From Publishers Weekly
This stirring study situates one of the most subversive yet profoundly American of social movements at the heart of the nation's history. Historian Dray (At the Hands of Persons Unknown) follows organized labor from the struggles of early 19th-century female textile workers to the present-day retreat of organized labor following the failed 1981 air trafic controllers' strike. His episodic narrative, structured around major strikes, shows labor's heroic age as an era of naked class warfare: strikers died by the dozens in pitched battles with police, soldiers, and Pinkerton agents, and such charismatic organizers as Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn braved prison and worse. The post-WWII period, by contrast, is a story of union conservatism, corruption scandals, and one rout after another at the hands of union-busting corporations abetted by government indifference. Organized labor's legacy, the author argues, is as much political as economic; it challenges bedrock American values of self-reliance while championing civil liberties--IWW speakers faced mass arrest for their public square orating--and bringing rights to the workplace. Packed with vivid characters and dramatic scenes, Dray's fine recap of a neglected but vital tradition has much to say about labor's current straits.
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Dray traces the history of American trade unionism from the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1820s to unionism’s decline in the 1980s and the current status of organized labor, which the author suggests “may have been reduced to a whisper of its former greatness.” He explores such issues as what workers in different eras felt were their rights, what kind of future they envisioned for themselves and their families, the tension that erupts between skilled and unskilled labor, the impact of immigration, and the changing role of government in labor issues. The reader learns about recent labor concerns, including decades of globalization, which allows U.S. businesses to relocate production overseas using lower-cost workers and creative personnel practices such as massive hiring of temporary and part-time employees, who do not receive pension and health benefits. He notes that security of full-time employees is also threatened in our 24/7 workplace dominated by computers and e-mail, which he dubs “the electronic collar.” A thought-provoking book. --Mary Whaley