FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Historic Radical Book Returns

by

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.

More articles by:

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

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 28, 2017
Diana Johnstone
Macron’s Mission: Save the European Union From Itself
Jordon Kraemer
The Cultural Anxiety of the White Middle Class
Vijay Prashad
Modi and Trump: When the Titans of Hate Politics Meet
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Efforts to Hide Palestinians From View No Longer Fools Young American Jews
Ron Jacobs
Gonna’ Have to Face It, You’re Addicted to War
Jim Lobe – Giulia McDonnell Nieto Del Rio
Is Trump Blundering Into the Next Middle East War?
Radical Washtenaw
David Ware, Killed By Police: a Vindication
John W. Whitehead
The Age of No Privacy: the Surveillance State Shifts into High Gear
Robert Mejia, Kay Beckermann and Curtis Sullivan
The Racial Politics of the Left’s Political Nostalgia
Tom H. Hastings
Courting Each Other
Winslow Myers
“A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind”
Leonard Peltier
The Struggle is Never for Nothing
Jonathan Latham
Illegal GE Bacteria Detected in an Animal Feed Supplement
Deborah James
State of Play in the WTO: Toward the 11th Ministerial in Argentina
Binoy Kampmark
The European Commission, Google and Anti-Competition
Jesse Jackson
A Savage Health Care Bill
Jimmy Centeno
Cats and Meows in L.A
June 27, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
California Scheming: Democrats Betray Single-Payer Again
Jonathan Cook
Hersh’s New Syria Revelations Buried From View
Edward Hunt
Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen
Howard Lisnoff
The Death of Democracy Both Here and Abroad and All Those Colorful Sneakers
Gary Leupp
Immanuel Kant on Electoral Interference
Kenneth Surin
Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall
Slavoj Zizek
Get the Left
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia Wants to Reduce Qatar to a Vassal State
Ralph Nader
Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions
Rima Najjar
Palestinians Are Seeking Justice in Jerusalem – Not an Abusive Life-Long Mate
Norman Solomon
Is ‘Russiagate’ Collapsing as a Political Strategy?
Binoy Kampmark
In the Twitter Building: Tech Incubators and Altering Perceptions
Dean Baker
Uber’s Repudiation is the Moment for the U.S. to Finally Start Regulating the So-called Sharing Economy
Rob Seimetz
What I Saw From The Law
George Wuerthner
The Causes of Forest Fires: Climate vs. Logging
June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
Stansfield Smith
North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail