About a month ago, I enthusiastically dove into a 694-page book that was billed as a history of labor unions. (Nearly 800 if you count the notes and index.) I love history and this was a topic that particularly interests me—and others too, I suppose—there are entire departments of Labor Studies at more than a few universities. My own knowledge of labor unions involves interactions at several levels—through business, politics, and friendships. It also comes from reading other books about the Haymarket Riot, the auto industry, Hoffa, and about Western mining wars. But I lacked a more complete history, and was hopeful that Philip Dray’s “There is Power in a Union” would help me learn more.
Damn, this was a long book. On page 5, Dray reveals his own perspective toward unions, and it is favorable. Unfortunately, by the end of this book, I felt like Dray’s esteem for the labor movement colored his own ability to write what he calls, “The Epic Story of Labor in America.” I’m not quibbling with the fact that it is an epic—and critically important—story. But I’m frustrated with the fact that this comprehensive “history” became more of a rallying cry for the importance of unions, rather than an objective analysis. And even though the book was a brick to tote around, I felt that Dray gave short shrift to the more current concerns facing labor in America.
The structure of the book is to present all of the major milestones in the labor movement in mostly chronological order. Some are downright fascinating. If you don’t know about the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, you should. If you think Haymarket is a place where hay is sold, you should go to Google immediately. Same for the Molly Maguires, the Pinkertons, Homestead and Pullman. Dray rightly concludes that these events and groups are cornerstones in the American labor movement—the foundation that today’s labor movement still relies on. In that regard, this book was excellent. What stuck with me most is so many of the seminal events were terribly violent. At times, I felt like Dray was describing battles in a war (often between labor and business) where death and destruction were inevitable. For 200 years, violence (not always instigated by unions, for those of you who are assuming), has been a part of the relationship between labor and business. That’s frightening, because it has the effect of becoming baked into the culture of a relationship.
Very little time in the book is spent on modern labor relations. The auto unions have a minor role once we get past River Rouge. And the SEIU and UFCW barely merit a mention, despite being some of the largest unions in the U.S. today. I was disappointed that while Dray hits the major strikes (what happens when negotiations fail) he doesn’t address how successful negotiations and business-labor relationships have developed over time. There is little discussion of current recruitment struggles—and successes. In the beginning of the book, Dray touches on important rifts between civil rights groups and unions. But there is little about how unions today are playing a role in the immigration debate. Bottom line, I wanted more analysis of recent history.
The early 1900s review was my favorite part of the book. I’m becoming more interested in the pre-Depression era U.S. studies. Labor history is at its best there. Dray does a brilliant job of introducing us to the early martyrs of the labor movement, and I think more fairly than not, presents the evidence of how business (he calls it capital) worked to destroy unions at every turn. I used to think if I ever went back for a master’s in history, I would study the sixties, but now I’m not so sure—the twenties were a dynamic time period that has left lasting effects on our society. In that theme, I’m looking forward to reading John Farrell’s book about Clarence Darrow, a prominent attorney featured in nearly every study of the labor movement and progressive era.
Back to my original—and minor complaint—the slight bias toward the union perspective on each issue. This wasn’t an overly offensive bias—Dray didn’t write, for example, that all businesses were greedy capitalistic pigs. It was more a bias of omission—I felt to be a truly “epic” history, the book needed to more completely examine the perspectives of those that are impacted by labor unions. I admit I should have known better—that a book called “There is Power in a Union” is primarily going to demonstrate how unions obtain and use power. This could have been so much better, though, if it was not just a litany of their major strikes, injustices, and setbacks. More specifically, I wanted questions like these answered: How have businesses adjusted to developments in labor unions? How has the political process been influenced by unions? How have unions affected our overall economy? Why have unions become so polarizing? No good book will explicitly answer every question—the reader has a role—but I think this could have been a more important work if it had gone deeper. Instead, I think this book becomes a tool for union leaders to celebrate their movement, not for outsiders to better understand it.
Maybe that was his objective all along, and maybe this is my fault for not sensing what I was getting myself into. When I finished it, I felt like I learned something, but that I have more work to do to get the full picture.
Thanks for reading.