THE WORLD OF THE WORKER: Labor in Twentieth-Century America by James R. Green

THE WORLD OF THE WORKER: Labor in Twentieth-Century America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Historian Green (Grass-Roots Socialism) starts out this run-through of labor history with some good ideas--mostly having to do with shifting attention from the big union personalities to the existential condition of American skilled and unskilled laborers. The approach works for a while. Green begins with a comparison of the conditions among steel workers and among residents of New York's Lower East Side around the turn of the century. He notes that the early transitory nature of steel workers--largely northern European immigrants who were either shipping money home or expecting to return themselves--made labor organizing difficult: the situation only began to improve with the establishment of settled factory towns. In New York, by contrast, a stable community of central, eastern, and southern Europeans produced highly organized and militant workers. Green is also able to handle the disputes between craft and industrial unions well, relying on his distinctions between skilled and unskilled labor, incorporating, in addition, much recent work on women and blacks. But his scope is apparently not wide enough to include anything more than brief remarks on the Knights of Labor or the Populists, both of which included ""workers"" who don't fit easily into Green's scheme of things (rural farmers who leased their own land, people in ""declining"" trades). By the time Green gets to World War I, he has locked himself into a traditional narrative of the traditional working class, centered on struggles between conservative ""business-labor"" unions like the AFL and more militant, usually less centralized unions. So despite his intentions, the likes of John L. Lewis rise to the top. But Green repeatedly returns to the control of the workplace as a critical issue, which keeps the narrative in focus and results in harsh criticisms of, for one, Walter Reuther--who gave up control in return for wages and benefits. By the end, however, Green is defending workers' ""rights"" without realizing that such concepts have more in common with Reuther than with the earlier struggles over control. Despite not living up to its author's plans, Green's history is a good one-volume treatment--probably the best social history of 20th-century labor there is.

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 1980
ISBN: 0252067347
Publisher: Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux