Solidarity Interrupted

Schools of Democracy

A Political History of the American Labor Movement

Clayton Sinyai

Cornell University Press, $22.50, 282 pp.

It is the rare volume of labor history that opens with a quote from Rousseau. What has the Social Contract to do with John L. Lewis’s famous dictum that unions exist to get “more”-a formulation that, taken at face value, shows scant regard for the general welfare? But as either a scholar or trade-union activist, Clayton Sinyai sees no contradiction. “Equipping America’s workers for democracy was-and is-how American trade unionists find meaning,” he argues. Schools of Democracy thus tells a familiar story with a new twist. How labor leaders have tried to educate workers for democratic citizenship, how the organizations they lead have been shaped by democratic political theory, how Lewis’s “more” can be reconciled with a generous vision of the common good-these are the issues with which Sinyai’s book is preeminently concerned.

Readers familiar with the broad outlines of American labor history will know most of the story that Sinyai tells. What distinguishes his narrative is its emphasis on practical political theory-on the understandings of democracy that American trade unionists have brought to their endeavors. Seen through this lens, the familiar story takes on a surprising freshness. For example, the much-maligned Samuel Gompers, who presided over the American Federation of Labor for nearly the whole of its history until his death in 1924, emerges in these pages as a true Jeffersonian democrat. Sinyai doesn’t...

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About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.