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A more perfect union?


Today, if you didn't know, is Labor Sunday. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor coined it as a prequel to Labor Day (itself on the books since 1894.) And what happens on Labor Sunday? It's a church thing. The AFL urged all parishes to devote themselves, with great heart, "to a presentation of the labor question." Jewish congregations, alternately, were asked to honor Labor Saturday. Yes, the long weekend invoked the peace of hard-earned rest — but also soul-deep thoughts on the working man. So now, when American union membership is a wan 11.3 percent (it peaked at 35 percent in 1954), and our fast-food servers are striking for fairer pay, it's time again to dedicate this day to the labor question. If not through The Good Book, then through some good books.

The state of the union is not good. Organized labor has been "reduced to a whisper of its former greatness," admits author Phillip Dray. "No one can divine or guarantee its future," he adds, "but we can know its past." And what an inspiring, doleful, and switchbacking past that is. Dray's wonderful "There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America" (Anchor, 2011) pans back to explain the original sin that made America less receptive than other Western countries to unions; we were a capitalist power before we had a countervailing strong central government. The deck was stacked for business here, but things played out quite differently in older First World nations. Note the modern results: in Sweden, 67.5 percent of workers are unionized, in Belgium 50.4 percent, and in Ireland 31.2 percent.


In the United States, we live in an especially anti-union climate now, partly because we've shot from a factory economy to a finance and service economy, partly because (as Dray admits) labor has sometimes been "its own worst enemy." Many unions were historically harsh to minorities and women, for instance, or sank into appalling corruption (see Hoffa, Jimmy). But Dray asks us to strip down to fundamentals: In a country founded on the concept of checks and balances, surely unions make inherent sense. Who else can stand up to The Man?

This inherency, in fact, crystallized in the late-19th-century term "industrial democracy," meaning that democracy is only authentic if it infuses our work lives as well as our civic lives. For isn't the pursuit of happiness a farce if you work for slave wages, in unsafe conditions, with no security? Steps forward and steps back, of course: Dray pistons through the big turning points, from the disaster of Chicago's Haymarket bombing of 1886, for which four labor activists were hanged, to the breakthroughs of United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis (the "stormy petrel of labor") and the National Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez. The Chavez material is remarkable. I never knew, for instance, that Southern pols would only pass 1935's union-friendly Wagner Act if it excluded migrant workers. Or that antagonistic California farmers actually crop-dusted grape pickers during the 1960s protests.


The book ends with some muscular ideas: 1) Unions must again connect with a higher cause. Remember that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, linking civil rights with labor rights. 2) Unions must behave globally in today's world. That last point has traction. In fact, behind this summer's fast-food workers walkouts is the Service Employees International Union and on its website you'll see testimonials from partners from Peru to Malawi.


Nelson Lichtenstein's "State of the Union: A Century of American Labor" (Princeton University 2013, first out in 2002) has seen the future and it is Los Angeles. Organizers of local Latino workers often come from Central America where unionism has "a radical, even a revolutionary edge." And such disparate constituencies as the Hollywood film industry (the Screen Writers Guild, etc.) and Latino service workers are both vested in collective action: Significantly, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was first a union organizer and president.

Lichtenstein also thinks success lies in upping cross-occupation ties. Since the Lane Kirkland era, spanning 1979 to 1995, the AFL-CIO has pushed unions to enroll new members no matter their job or region. And so the United Auto Workers has added on prison guards, and the United Steelworkers have brought in grocery workers. And in a country where 1 in 3 workers now labor independently, the Freelancers Union (such a nice oxymoronic name!) is becoming an intriguing, mounting force, with high friends in Washington.

The fact remains, though, that "the labor question seemed inexorably bound up with a structural solution to the crisis of American capitalism itself" as Lichtenstein says. As private sector unions have declined, better-protected public unions have held fast (the union membership rate in the public workforce is five times higher than in the private). This has fomented a new era of union haves and non-union have-nots and firebrands who blame union pensions for imploding state budgets. (See Walker, Scott and Christie, Chris.)


Hard to avoid a sinking feeling this Labor Sunday. I mean, check out the subtitle of Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan's memoir, "Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back" (New Press, 2004). This impassioned, bitter, funny book first came out in 1991, when labor was still reeling from Ronald Reagan's smashing of the air traffic controllers strike a decade before. From the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which gutted the gains of the Wagner Act, to manifold union-hostile actions of the National Labor Relations Board, labor had taken on "an almost animal sense of weakness," laments Geoghegan. And he's enraged at the unions' lack of bite against so much defanging legislation.

Studs Terkel loved his fellow Chicagoan's book, saying it read "like an enthralling novel." Surely, the labor question must also be answered by his classic oral history of spot welders, bookbinders, gravediggers and others out toiling for their daily bread: "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" (New Press, 1997, first out in 1974). A modern spin on Terkel's turf is "Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs"(Broadway, 2001), edited by John Bowe et al. We hear from a UPS driver, a heavy metal roadie, a doula. The jobs themselves have changed — but so has the sense of gravitas. Terkel's folks have a kind of calling, but the ones in "Gig" treat their job like a . . . job.


I suppose that's where we've landed in our era of penury and upheaval. And so I'll end with the thoughtful essay collection "Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America" (New Press, 2012) by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald. Is labor rising? One essay holds that for unions to reboot, they should emulate the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. It managed to thrive in the anti-union 1920s by being pro-immigrant and inclusive — and so grew its membership and clout. Another writer insists unions must win over recent college grads: Who feels plundered of job prospects more then them?

On this Labor Sunday, as we try to illumine the spiritual meaning of labor, let's imagine a packed church. Maybe it's 1909. Maybe it's 2013. The preacher reminds his parishioners how Jesus was a carpenter. Next he connects this to how one Labor Day founder (Peter J. McGuire) belonged to the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. And then he thunders that labor — theirs and ours, past and future — is about brotherhood. And joining.

More information:


By Annamaria Alfieri

Minotaur, 272 pp., $25.99


By Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Delacorte, 288 pp., $26

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.