Both Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge and Michael Goldfield’s The Southern Key offer ample evidence that the grand era of U.S. labor history scholarship—growing in strength from the mid–1960s, with perhaps its fullest expression in the 1980s and ’90s—is not yet past. History in the classroom has faded in recent years, as has the labor movement itself. But maybe the growing sense of crisis in social and class relations is stirring up veteran scholars and youngsters alike.
The Long Deep Grudge is in every sense a generational tale. It may be described as either a wonderful family reminiscence in the guise of labor history, or a fine labor history in the guise of a family reminiscence. Of course, it is both. A daughter seeks the full story, or as much of it as she can gather, of her father who played a leadership role in an important left-wing union. Faced with difficult choices, he participated in the mainstreaming of the United Auto Workers, which had left its own radical past behind.
What we find out first about the personal life of such leaders, such fathers, is that they were frequently away from home. They were driven by the urge to make as much of the working-class upsurge of the 1930s and ’40s as they could. But they were also driven, a little later, to hold onto what had been gained, as much as possible, and to struggle through a career in which even erstwhile radicals remained highly suspect.
Gilpin, a distinguished labor historian herself, chose the more ambitious task of understanding the rise of an important branch of industry and its consequences in the heartland of the farm equipment boom. Many farmers kept old equipment (even old tractors, but mostly smaller objects) in the machine shed, given how quickly new machinery of all kinds appeared. They bought new equipment to stay “on time.” Companies like International Harvester had for a while a near “kept” market, made up of very few competitors and many customers eager to get the latest, most efficient (often more labor-saving, eliminating farm “hands”), and most productive equipment.
DeWitt Gilpin, Toni Gilpin’s protagonist father, was a native Missourian from an impoverished family. At the height of the Depression, he became devoted to the Unemployment Councils, organized by the Communist Party, and later a participant-observer of strikes in St. Louis and elsewhere. He showed his talent and dedication as an organizer for the new Farm Equipment Workers Union at the Tractor Works in Chicago.
Thanks in no small part to the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) under the mighty John L. Lewis, the union was well placed to consolidate gains, often made through dramatic struggles, and fight hard against the intended postwar rollback by one of the toughest, most hard-bitten industrial giants in the Midwest.
In May 1942, International Harvester signed its first contract with the Farm Equipment Workers Union. Four years later, after a momentous strike, Gilpin and his coworkers secured what they could proudly call “one of the biggest contract victories of any CIO union.”
Perhaps the most remarkable story within the production process described is the struggle against the coerced persistence of industrial piecework. Thought by many to be a regressive remnant of the past, like stitching work done in the tenement by Jewish “home workers” of an earlier generation, piecework allowed management in modern plants of the 1920s through ’40s to break down resistance to the speed up or intensification of labor by repeatedly changing job definitions.
DeWitt Gilpin bowed out, for a time, to fight the fascists. He enlisted two months or so after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was investigated by army intelligence at great length, and proved himself an exemplary soldier, awarded a Bronze Star for action in Europe. He also made every effort, on leave and attending union events, to break down the color bar in so improbable a location as Peoria, Illinois, the “sin city” of the region. He returned to a class struggle just as sharp as the one he seemed to have left behind.
For an extended moment, the Farm Equipment Workers Union raised hopes of a real labor democracy. The union also faced an inevitable contradiction of radical unionism within a vibrant capitalism. Members themselves often pushed the radical inclinations of its leaders into extreme militancy—according to some, an unnecessary extreme at the local level because resistance at the factory floor, bringing outbreaks of strike action, could hardly be coordinated from state to state, or even plant to plant. However, only the mobilization prevented companies like International Harvester from taking advantage of the hardening Cold War mood and the growing opportunities for union busting.
Heading further into the Cold War era, the Farm Equipment Workers Union would be challenged by the United Auto Workers, whose leadership had passed onto the sometimes militant but overwhelmingly anticommunist Walter Reuther. The two unions fought across the map for locals, most notably in the South, where industrial unionism would either succeed or run up against the limits of changing the Southern economy and, with it, surrounding society. The Farm Equipment Workers Union and Gilpin struggled, most notably, to include African Americans in the unions, taking on opponents from all sides.
A showdown in Louisville, Kentucky, took place against the backdrop of the new Taft-Hartley legislation and the Henry Wallace campaign for presidency on the Progressive Party ticket. In that fight, the Farm Equipment Workers Union did not really have a chance. Its charter in the CIO was lifted at the command of Reuther and others. The union sought protection through a merger with the United Electrical Workers, a once-powerful union battered by anticommunism and raiding. What seemed like a great idea did not—in fact, could not—work. Eventually, the United Auto Workers won and Gilpin himself became a United Auto Workers regional official for the rest of his career. He barely lived to retirement age. The efforts to unify the working class across race lines had been made, and been largely turned back. The Farm Equipment Workers Union legacy was not entirely lost, but its potential destiny could not be realized.
Goldfield’s The Southern Key is in many ways a study of a different variety, but very much of a similarly militant kind. The courage of the Farm Equipment Workers Union fighting racism was legendary, but could not substantially change the overwhelming ratios of white to Black industrial workers. Goldfield, a labor activist veteran himself, now retired from Wayne State, draws the big picture of what he sees as the central failure of the U.S. left: the failure to organize the South. If the South, with its giant factories and entire industries with nonwhite majorities, could actually be organized, the whole nation could be moved. Otherwise, no matter their successes in accumulating party members and recruiting from or otherwise placing leaders at the point of production, the goal of socialists and communists of transforming society could not be on the horizon.
This is a remarkable way to look at radical history and labor history in the United States. With few exceptions, the bane of organized labor and the left has been their weakness in the South, as they were practically always on the run from repressive authorities using racial divisions to suppress and demolish any and all challenges. For example, J. P. Stevens, to name a textile firm that became the great object of organizing efforts and boycott for decades, moved to South Carolina from New England to escape unionization, as well as to evade compulsory schooling laws that kept children out of Satan’s Dark Mills.
Goldfield provides evidence aplenty, with a deep dive into the history of various industries, to make his point. Most remarkably, he frequently quarrels with existing historical and political interpretations. In one instance, he insists that the “textile general strike” of 1934, which swept through parts of the South before falling back, in fact depended on the coal miners of the region. At another point, he reassesses the efforts of Lewis to create a sort of CIO-within-the-CIO, a way for the United Mine Workers to stir steelworkers and autoworkers to stand tall for their own rights.
Any U.S. left view of Lewis as a champion and ally is problematic. Despite being militant to the bone when he wished to be, Lewis was more republican than revolutionary. Notwithstanding Goldfield’s close personal study, he fails to reveal how even the most brilliant or well-organized Communist labor faction could not do without Lewis or settle differences with him. In short, it was a cross to bear.
Here, my own problem with the interpretations offered by Goldfield arises. As Goldfield moves from Lewis and coal mining to the more general field of labor radicalism and the CIO, he narrows his vision to the limitations of the Communists. So bold in early organizing, they turned cautious when facing the most monumental of problems, crossing race lines and building the organization necessary to confront and prepare to conquer the capitalists.
For Goldfield, if I read him correctly, this was both a failure of nerve and a consequence of the Communist movement’s shift to the Popular Front, starting in the mid–1930s. They had reached just so far and could not, or did not, go any further.
Many small arguments made by Goldfield in otherwise fruitful discussions come to similar conclusions: once they had gained a bit of power and influence, high-placed Communists showed deference to the most average of labor bureaucrats, even the bureaucrats of the CIO. These allies-for-a-time (all of them turned foe when it proved advantageous) harbored deep racial prejudices, treating Black workers as poor prospects for organizing, especially in the South. Indeed, in parts of the South, there was a deep fear that white workers would quit the embattled unions if the shadow of radical equality fell upon them. CIO president Philip Murray, reacting in 1949 like Sam Gompers in 1919, somehow blamed white racial conflicts on Black people and radicals, while steelworker leaders broke the tenuous hold of the faithfully left-wing International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in order to advance themselves and their power.
But this is what anticommunist leaders would do naturally, of course. The claim made by Goldfield, moving onto the story of the lumber workers and other efforts to organize the South, is that Communists gave ground to CIO conservatives when they actually had a golden, or red, opportunity for a transracial breakthrough. To skip ahead to the end of the volume, Goldfield quotes Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon to the effect that only a Leninist party could create a cadre for the necessary work of organizing a working class ready to transform society, and only the Communist Party could destroy that opportunity. And did.
This, I think, ignores a bit of wisdom offered to me by Len De Caux, one of the early editors of the CIO News (and a secret Communist), that “we were so cold on the outside [of the labor movement] that we did not want to make a fuss after we got inside.”
Communists were few, even at the best times, within the big United States, and unlike the palmy days of the Socialist Party before 1920, they could not even do their work as Communists out in the open. They might and did influence unions totaling perhaps a million members, not only through unions as such, but also through the massive ethnic institutions of fraternal and cultural societies of Slavs, Finns, Jews, and so on. After 1935, this influence extended through connections within the New Deal and the general spirit of antifascism. Goldfield has, for good analytical reasons, extracted the presumed revolutionary promise of Communist revolutionaries from the more complicated reality.
He chooses to make his decisive case with textile workers, and does so successfully. Studies of New England textile factory uprisings before the 1930s would see a different landscape, but he hones in once more on the South. The Textile Workers Organizing Committee, in its failures to confront race rather than achieve a sort of grand bargain with employers, laid the negative groundwork for the defeat of Operation Dixie, the last great project of the CIO, but also a desired project of the more conservative, craft-oriented American Federation of Labor to expand its membership and power. The CIO moved ahead by purging its left-wing organizers, even after Communists had built the tobacco workers’, and in Birmingham especially, the steelworkers’ union locals. Communists, by Goldfield’s account, accepted their exclusion.
Communists and many left wingers outside of the Communist Party would not see things this way, unsurprisingly. Catholic anti-Communist activists devoted themselves to building the International Union of Electrical Workers, raiding the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, with the assistance of the FBI, local Chambers of Commerce, and visiting congressional hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Conservative unionists convinced themselves that anything destroying the centers of Communist Party influence would be good for union democracy and even, for some believers, the promise of socialism—as improbable as these conclusions seem in retrospect.
Meanwhile, those who labored in the factories and stayed within the main districts of the left did the best they could given the limitations imposed on them, until they could do no more. That, at least, is my own considered conclusion, not only from the study of labor history, but also personal experience. When the antiwar movement ramped up in the 1960s, it was the struggling left-wing unions that sent speakers to campuses and made clear to us youngsters that the left and labor could be united again.
We might better look at the history of left-led unions from another standpoint: that of the ethnic communities who supplied a large disproportion of their members and supporters. In an ideal left world, the aging of those communities would have passed the baton to younger minority communities. Given the racial dimensions and power of U.S. capital, that did not happen.
In the absence of such a legacy, the left-led sections of the working class of 1940, let alone 1950, could not have been the industrial working class of 1920 or 1930. A generation had passed, and for many of the young families of industrial workers, the struggle against fascism threatening their relatives abroad, along with the wish to buy a car and solidify family finances after the calamity of the Depression, must have seemed more real than an imagined revolutionary transformation. Meanwhile, from 1935 onward, intermittently for a decade, the Communist Party itself grew rapidly. But the majority of new members were more likely to be lower-middle class rather than industrial proletarians, often concentrated in Jewish communities, especially those of greater New York. It was a profoundly different U.S. left.
In an unfinished book manuscript of 1950, published two generations later as American Civilization, the brilliant Black Marxist C. L. R. James divined the explosive prospects within the mind of the midwestern autoworker who carried the original union contract in his wallet. Alienation was by now rife, sharpened by the retreat of the union leaders to class collaboration. In all likelihood, however, the home mortgage was swiftly becoming more precious, and for good reason. Some of the most militant industrial workers had been set on sending their children to college: this was the revolution ahead, and it was already in sight for the GI Bill generation who had spent young years in the Depression. Thousands of determined left-wing workers remained in the factories long after 1950, but they grew fewer, year by year, with the Red Scare accelerating their exit. African Americans had been cheated of potential proletarian alliances when, amid the civil rights movement, they could have used them the most.
Nothing said here dismisses the value of The Southern Key to labor history or a broader sense of race and the working class in the U.S. twentieth century. Indeed, even in the later decades of the twentieth century, old-time former Communists, Trotskyists, and others who remembered vividly disagreeing with their leaders and fellow Marxists, off the shop floor and on, could be found. Goldfield may be said to have made their case for them—they did not need to be in the majority or even strategically correct in order to be heard. He gives them voice, perhaps one last time.
Reader: take these two fine volumes in hand—read, learn, grow.