Review: Radical unionism in the mid-west, 1900-1950

Review: Radical unionism in the mid-west, 1900-1950

A review of a book on radical union in the Midwestern U.S., mostly from the 1930s-1950s.

Rosemary Feurer, Radical Unionism in the Mid-West, 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

Many of the working-class history monographs that have been published in recent years have been community-based studies that have striven to illustrate the origin and meaning of broad regional or national themes. This type of historiography has occasionally met with mixed success. Rosemary Feurer’s new book is unquestionably a successful effort to view the remarkable challenges faced by the American labour movement over a fifty year period through the lens of one mid-western community. Anyone who may question the efficacy of community based studies need look no further than this book to have their concerns dispelled.

Feurer contends that the uneven nature of capitalist development led local terrain to be an important area of class struggle and movement formation. Her subsequent supporting evidence, which is firmly grounded in broad primary source research, ably supports this main thesis. Choosing to make District 8 of the United Electrical Workers the focus of her study is particularly significant. The UE was often viewed as being run by communists by other unions in both the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the American Federation of Labor. The UE, despite its importance in the history of the American labour movement, has not received the kind of attention that has been devoted to unions in auto and steel. District 8 was also based in the mid-west – an area that deserves more scrutiny from working- class historians. Feurer’s analysis of UE District 8 sheds light upon the internal operation of the union, and reveals internal tensions and rivalries that seem to have roiled virtually every American union in the 1930s and 1940s.

The main conflict within the UE, as with many industrial unions, was over the role of communists. This book would be a major contribution to the existing body of work on industrial unions for its commentary on communism if for nothing else found between its covers. Like Stephen Meyer’s Stalin Over Wisconsin: The Making and Unmaking of Militant Unionism, 1900-1950, this book shows that communists made decisive contributions to unions at the local level. Feurer also shows, like Meyer, how local communists often paid an enormous personal price for their political beliefs. In the case of the UE in St. Louis, the communists were led by William Sentner. Sentner frequently found himself under siege by employers, rank and file union members, and national union leaders. His own beliefs, like those of so many American communists, were challenged by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the revelation of the brutal nature of Stalinism. He and other communists in UE District 8 operated fairly openly in their early years with the union, but their activities were circumscribed in the post-war years due to the anti-communists fervour that gripped the United States.

Electrical industry companies are the employers discussed in this book. Components manufacturers like Emerson are often seen as ancillaries to larger industries like steel and auto, but we see here that they played an important role in local economies. The electrical companies in St. Louis were locally owned operations that practiced employer paternalism while simultaneously doing everything possible to oppose unionization. Like the meat packing employers described by Liz Cohen in Making A New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, St. Louis’ industrial capitalists sought to maintain full control of their plants but found their efforts thwarted by the economic cataclysm of 1929 and the determined efforts of their employees to exert some control over their working lives. Like virtually all employers in the 1930s and 1940s, those who opposed UE District 8 sought the support of local authorities—including armed force—to coerce striking workers.

UE District 8 enjoyed considerable success with organizing and with promoting a vision of civic unionism among its members. Sentner was aware of rank and file concerns about his political views, but he also knew that communists were viewed with suspicion more because of the supposed influence of the Soviet Union on American communist ideology than because of how communism was interpreted by him and others in St. Louis. Communists promoted the unionization of women and African-Americans, and agitated for public relief during the Depression. The civic model failed, however, when the union attempted to form a broader social coalition to promote major government investment in Missouri. The success of the Tennessee Valley Authority emboldened UE District 8 to agitate for the creation of a Missouri Valley Authority that would finance the construction of a range of public works projects. The UE allied with groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to promote the MVA’s creation. Feurer persuasively argues that this civic model of unionism that was exemplified by the effort to create the MVA failed due to employer efforts to reassert control during the post-war years. This observation is significant as it illustrates that American unions attempted to pursue a version of unionism in the postwar years that transcended the work place, but were stymied more by employer opposition than because of apathy within the labour movement.

This book is primarily about the years from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, so a title that reflects this emphasis would have perhaps been more appropriate. This slight shortcoming does not in any way diminish the strengths that this book possesses. In an analysis that incorporates gender, race, politics, economics, and biography Feurer has made an enormous contribution to our understanding of how the American labour movement developed from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Jason Russell
York University

Originally appeared in Left History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate Vol 12, No 2 (2007)