Industrial Unionism as Liberator or Leash? the Limits of "Rank-and-Filism" in American Labor Historiography

By McCartin, Joseph A. | Journal of Social History, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Industrial Unionism as Liberator or Leash? the Limits of "Rank-and-Filism" in American Labor Historiography


McCartin, Joseph A., Journal of Social History


American labor historians - like the movement whose history they chronicle - seem to have reached a crossroads of sorts. As the U.S. labor movement struggles to cope with the globalization of markets, the shift to a post-industrial economy, and the quickening erosion of liberal political forces, historians themselves are increasingly divided in their interpretations of labor's twentieth-century rise and decline. Heady enthusiasm gripped their field in the 1960s and 1970s when idealistic practitioners of the new labor history, impatient with unions that seemed to have become an integral part of the liberal establishment, broke from the hoary institutional approach of John R. Commons that had long defined labor history in America. Inspired by Britons like E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, they moved beyond the study of unions to examine working-class culture, rank-and-file militancy, and class consciousness, seeking historical alternatives to the George Meany-led labor movement of their day.(1) But times have changed. American labor is no longer what it was a generation ago. Nor is the new labor history. Thus the two volumes considered here tell us as much about the state of U.S. labor history today as they tell us about their subject: the industrial unionism that arose in the U.S. during the Great Depression.

It would be difficult to imagine two more divergent approaches to workingclass history than one finds in these volumes. Their emphases vary widely. In some ways, Robert Zieger's book is a throwback. Although it is amply informed by the insights of the new labor history, it chronicles the industrial workers' movement through its institutional expression, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The essays collected by Staughton Lynd, meanwhile, explicitly reach beyond the CIO in search of what Lynd calls "community-based unionism" or "solidarity unionism."(2) The structural differences between these books are equally sharp. Lynd and his colleagues approach the history of American workers in the 1930s in pointillist fashion through individual case studies of strikes, communities, or organizing struggles. Zieger, by contrast, ranges across industries, regions, and decades to offer the first archive-based synthesis of CIO history. Nor are these volumes written with the same goals in mind. The purpose of his book, Lynd informs readers, is to help present-day activists dissatisfied with their "hierarchical and bureaucratic" unions rediscover evidence of an "alternative unionism that preceded the CIO."(3) Zieger, on the other hand, eschews any attempt to discover a usable past. Instead he aspires only to "get the historical record of the CIO as right as I can."(4)

Beyond these considerable differences lies another, still more important disagreement. These volumes offer astonishingly different interpretations of the success of the industrial union movement itself. To Lynd, the rise of the CIO is nothing to celebrate. This organization, he argues, was ruled by conservative bureaucrats. Its growth undercut a more radical, democratic, "horizontal style of unionism" that was flourishing in "that heroic spring" of American labor militancy, the 1930s.(5) Zieger, on the other hand, portrays a CIO that was less a labor bureaucracy than a "fragile juggernaut" contained by forces it could not master. Nor does Zieger put much stock in the notion that "there was a leftward-tending working-class militancy in the 1930s that the CIO bureaucracy defanged or diverted."(6) That the CIO accomplished as much as it did for rank-and-file workers in a culture so inhospitable to sustained class struggle is to him quite remarkable.

How could these authors arrive at such different understandings of the labor history of twentieth-century America ? And what if any larger significance does their disagreement hold? A closer look at these volumes suggests some answers.

Staughton Lynd's book contains nine essays in all. These essays range widely in their choice of subjects, from Pennsylvania coal miners to California longshoremen.

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