Union Power: An Epic Story

As America observes Labor Day, organized labor has little to celebrate: Membership is down, and unions are under attack in several states. However, there’s a new voice to sing labor’s praises.

In There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, author Philip Dray details the key people and events in the history of the labor movement. But this is no drab recitation of names and dates. Dray delves into motives and little-known details.

For example, he tells the story of Terence Powderly, a machinist apathetic to the cause of organized labor. What changed his mind and turned him into a union activist? Seeing the bodies of more than a hundred dead miners, including children, after a mine fire in Avondale, Pa.

When I saw a mother kneel in silent grief to hold the cold, still face of her boy to hers, and when I saw her fall lifeless on his dead body, I experienced a sensation I will never forget.

Dray describes inequities in early labor forces, like female mill workers being paid $3 per week to do the same job for which men were paid $8. And he tells the tale of activist Mother Jones, whose boisterous union support made the governor of Colorado try to ban her from parts of his state. (“The soldiers have bayonets,” she lamented, “and I have nothing but the Constitution.”)

But it’s not all about coal miners or the distant past. Dray describes the formation of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood and the group’s eventual president, Ronald Reagan:

As he never tired of reminding people, Reagan … was the first member of the AFL to occupy the White House. Even the unionized air traffic controllers had been impressed enough with Reagan’s labor bona fides – and by a statement of support he gave the union while a candidate – to buck the trend of the wider labor movement and endorse him over incumbent Jimmy Carter in the election of 1980. But despite Reagan’s union affiliation in Hollywood and his oft-cited admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had in fact never been entirely comfortable with either the collective nature of labor organizations or the means by which they sought their objectives.

Dray doesn’t gloss over the violence. He gives all the ugly details of the incident in 1892 when Pinkerton guards were escorting a barge of strikebreakers to Carnegie Steel’s Homestead works outside of Pittsburgh and encountered the striking steelworkers. Several guards were wounded. The Pinkertons made a second attempt, this time prepared to meet the violence, and killed several strikers. Despite the arrival of union leaders who urged the strikers to put aside their plans for violence, mob mentality took over. When the Pinkerton men reached shore again, they were beaten and stabbed.

Even after authorities took control of the Pinkertons and attempted to lead them through the town, men, women and children emerged from their homes to heap further beatings and indignities on the already hobbled captives, hitting them with kitchen utensils, garden tools, and whatever came to hand.

Dray explains how these and other incidents set back the cause of labor and how nonviolent strikers in other cases were met with violence.

He concludes by summarizing the current struggles that unions face. He says the true monument to the people involved in the early labor movement is “the freedoms and protections we take for granted – reasonable hours, on-the-job-safety, benefits, and the bedrock notion that employees have the right to bargain for the value of their labor.”