If you’re lucky enough to be employed today in the United States, there’s about a one-in-ten chance that you’re in a labor union. And even if you’re part of that unionized 10 percent, chances are your union doesn’t carry much economic or political clout. But this was not always the case, as historian and activist James Young shows in this vibrant story of the United Electrical Workers Union. The UE, built by hundreds of rank-and-file worker-activists in the quintessentially industrial town of Erie, Pennsylvania, was able to transform the conditions of the working class largely because it went beyond the standard call for living wages to demand quantum leaps in worker control over workplaces, community institutions, and the policies of the federal government itself.
James Young’s book is a richly empowering history told from below, showing that the collective efforts of the many can challenge the supremacy of the few. Erie’s two UE locals confronted a daunting array of obstacles: the corporate superpower General Electric; ferocious red-baiting; and later, the debilitating impact of globalization. Yet, by working through and across ethnic, gender, and racial divides, communities of people built a viable working-class base powered by real democracy. While the union’s victories could not be sustained completely, the UE is still alive and fighting in Erie. This book is an exuberant and eloquent testament to this fight, and a reminder to every worker—employed or unemployed; in a union or out—that an injury to one is an injury to all.
That the United Electrical Workers Union was still alive at the end of the 1950s, a decade of red-baiting, raids, and repression against the labor left, has been considered a minor miracle. In this wonderfully detailed account of human courage and solidarity, based on dozens of interviews with participants, Jim Young uncovers the secret behind that miracle. A must-read for labor activists and students of labor history.
In this new work, Jim Young provides one of the most thorough historical accounts of one of the CIO’s most important organizations, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). Beginning in the 1930s, and ending in the early twenty-first century, Young gives a detailed account of Erie, Pennsylvania’s UE locals, paying close attention to the ways that workplace and community shaped early organizing drives, and the kind of rank and file unionism that emerged in the region’s General Electric plants. Through a close reading of Erie’s newspapers, union documents and oral histories, Young introduces a range of union leaders, organizers and campaigns not previously treated in the scholarship. Labor historians and today’s UE activists will find much value in the accounts provided in these pages.