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A quarter-century after Working Men (1960), veteran labor historian Lens has reconstrued the history of the American labor movement in light of current conditions--posing some timely questions (notably, government workers' right to strike), stressing shifts between confrontation and conciliation and especially the government role. The first two, historical-case chapters juxtapose the 1805 Philadelphia shoemakers' strike, deemed an illegal conspiracy by a local court with Federalist backing, and the 1981 air controllers' strike, broken by President Reagan. Lens, putting the controllers' position sympathetically, cagily notes that their timing was off (earlier, in March, bad flying weather would have been on their side) and faults ""trigger-happy"" PATCO for not lining up other unions, or polishing up the controllers' public image. Lens is an advocate--unions and the right to strike are for him the bedrock of democracy--with the insights of an old unionist and old-time leftist. So his account of 1870-1939 violence between ""strikers on the one hand and employers and government on the other"" is selective and shrewdly detailed. He has a broad perspective: the Wobblies were ""excellent strike organizers,"" but poor at holding an organization together--because they believed in voluntarism, which was all fight in Europe where ""a majority of workers were Socialists."" (Here, it would take a union contract.) The narrative climaxes with the Flint sitdown-strike of 1937--in Lens' militant reading, the winning tactic. He then briefly recapitulates the succeeding course of events though the prosperous, conciliatory postwar years to economic falloff and the pressure for union concessions. Such present-day considerations as the decline of mass-production industries, the parallel rise of service occupations, are largely ignored. Lens also tends to suggest that labor should take a more active political role without putting that thorny issue in historical context. But the staunchness of Lens' beliefs is refreshing: he writes about the past with gusto, but without glorification; and about the present without breast-beating or backing down.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1985
Publisher: Lodestar/Dutton