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A Historic Radical Book Returns

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Strike! By Jeremy Brecher.  Oakland: PM Press, 2014 edition, 480pp, $24.95.

It is difficult, now, to recall the political impact of an American labor history book appearing in 1972, by a young author, not even thirty and no glittering celebrity nor connected in bureaucratic AFL-CIO upper circles. But impact it had, and for good historical reasons. Labor history, long the domain of official institutional writers paid to catalogue the stories of union founders’ contributions and such or just as dull, academic studies in “labor relations,” hardly wrote about the ordinary participants in working class life at all. Besides, according to the standard accounts, the great events involving unionization had already happened, the welfare state had been achieved, and the biggest working class problem in the future (as explained by sociological savant Daniel Bell) was likely to be the boredom of a lifestyle too easy, with too much leisure!

These accounts made scarce mention of non-unionized workers, but then again, neither did the AFL-CIO. Agreement had been reached within the New Deal in the 1930s that agricultural and domestic workers were not really entitled to protection in any unionization efforts, leaving out most nonwhites and many others. Nor were women office workers, their numbers growing by leaps and bounds in the 1950s, of much interest to labor leaders. George Meany, atop the bureaucracy, embraced big business and declared that the big job of labor was as good as finished. Public workers, health workers and farm workers, among others, were not so sure.

A new generation of radicalized students, looking beyond the campus during the later 1960s, found events rushing to meet them: strikes increased amazingly, often in sectors (like the Post Office) where they had been rare; the United Farm Workers under Cesar Chavez won the hearts of even many Catholic conservatives; and African American workers showed their muscle in shutting down automobile plants long considered “stabilized” by the United Auto Workers. Except where teachers and city workers in particular were making real strides in organizing for better conditions and wages, official labor remained stolid, vastly angrier at antiwar protests than at corporations making vast profits off the war.

Jeremy Brecher, son of a highly popular husband-and-wife writing team on health issues, did not happen to be one of the thousands of graduate students  (including myself), sharing New Left ideas, intent upon writing dissertations on subjects in and around labor history. He was ahead of us! Strike!, a sensation when it appeared, took a tack opposite to traditional histories of labor institutions: it was anti-institutional. The events that interested Brecher were uprisings, from the 1870s onward, struggles outside the control of any central authority, arising with seeming spontaneity and then, being crushed (occasionally, achieving their goal of unionization), fading away as popular movements. This was a  “people’s history” in the phrase of the day, an uplifting of the lives of the ordinary, at exceptional moments.

The New York Times loved it, Howard Zinn declared it one of the most important books on labor history since the Second World War (i.e., since the Red Decade, when not much labor history was actually being written, just made), and the publisher was….an imprint of Rolling Stone, then a young, radical publication! If not exactly a best seller, it sold a lot of copies, and scarcely a young radical did not have it on a convenient shelf. A whole lot of time, to put the matter lightly, has passed since then.

You could say that scholars have filled a lot of previously undetected holes in research, and you would not be wrong. On a subject like the Eight Hour day movement of 1886 centered in Chicago, the mysterious bombing and consequent martyrdom of supposed bombers, a veritable library exists, notable for its use of German-language materials.  Likewise, the upsurge of labor organized and unorganized during the First World War, when labor shortages made progress towards unions of many unskilled workers possible; likewise the CIO of the 1930s-40s, its records trolled, reinterpreted, interviews with living memories captured in oral histories. The number of  such left-inclined labor histories numbered in the hundreds, then in the thousands, and yet few had the deft overview that Brecher offered.

He was and is a fine, popular writer. Then again, he has been unafraid of undertaking the Big View, with all the dangers of missed or overlooked details and contradictions. The subsequent editions of Strike!, never so popular, brought up the story to the end of the twentieth century, and this one carries us up to the present. “Beyond the One-Sided Class War,” the new final chapter, seeks to explore what happens and what may happen when the number of strikes fall to low levels previously unimaginable, unionization drops almost out of sight, and new generations with no experience (perhaps not even family experience) in organized labor face conditions deteriorating on all sides. Disappearing job security, invasive scrutiny from above, intensified work pace and/or longer hours at the computer screen—none of these have real answers outside of collective action.

One particular workplace point, among all these, is worth pondering a little here, because it is so badly misunderstood. The creation of a comic art anthology, Studs Terkel’s Working: a Graphic Adaptation, with the late Harvey Pekar and a generous handful of artists, brought me back repeatedly to a matter that today’s young readers are eager to discuss. Pekar himself spent thirty-five years working at a VA hospital, mostly as a file-clerk, and he called it a “great job,” as Terkel’s interviews in the 1960s would sometimes describe theirs. Why? The lucky ones, millions of them in secure jobs, almost never took their work home, rarely spent an hour off the job unable to release their minds from it. Today’s working people at nearly every level find this working class or lower middle class life of two generations ago unrecognizable. And yet: what kind of revolt or rebellion, sans immediate union prospects, might an increasing desperation lead to?

Brecher does not ask the question is quite this way, but “mini-revolts” is a word that he employs, and it makes sense for much of the restlessness that anyone with eyes and ears can observe among the young. He offers, in the new final chapter, extended observations on Occupy, the Immigrant marches of 2006, and the Wisconsin Uprising, that seem to ring these and other bells. But not entirely, or at least not as I see these incidents. The most remarkable details of the Spring, 2011, mass movements in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, actually centered around the gendered character of the largest constituency—women teacher and health workers—and one particular quality of that crowd: the celebrative mood of the huge numbers, inscribing their own jokes directed at the governor on home made placards, for fellow demonstrators to see and enjoy, not to mention endless singing, not to mention specific events fascinatingly bizarre (costumed Zombie protesters), and so on.

He does capture a central theme, what he calls the “rediscovery of a division of society” between the powerful and the apparently powerless.  Along with the idea most familiar to his original line of thought—that these movements are basically self-organized and self-managed—it’s a start. Jeremy Brecher has no need to go further here. Let the next generations discover this book and do with it what they can do.

Paul Buhle’s latest book is the comic art anthology, Bohemians.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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