Exemplary history of the American labor movement, from its time-shrouded beginnings to its murky present.
Working in the tradition of Eric Foner and Studs Terkel, Dray (Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen, 2008, etc.) tells a story of heroes and villains. At the dawn of the republic, he writes, came the “country’s fervent hope that its democratic virtues would forge sufficient regard between labor and capital.” Alas, it would not be so, and the author locates the origins of a homegrown labor movement in that early avatar of the Industrial Revolution, the mill town of Lowell, Mass.—a movement that was launched by “an unassuming young woman off the farm” who would not take being oppressed by the bosses. As the narrative progresses, a few trends become apparent: the continued recalcitrance of capital when it came to sharing wealth and the increased militancy of labor, especially when its ranks were swelled by immigrants who had been oppressed enough in their home countries. During the nation’s centennial year, there were massive strikes and demonstrations. One sterling example was a “standoff” in Susquehanna, Pa., over fair pay, which showed to the workers how powerful they were in their ability to halt commerce over vast distances—and showed to the bosses how “clearing railroad tracks of belligerent people required soldiers with guns.” Dray revisits some of the usual stations on labor’s way, from Lowell to Ludlow, from Haymarket Square to the ill-fated 1981 PATCO strike, but he also capably introduces lesser-known incidents and characters into the picture, as well as unexpected foes of organized labor, such as Bobby Kennedy.
In the end, Dray’s account is evenhanded—not all bosses are bad, not all activists good—but it is clear where his sympathies lie, especially in his prescriptions for a renewed international labor movement for the future.