor outdoors and who could be bought and sold.

Although the first boatload of African slaves is generally acknowledged to have arrived in Virginia in March 1619, the bulk of African slaves did not arrive until after 1700. Soon, they were forced into the wealth-creating plantations in cotton, tobacco, and rice. But Jones also keeps her eye on the population of free blacks, North and South, who stood as a constant reminder that Africans could read, write, learn a trade, and build stable communities.

As for women, Jones observes that “women’s value to the colonization enterprise was ultimately judged in relation to the two great tasks that all colonizers faced: work in the fields and defense of the colony.” Children, including thousands of orphans, were also put to work. If they could not be used in their own household, they were often apprenticed or “bound” to someone else. Indeed, very few people in early America were not bound in some way–either as chattel, or indentured servants, or apprentices, or contract laborers, or as widows, orphans, or all the other unfortunates condemned to the poorhouses.

In the traditional view, America before the closing of the frontier in 1890 was a society in which land was cheap and in which labor was therefore dear. It was a land of freedom and opportunity. Jones makes a good case for standing much of that view on its head.

It is true that land was relatively cheap and labor relatively scarce, but it did not follow that the colonial elites paid more for workers’ effort. Instead, the need for labor seems only to have spurred their ingenuity in thinking up new ways to get other people to work for them. And as for freedom and opportunity, Jones reminds us that we always have to ask: Who? Who was free? Who had opportunity?

In the southern colonies especially, the English elites faced a fundamental problem: They wanted to find or create wealth here, but they did not want to do the work. As they saw it, the problem was to find a labor force to train, discipline, and exploit. They tried natives, they tried other Europeans, and eventually, they tried African slaves. All had their drawbacks.

Many Native Americans were forced to work, more or less like prisoners of war in work camps. For this reason, they were never a great labor force, from the European perspective. Despising their captors, they were always running off. As for the Europeans, many of them were criminals, prisoners of war, beggars, layabouts, religious zealots–in short, not much of a labor force. As for the Africans, white colonists were not at all sure at first how to organize them as a work force or to justify their enslavement. In addition, of course, most children of all social groups were forced to work, in one way or another.

In one of the many well-chosen quotations Jones has found, she cites the lament of an Englishman who wrote home in 1738 complaining that “it’s hard living here without a Servant.” How much harder, then, must it have been to live here as a servant!

In the 19th century, Jones describes the impact of industrialization on American ways of work. In her telling, one very important theme can be discerned, although Jones does not make the point as explicitly as she might. That is, in the industrial economy, the crucial issue for working people was their access to machinery. With the coming of factories, it was machinery that boosted each worker’s productivity and, in some rough approximation, wages. Jones shows how black workers were denied access to these new engines of wealth – through state and local laws, labor union rules, and overt discrimination. If they were allowed in the factory at all, most blacks were given nothing more to work with than a broom.

As a result, black wages were lower than whites’, and black net worth was dramatically lower. As a further result, blacks found it nearly impossible to buy homes in stable suburbs, where improving schools would provide the access to the next round of good jobs, in the professions and high-tech. Thus, Jones shows, American society is the product of American labor history.

For all its virtues, however, American Work does have some shortcomings. One involves Jones’s focus. In the early chapters, the book has a most impressive scope, and Jones keeps a steady eye on black, white, and red men, women, and children. In other words, she pays attention to the work of the entire populace in English-speaking North America. As the book progresses, however, the focus narrows, and by the time she is discussing the 20th century, her subjects are black and white adults, almost exclusively. Along the way, she loses the thread of native people and children, and she largely ignores significant streams of later immigration – not only from southern and eastern Europe but also from Asia and from Spanish-speaking homelands.

What’s more, she gives short shrift to the many significant differences and conflicts within the world of white people. It is true, of course, that these issues have received ample attention elsewhere, but the narrowing focus of the later chapters does not do justice to the power and sweep of the early chapters. Indeed, the closing chapter amounts to little more than a case for keeping affirmative action, which seems better suited for a different book.

Jones is at her best when showing us particular people in specific situations, whether they be 18th-century sailors, 19th-century field hands, or 20th-century textile workers. Less welcome are her occasional lapses into the academic fogbank, as when she writes: “The rush to profit taking pitted English ethnocentrism against a more open, and openly rapacious, attitude toward the labor potential inherent in all groups that peopled the southeastern coastal region.”

(Finally, mention must be made of a different sort of lapse, the kind that makes readers wonder whether anyone actually edits books anymore. Shame on W.W. Norton for letting this one get by: “… Indians were compensated for…gathering oysters and muscles.” Presumably, those Indians had plenty of muscles, which they used to gather mussels.)

Today, of course, America is a powerful, prosperous place. But it is important to remember that all our wealth and security rests on the strong backs and quick hands of millions of people who came to this place from somewhere else and built the country – all of those hod carriers, ditch diggers, loom tenders, farmers, fishermen, and factory workers – and they are all in Jacqueline Jones’s fine book.

Christopher B. Daly, a regular contributor to this magazine, teaches journalism at Boston University. He is also a co-author of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, which is being re-issued this year by UNC Press.

Visions of a New Labor Movement The Transformation of U.S. Unions: Voices, Visions, and Strategies from the Grassroots
Edited by Ray M. Tillman and Michael Cummings
Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 1999, 285 pages.

Reviewed By James Green

Will labor unions remain locked in the past, an assembly of business organizations dedicated to servicing a shrinking core of dues payers? Or will they become “the fulcrum of a vibrant social movement, not just a federation of constituent organizations,” as national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hopes? Will narrow business unionism give way to a “social unionism” derived from labor’s progressive past when unions spoke for all working people and spoke to the core concerns of the democracy?

Sweeney and his “New Voice” team gained national leadership after a spirited convention battle in 1995. It was the first glimpse of the struggle to redefine the labor movement. Since then the reformers have brought organized labor a new image, new political clout in elections, new influence in the Democratic Party (particularly noticeable in Massachusetts), new diversity in its leadership, and a new emphasis on organizing the unorganized.

It is this last goal that is the animating concern of The Transformation of U.S. Unions, edited by union activist Ray Tillman and political scientist Michael Cummings. Tillman and Cummings have assembled a collection of thoughtful analyses and prescriptions for the revival of organized labor in the United States written by experienced activists, advocates, and educators. It makes an impressive contribution to a fascinating debate that has been taking place in the movement for more than two decades. It is a passionate argument not just about the strategy and tactics unions need to recover and expand; it is also about organized labor’s very identity.

The essay-writers argue that unions must transcend the old service model of unions as little insurance companies and adopt an aggressive organizing model for their movement.

The contributors to this anthology use Sweeney’s election as a point of departure from which to discuss what it means for trade unions to adopt a social movement approach to unionism, what it really takes for unions to organize new members, and, most of all, what it requires for unions to become more democratic. All the contributors to this volume argue that unions must transcend the old service model of unions as little insurance companies and adopt an aggressive organizing model for their movement. This model requires a much deeper democratization of labor organizations and a mobilization of rank-and-file members.

The Transformation of U.S. Unions originated as a special issue of the Union Democracy Review, the publication of an organization devoted to union membership rights. The signature essay is by Herman Benson, who founded the Association for Union Democracy in 1969. Here he reports on the good news that for three decades rank-and-file demands for union democracy have created a rising tide that has lifted many sinking boats in labor’s fleet. Indeed, he sees the New Voice leaders led by Sweeney as riding the “reform wave” created at the base of the labor movement.

Some of the strongest chapters in this collection are written by and about the “local heroes” who have democratized their unions, often at great risk. One of them is co-editor Ray Tillman, a local union president in Colorado, who offers an insightful account of the democratic reform movements in two of the nation’s most important unions, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. Tillman concludes, as do many other contributors to this volume, that the revived social unionism evoked by the New Voice at the AFL-CIO will not be achieved from the top down. If the new progressive leaders convince their members that “this movement is truly theirs,” they will make it much easier to organize new members. If that happens, Herman Benson believes, organized labor will become “a social force that shapes public opinion and creates a new mood in this country.” But he is withholding judgment on whether the new generation of officials will aggressively expand membership rights.

Other contributors who share his reservations highlight the many obstacles to a fully democratized labor movement. For example, Jane Slaughter offers pointed criticisms of labor bureaucracy based on two decades of hard-hitting journalism for the Detroit monthly Labor Notes, a rallying point for new union insurgencies. Slaughter is critical of the new AFL-CIO for continuing to support the Democratic Party while President Clinton only gives “lip service” to labor, and she is critical of Sweeney for succumbing to union protocol and refusing to overrule national presidents reluctant to mobilize for direct action. She is not impressed with new organizing drives that net new members but do not change the culture of unions. Like the other contributors to this volume, Slaughter advocates aggressive organizing and bargaining tactics, but she also faults the “militancy without democracy” approach adopted by some of the young turks trying to shake up the labor movement.

In another noteworthy contribution, the popular activist writers Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello (a local union activist who is now an organizer for Northeast Action) praise the New Voice leaders for shifting union rhetoric from business unionism toward that of social movement unionism. But still, they wonder how much things will change if labor leaders fail to challenge “the institutional constraints imposed by labor law, union structure, bureaucratic dead wood and organizational inertia.”

Brecher and Costello doubt that public skepticism about unions can be overcome with rhetoric because too many working people still see unions as “undemocratic” – as representing interests different than their own. Can the new language of democracy be backed up with substantive changes? Can a new labor movement develop within the “shell of the old”? Brecher and Costello think so, if progressive leaders support struggles for grass-roots democracy within the movement and if they create a broader coalition of community-based groups to represent working people as a whole.

The writers contributing to The Transformation represent a kind of new left in the labor movement, one responsible for generating, sustaining, and deepening an exciting debate about democratic social unionism. Their thinking represents a revival of an earlier “new left” perspective derived from 1960s social critics who faulted representative democracy and called for a different kind of politics based on participatory democracy.

What’s fascinating about this discussion is that it is, without doubt, the highest level discourse about the theory and practice of democracy taking place anywhere in the nation, and for that Sweeney and company deserve some credit. Unlike previous officials, deeply paranoid over any dissent within the House of Labor, the New Voice reformers have opened up doors to many new voices – including those of the articulate dissenters represented in this volume.

Some of the writers, such as Tillman, are incumbent union officials whose voices might once have been silenced; others are former trade union activists like Costello now engaged in broader movement work. Others are radical journalists like Slaughter, reform watchdogs like Benson, and movement intellectuals like the radical historian Staughton Lynd, who became a labor lawyer and activist fighting against plant shutdowns and for union democracy. He writes here in praise of the local labor union and as an advocate of a decentralized labor movement based on horizontally organized coalitions freed from control by national organizations.

Lynd’s prescriptions are attractive to labor historians who recall the local roots of union power a century ago and for those who know how heroically local unions fought for community survival in the past two decades–in places like Jay, Maine, where paper workers had to battle their own national union officers as well as a union-busting employer. He is skeptical about the ability of national institutions to meet local needs, and he is on firm ground when he says that “solidarity begins at home.”

However, localism can also be part of the problem for union reformers, because officials elected by their own members often feel compelled simply to represent those who elected them rather than to reach out to organize new members or address broader social concerns. And as Lynd knows from his own work resisting plant shutdowns in the Midwest, local groups needed strong national organizations in their struggles with giant corporations. It seems premature to discard the possibility that a new generation of labor leaders can create national organizations that promote local cultures of solidarity. This is what happened when Richard Trumka’s United Mine Workers risked everything to ensure a victory for Virginia coal miners in their 1989 strike and when Ron Carey’s reformed Teamsters mobilized UPS drivers and won strong public support for their strike in 1997.

The kind of debate that Lynd and other activists are nurturing within the labor movement is rare in itself. Similar discussion took place within the union world on only three other brief occasions during the past: first, during the 1880s when the Knights of Labor advocated for a broad reform movement and envisioned a community-controlled, producer-oriented economy; second, during the 1910s when the socialists within the American Federation of Labor proposed trade unionism as a means to a visionary end, the creation of a cooperative commonwealth in which workers and consumers would be saved from the evils of corporate capitalism; and, most recently, in the mid-1930s when the unions in the Committee for Industrial Organization (later to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations – the CIO) espoused an inclusive social unionism against the AFL’s exclusive brand of craft unionism.

When the CIO purged its left-led unions in 1949 and reunited with the AFL in 1955, political debate ceased over big political and social questions. Everything seemed fine then. AFL-CIO unions were the largest in the world, representing 35 percent of the work force and constituting the backbone of the Democratic Party that would regain national power in 1960. There was no debate about labor’s future, only some discussion about cleaning up corrupt unions.

Why did a passionate controversy about labor’s future reappear in the 1980s? How did the dissident voices reflected in this collection gain a hearing within unions’ ranks? In a sense, the ordeal that organized labor suffered during the 1970s and 1980s created a need, even a demand, for a debate over the movement’s future. The depth of that crisis helps to put the discussion over union democracy in context.

After World War II unions benefited from economic prosperity and amazing growth in real wages. They exercised enormous political clout. Then the tide turned.

For nearly 30 years after World War II, AFL-CIO unions benefited from economic prosperity and amazing growth in real wages. Most big unions made pacts with major corporate employers who decided they could live with unions even if it meant sharing more of their wealth. These unions used their numbers and their resources to exercise enormous political clout on Capitol Hill and in many state legislatures. Their leaders worried little about the size of their memberships.

Then the tide turned. A world-wide recession in 1973 shocked corporate managers who suddenly faced falling rates of profit and anemic productivity gains. Many U.S. businesses also suffered from growing foreign competition. As a result, employers decided to cut their labor costs and, to do so, many declared war on their unionized employees.

The assault on unionized workers began with demands for contract give-backs and soon led to outright union busting encouraged by the deregulation of transportation. When President Reagan replaced the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, the dam broke; more union strikers lost their jobs to “permanent replacements.” All the while, plant shutdowns, defense industry cuts, and schemes for downsizing and re-engineering depleted union ranks, causing pain for countless families and devastating entire industrial communities.

In Massachusetts, deindustrialization had begun long before, when the shoe and textile industries “went South,” but the rapid organization of public employees had compensated the AFL-CIO for its lost members in manufacturing. Then, in 1981 the Commonwealth felt the impact of the tax-cutting movement when Proposition 21/2 was enacted. The effect was a reduction in government employment, a trend accelerated here by the closing of large state-run facilities and the privatization of other public services.

Through this stormy weather, union officials battened down the hatches, determined to keep their ships afloat in a sea of Republican tempests and corporate gales. The captain of the AFL-CIO fleet, Lane Kirkland, stayed the course set by the hard-nosed plumber from the Bronx, George Meany, who had silenced most critics within the unions, including the ones who complained that unions had stopped organizing.

But there was trouble down below. Local unions waged fierce battles against corporate buccaneers who demanded concessions. As union membership dropped like a stone in the private sector, incumbent union leaders foundered, unable to find new ways of organizing and overcoming the opposition of hard-nosed employers whose lawyers used federal labor laws against unions.

To bring unions out of these dire straits, a new leadership emerged in the 1980s, younger men and some women who rose in the ranks during the tough times of the Reagan era. Experienced in the bitter battles of the ’80s, they were less willing to trust that employers wanted them to be part of the establishment or that the government would “level the playing field.” Often college educated, they were less likely to be indoctrinated by the Cold War and were less afraid of new ideas. They were not so threatened by the protest movements of the ’60s or by the generation of activists who led those protests. They were aware of the alternative approaches to organizing promoted by the community-based activists like Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez and they were attracted to the moral case for social equality and justice made by the civil rights and women’s movements. Indeed, these new leaders believed the labor movement had lost its moral compass.

When John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995, along with running mates Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson, this generation of leaders gained national influence and encouraged the emergence of similar leaders at the local and state level, people like Robert Haynes and Kathleen Casavant who now head the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Together with rank-and-file activists at the grass roots, these leaders are trying to create a new labor movement for a new century.

The contributors to The Transformation of U.S. Unions insist that creation of a new labor movement depends on democratization at all levels. Periodic mobilizations may beat back employers’ offensives or recruit new members, but social unionism will not be created without participatory democracy. This prescription will no doubt seem like a panacea to many local union officials who must regularly stand for re-election and who are scrutinized by a battery of federal observers who subject unions to far more procedural regulation than any other private institutions in the nation.

Social unionism will not be created without participatory democracy.

Those who write in this volume about “the transformation” of unions do not believe duly elected progressive union leaders alone can create the social unionism workers need in the 21st century. Indeed, these democratic enthusiasts insist that unions cannot remain simply representative forms of democracy based on winner-take-all elections. There must be an entirely new substance to union democracy.

Given this belief, it is surprising that the contributors do not address the urgent task of creating a more diverse labor leadership to reach a new, diverse work force. If women are the future of the labor movement, as John Sweeney predicts, you wouldn’t know it from looking at the AFL-CIO officer corps. Unions could encourage more participation from women, immigrants, and workers of color–the ones needed to rebuild labor’s ranks–by creating far more leadership positions instead of functioning like traditional representative bureaucracies run by a few in the name of the many.

It is also curious that the contributors don’t focus more on what it takes to be an effective democratic leader. At times, the essays seem to evoke a romantic image of the rank-and-file members ready and waiting to be mobilized, but being held back by officials restricting their rights. Perhaps, as Staughton Lynd has argued elsewhere, every worker can become a leader, but it is also true that democratic leaders are made, not born. The process through which such democratic figures emerge from the rough and tumble of union politics remains to be explored much more fully by those who espouse an entirely new social unionism.

For union officials who are not threatened by an active membership, the challenge of empowering union members is nonetheless formidable. Rewarding democratic experiences are few and far between for most people who live and work in this cynical age. As editors Tillman and Cummings point out in their conclusion, the skepticism about political participation is widespread at every level of society because democracy seems to have been subverted by elite manipulation.

This is why the democratic revival of U.S. unions is of significance beyond the labor movement. If working people participate more and more in controlling their own institutions, those institutions will become more appealing to unorganized workers and perhaps even to others in society who feel bereft of democratic experience in their economic and civic lives. The labor movement has often played a role in democratizing our society. On the eve of the 21st century it is being called upon to do so once again.

James Green teaches labor history at UMass-Boston’s College of Public and Community Service where he is a coordinator of the academic degree program of the Labor Resource Center. He is co-author of Commonwealth of Toil: Chapters from the History of Massachusetts Workers and their Unions.