Generations of Resistance

The Electrical Workers Unions and the Cold War, by John Bennett Sears, Conshohocken, PA, Infinity Publishing Company, 2008:

A Book Review by Norman Markowitz, published on political affairs pa, 10.Nov. 2010.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were two major schools of labor history. The established, anti-socialist one represented by John R. Commons, Selig Perlman and Philip Taft dealt with the institutional political history of the trade union movement, relating in a fairly narrow fashion that history to the larger pattern of U.S. history. 

The class conscious, socialist-oriented school, nurtured by the Communist Party and represented most by Philip Foner, also dealt with the political and institutional history of the trade union movement, but in a much broader context. This school of thought related that history to class struggle and a larger social development. The Cold War in the universities saw the purge this socialist-oriented labor history just as labor history itself was struggling to get off the ground and left a vacuum in labor scholarship as it left a vacuum in the larger labor movement.

When a new progressive labor history took shape in the 1960s, it too, in the work of David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman and many others, was clearly Marxist and socialist influenced, but it looked to labor’s social history – to the experiences of workers and communities, away from trade union political history and to a lesser extent the larger political history.  While much of this was very positive, in both exploring workers experiences and making questions of ethnicity and gender central to understanding American labor history, the significance of traditional institutional labor history was put on a back burner. (Perhaps because to confront the Commons school on those questions was too dangerous at a time when the defenders of ideological and institutional red-baiting remained very powerful both in labor scholarship and the labor movement).

In Generation of Resistance, John Bennett (Ben) Sears has written a remarkable book which uses the institutional political history methodologies of the Commons-Perlman Taft school and their many imitators over the generations to stand their interpretations on their collective heads. Using both primary sources, interviews with participants, and a wide variety of secondary sources, he has traced the history the electrical workers unions in a remarkably even-handed manner … //

… In the process, Sears makes clear both the achievements and the setbacks that the union faced until the cold war consensus in labor finally collapsed in the late 1960s. His conclusion that the left and center-left labor politics remained an important factor in the UE (and he suggests the larger CIO) through this period, is perhaps his most important analytical contribution. It helps break down simplistic distinctions between the “old” and the “new” left in our understanding of labor history. Historians dealing with the postwar civil rights movement are also finding similar developments, that is, pre-Cold War left and Communist activists continuing under very different circumstances to play an important role in developing civil rights struggles.

What the left UE leadership was about is best captured in Sears quotation from Pat Barile, president of local 428, a Communist activist then and now, in these words: “practically every day of my life, we would have to be—the local leadership—giving out leaflets, explaining what was going on in the world; the Cold War, red-baiting, what it was; lies about the UE, what the split was….negotiate a contract, there would be another raid…and not only in my shop…we were consuming money and we were consuming workers rights in the struggle and it had to end.”

I have known Pat Barile for many years and have had the pleasure work with him in many peoples struggles. In 1969, while working on my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed James B. Carey, then head of the American Association for the United Nations, a position his cold war liberal friends had gotten for him. Carey had been the leader of the right faction of the UE, in his name the raids Pat Barile fought against were organized. Carey took me to a bar afterwards. He was a sad, lonely man, reminiscing about some of his old union comrades, including those he had fought against and tried to purge.

James B. Carey is long gone and in terms of playing any positive role in the workers movement, was gone decades before he passed away. Pat Barile on the other hand is still in the struggle and has never been since I have known him sad, lonely, or isolated.

For both students of U.S. labor history and activists of all kinds, John Bennett (Ben) Sears, Generation of Resistance is an enormously valuable work in relating larger issues to the day to day detailed struggles of the labor movement in the U.S. (full text).

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