Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States

Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States

Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States

Culture of Misfortune: An Interpretive History of Textile Unionism in the United States

Synopsis

The failure of the Textile Workers Union of America to organize its jurisdiction has often been considered the CIO's most critical setback in establishing industrial unionism in the United States. The textile industry had more than 1,250,000 workers, and the massive organizing campaign the CIO launched in 1937 resulted in perhaps the longest, most bitter, and most significant labor-capital clash of the century. In Culture of Misfortune, Clete Daniel integrates many primary sources, including extensive archival records and numerous oral interviews, into his examination of this conflict. He pays close attention to the internal political culture of the TWUA and how it was affected by the dislocation and transformation of the textile industry, the postwar assault on workers' rights, and the risks of activism in the face of the rampant anti-unionism of the South. Daniel explains the inability of the TWUA to match the achievements of CIO unions in other mass-production industries through an analysis both of the internal dynamics of the organization and of the external political, social, and cultural impediments it confronted. He suggests that the multiplying difficulties that beset the TWUA predicted the challenges faced by all industrial unions in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

In the history of labor organization in the United States before 1937, a number of periods are notable for the uncommon vitality and resolve evident in workers' efforts to establish an authority equal to that of employers in deciding the terms and conditions of their employment. During these singular periods, when the caution fostered by their chronic vulnerability gave way first to anger and then to action, American workers intruded on the consciousness of the nation. They did so in ways that appeared to contradict the exceptionalist orthodoxy that said that class, as a source of either individual or collective identity, lacked in the United States the compelling force it enjoyed elsewhere in the capitalist world. And even when the demonstrations of uncommon solidarity that defined these infrequent episodes proved unsustainable, they nevertheless suggested that the apparent aversion of American workers to class- conscious behavior was circumstantial rather than intrinsic.

Although ideologues of both the right and the left too readily found in this pattern of episodic insurgency reassuring proof of their otherwise antithetical convictions, the only clear lesson it imparted was that the behavior of American workers did not neatly or inevitably conform to any particular theory or notion of class relations in a capitalist culture. Indeed, the presumably national “environment” of capitalism in the United States was, in truth, a maddeningly complex and bewildering mosaic of contiguous environments which, while uniformly subject to the influences of general forces, were usually most accessible to genuine understanding on the basis of the particular circumstances that obtained in each. Overarching events like war and depression had from time to time created a background against which the common features of these distinctive environments were highlighted in ways that led hopeful class theorists to conclude that a coherent whole was, at last, coming into focus, but discerning the emblematic shapes and forms that confirmed an inexorable momentum toward sharpened class consciousness remained more an act of faith than of dispassionate observation. While one might plausibly discern a legacy of activism when viewing these recurrent periods of heightened labor . . .

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