Solidarity Interrupted

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 dispute Gompers’s seeming indifference to organizing the unskilled or his hostility to state-funded social-insurance programs. What he points to instead is his vision of unions as political associations, as governments whose jurisdiction is defined by the boundaries of a trade. Gompers and his federation brethren “tried to create labor organizations that would themselves cultivate and preserve civic virtues that the political economy could no longer provide.” This meant that unions had to control hiring and training, as well as provide their members with pensions and other forms of social insurance, to be paid for by members’ dues-the equivalent of taxes. Only unions like these, in Gompers’s view, could sustain the individual autonomy required for true democratic citizenship.

But what about unskilled workers, whose numbers were legion by the end of the nineteenth century? Gompers’s vision of trade unionism had little to offer them, particularly if they worked for large corporations. (Industries dominated by a multitude of small proprietors, like the garment trades, were far easier to organize.) As the new century dawned, Gompers seemed more and more like a man out of time, preaching Jeffersonian precepts to a nation far from its pastoral origins. Was it not heartless, as well as foolish, to deny industrial workers the protections they needed but could not-given American legal realities-gain for themselves? The progressively minded certainly thought so. But as late as the 1920s, even more somnolent on the labor front than today, the vast majority of the nation’s industrial workers were still unorganized.

Everything changed in the late 1930s, as Sinyai explains with characteristic verve. Again, the story is not new. But Sinyai’s retelling helps even initiates grasp the story in a new way. The leaders of the freshly minted CIO-the Congress of Industrial Organizations, parent body of most of the nation’s industrial unions-had to counter Gompers’s claims about unions and civic virtue. Were unions that depended on government assistance, both in the form of prolabor laws and social-insurance programs, really inconsistent with democratic citizenship? The CIO rejected the notion. “Democracy might benefit from a working class...that could tend to its interests without the help of government agencies; however, democracy absolutely demanded that workers escape the arbitrary power of their employers, becoming free to join trade unions and act in politics for their own benefit, a task that took priority.” Sinyai is obviously a CIO partisan; he works, after all, for the Laborers Union. Yet he concedes that government assistance came at a cost. If trade unions flourish as a result of government protection, then they are obliged-if they wish to enjoy legitimacy-to serve the general welfare. It is no easy matter to balance that obligation with the immediate interests of one’s members.

Labor’s story since 1945 has been less than exciting, and it is to Sinyai’s credit that the final portion of his book is as readable as the rest. He does an especially good job on the 1950s and ’60s, when American labor gained its most generous contracts even as the nation’s industrial base was starting to erode. Sinyai tells a mostly unknown story of unions’ efforts in the postwar years to educate their members, even on such divisive issues as civil rights. He rightly takes the Left to task for its unwillingness to see that education of this sort is necessarily gradual and that results cannot be guaranteed. The Left in the 1960s, he maintains, often seemed more interested in its own self-righteousness than in the hard business of political education. Even today, few on the Left appreciate that union members are more likely to vote than the typical American and more likely to vote for progressive candidates.

Given current circumstances, Sinyai must close on an elegiac note. Fewer than 10 percent of nonagricultural workers in the United States are union members today, as opposed to roughly a third in 1955, and the erosion in membership continues. Progressive unions like the United Auto Workers are shadows of their former selves, mostly as a result of de-industrialization. The effects have been devastating for many working-class families. Poverty, as Sinyai points out, increasingly bears “a proletarian face.” It is precisely this fact, however, that has “restored a certain moral authority” to the labor movement-an authority of the sort it has not enjoyed since the mid-1940s. Our democracy may yet be revivified.

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 

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

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