Wrapped in Steel

This is a portrait of a Chicago community in transition circa 1982-1983 while it was still somewhat in denial about what was in store:

Produced and directed by James R. Martin, written by James R. Martin and Dominic Pacyga, with some original music by William Russo (!). The more you know about Chicago history during the last third of the 20th Century, the more you’ll take away from this documentary.

The movie cries out for a retrospective essay… or even a retrospective documentary. It isn’t something I’m prepared to do, so I’ll be limited to making a few observations.

The then-Alderman of the 10th Ward, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak makes an early appearance. It’s worth mentioning as Vrdolyak was the Darth Vader of the Chicago City Council wars that raged after the election of Harold Washington as Mayor of Chicago. Some time later in the documentary, United Steelworkers leader the late Ed Sadlowski, Sr. (a DSA member) makes a number of appearances. The current 10th Ward Alderwoman is Susan Sadlowski Garza, Ed Sadlowski’s daughter. She was one of the early candidates to be endorsed by Bernie Sanders as his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination got going.

As an aside, the 10th Ward was the place where I first did canvassing for a candidate. I was volunteering for Saul Mendelson, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois State Senate and for Leon Chestang, who was running in the primary election for the Illinois House of Representatives. Chestang was Black. Mendelson was a Southshore Jewish socialist. I don’t recall the reaction of the voters we canvassed though I doubt we recorded many “pluses”. The reactions were probably better than if we had been canvassing for Republican or third party candidates. We ran into workers from Vrdolyak’s office canvassing for their slate. They were cordial but that was mostly because they did not feel at all insecure with their prospects for victory.

This is a compelling documentary, not for any sentimental nostalgia (though if you grew up in Hegewisch around that period, you may end up a puddle) but because in this portrait of southeast Chicago, you will see the early 21st Century in birth.


The Battle of Blair Mountain

2018 is the 97th anniversary of a major revolt, right here in the U.S.A. Never heard of it? Put on your headphones and turn it up to 11:

There’s actually quite a bit of information available on the web about this revolt, and it has even made its way into popular entertainment. For more information, I’d suggest starting with:

As I said, there’s a lot out there. Search YouTube in particular if you’re interested.


Football and Protest

The Black 14

When the topic of protest among professional football players comes up, we might recall the protest at the 1968 Olympics as a model, but the 1969 protest by collegiate football players in Wyoming is gone from memory:

Note how the reporter and coach both use the term “fired” with respect to the Black 14? But of course, they’re supposed to be amateurs. At least, that’s what colleges and universities say whenever compensation is brought up. It’s union time.

May Day Began in Chicago

Labor Day for the world: “Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own. Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?”

In most parts of the world, May 1st is Labor Day but not here in the States, even though May Day had its beginning here in Chicago. It was part of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. Most Chicagoans are totally oblivious of this. In fact, most are only dimly aware that there may have been any controversy about having an 8 hour work day, thinking that it just came naturally. Rather than having this handed to us on a plastic platter, it was part of a political process wherein people were killed or wounded by the police or executed by the State. The incident that came to symbolize this was the Haymarket Affair that took place on Chicago’s near west side on the evening of May 4, 1886.

After some noodling around on the web, I found this documentary by Argyrios Marmaras and Gus Prekezes. It appears to be one of the better of those available on YouTube, especially as it draws on some of the past leaders of the Illinois Labor History Society. Two of them, Les Orear and William Adelman, have passed away since then. (They look quite young compared to when I last saw them.) It also includes comments from Oscar Neebe a descendant of one of the Haymarket martyrs.

At only a half hour, the documentary leaves a lot out.

One thing that might have been interesting would have been to include comments from descendants of Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield, who gets a lot of shade in this account. This would not be for “balance” as far as I’m concerned. I’m not on Bonfield’s side, so much so you would have to pay me to live on Bonfield Street. But at least one account that I recall reading indicated his descendants were still to this day firmly on Inspector Bonfield’s side. The contrast would have helped illustrate that this conflict is not just history but part of the present as well.

As Warren Lemming comments in this documentary, you can’t recreate the past. But you can approximate it. William Adelman comes close when he points out that at the time of the Haymarket incident, elections in Chicago were not done by secret ballot, making even dissent by voting a risky business. What Adelman does not mention is that the 1st Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly were also not especially respected in law, never mind practice. Local governments in particular were regarded as having much the same rights as private land owners. Thus a demonstration on public property could legitimately be prohibited or dispersed if the local government did not like the message or even just the messenger. Or for no reason at all. This didn’t begin to change until the 1920s.

All this is to point out something the documentary (and the Illinois Labor History Society) skirts: Some of the Haymarket Martyrs were advocates of armed violence (dynamite as a political tool) and bombing — and in fact builders of bombs and organizers of left-wing militias. This position may seem unreasonable if you can in fact organize and speak out, but in the context of the times, it makes some sense. The documentary does discuss a systemic campaign of repression prior to the incident, but without the legal context, it’s easy to assume this was something unusual or extraordinary when in fact it was not even, legally, misbehavior. Adelman also mentions how the poor lived within a very few city blocks of the very wealthy, implying the contrast was a motivation for outrage among the poor that they lack today. But proximity has got to have been an inspiration for fear and loathing among the wealthy as well. Poverty makes people crazy, most especially the very rich.

If you’d like to learn more about labor history in Illinois, check out the Illinois Labor History Society.

Labor Under Fire

a review by Bob Roman

Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017. 414 pages $39.95

There’s a major problem with the subject of this book and Timothy Minchin runs slam bang into it: The topic is too damned big for a book of a mere 414 pages. Oh yes, Minchin does try to narrow the topic, pointing out and so excluding bodies of other work that deal with various historical aspects, such as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, and many of the externalities that affect organizing. In fact, Minchin himself has written extensively about Labor’s campaigns to organize in the South. Even so, he still ends up beginning this account not in 1979 but at the beginning, at the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And sensibly so as it is impossible to discuss the organization’s history post-Meany without some idea how its origins set the stage for that subsequent history.

But what promises to be a history of the AFL-CIO ends up with a primary focus on the leaders of the labor federation: George Meany, Lane Kirkland, Thomas Donahue, John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Maybe there’s no other way to compress the subject into the space available, but it’s a limited window on to a very big subject.

History’s judgement on the AFL-CIO leadership is one Minchin’s main interests anyway. He feels that the labor federation’s presidents have gotten something of an unfair reputation as being backward looking and unreceptive to new strategies, particularly in the case of Lane Kirkland. He makes an good case for it. Unfortunately the main reason so many scholars and historians have it in for union leadership is that those leaders make such convenient stones upon which ideological axes can be sharpened. Under those circumstances, counterfactuals drift like ticker tape and no broom will contain them. Nonetheless, Minchin brings considerable research to this account, including numerous interviews with the players and access to the AFL-CIO’s own archives.

As the title, Labor Under Fire, implies, the book intends to be a history of the AFL-CIO’s attempts to deal with the labor movement’s decline. The second half of the Twentieth Century has not been kind to unions anywhere in the world; the United States is not unique in seeing a decline in membership and in union density. Here in the States, Minchin feels there were two especially rough patches: the Ronald Reagan administration / PATCO strike and the George W. Bush administration / 9-11 attacks.

The PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike has long been identified as a turning point in U.S. labor history, but Minchin’s account provided me with useful context. The Reagan administration was something almost unprecedented in Twentieth Century politics: The near total exclusion of organized labor from any contact with the White House, at least at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. As far as the Reaganistas were concerned, unions had nothing to say that they were at all interested in even pretending to hear. This, as much as any of the details of the strike itself and Lane Kirkland’s responses to it, is important.

Likewise, the turn of the millennium found an optimistic Labor movement in the process of building powerful coalitions outside the union movement. The infamous attacks on 9-11 in 2001 took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration every bit as hostile to unions as the Reagan Administration. A malevolent Federal government and a public stampeded by fear and war is not an advantageous environment for organizing or for progressive public policy.

With respect to the Reagan administration, unions took a while to figure out that they were dealing with something new. They were not unique. In 1981, Chicago DSA (DSOC/NAM) was a part of the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics and we found that part of our task was convincing liberals and unions they were facing an existential threat. It took a while. It took years for some liberals.

In comparison, unions did respond and relatively quickly. One of the AFL-CIO’s responses under Kirkland was the September, 1981, Solidarity Day march on Washington. Minchin goes for the reasonably conservative crowd size estimate of 400,000, but it may have been twice that. (I was there.) The march also wasn’t a one-off event but was followed by a series of similarly branded local events including, ultimately, a tenth anniversary march on Washington in 1991. Minchin reports that the original 1981 event did make the political atmosphere in Congress more favorable to union priorities yet it certainly did not halt the erosion of union organizations. At best (it seems to me, as Minchin doesn’t argue this) Solidarity Day made conservatives a bit more cautious about directly confronting the union movement… until George W. Bush.

This speaks to a problem I had with the book generally. Minchin describes any number of interesting and innovative AFL-CIO responses to the crisis in union organization. Sometimes he will judge the initiative to be successful (for example the Strategic Approaches Committee established in 1989), but there’s never enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect most unions, including the AFL-CIO federation, are not strong on metrics with which to judge political and educational projects. This allows leaders and staff to make their own, sometimes self-serving judgements. For example, how many of the “follow-ups” to the Solidarity Day march were simply rebrandings of activities local unions were going to do anyway? I remember a follow-up rally here in Chicago that was attended by dozens — hardly a turnout to encourage Labor’s friends or to worry Labor’s enemies. My prejudice (and unfortunately nothing in the book argues against this) is: If a union program does not contribute immediately to that union’s ability to serve and expand its membership then that program is optional and expendable, even if it might pay off in the long run. Marxists may regard that as a symptom of false consciousness, but unions survive, sorta, and marxists not so much.

Minchin ends his account just before the end of the Obama administration. I don’t feel he deals with the AFL-CIO in the Twenty-First Century in as much detail as he does its history in the Twentieth nor with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka as much as he does with Lane Kirkland. This may be prejudice on my part; I’m not so much interested in bettering Kirkland’s place in history. Or it may be how material was triaged for space.

As a small example, Minchin does not mention that John Sweeney was a member of my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but he does mention that Lane Kirkland was not a member of the old Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). SDUSA membership is an odd sort of issue to simply mention in passing; very few people have even heard of SDUSA. Thus it seems to me to be a truncated thread in Minchin’s narrative. Street gossip in 1995 was that Sweeney had joined DSA specifically to irritate Kirkland and his supporters; SDUSA and DSA, for many years, did not much get along: If you were known as a DSA member (aka “a friend of Harrington”), you’d have no luck being hired at the AFL-CIO HQ. Kirkland also did his best to sabotage Michael Harrington’s “Eurosocialism in America” conference held in Washington in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Kirkland’s assistant was Tom Kahn, a leading member of SDUSA. While one of Kahn’s main tasks, even in the early 1980s, was foreign policy (one of Kirkland’s pet priorities), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kahn was one of the early promoters of the 1981 Solidarity Day march idea within the AFL-CIO. Kahn had been deeply involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington so for all that I know, Solidarity Day may even have been Kahn’s idea. There is a story to tell but arguably tangential to the main narrative and the SDUSA observation looks like a stub that may have been intended to lead toward it.

A maybe more important thing that Minchin does not deal with at all is the role of contract negotiations in forming the political culture within unions. Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a union. (My Dad, however, was a member of NAGE, currently a part of SEIU.) That’s the way it is here in the States. But as a member and (for a time) a leader in Chicago DSA, I’ve spent a good bit of time with union staff and officials. The war stories unionists share focus on the adversarial and transactional process of bargaining, whether for a formal contract or for an individual grievance or even for candidates for public office. It seems to me that this experience has informed much of their behavior with respect to other organizations, other unions, and even other players within their own union. In some circumstances, this confrontational behavior and game playing is productive but other times not so much — it can be a handicap. It may very well be a partial explanation of why some of Labor’s efforts have yielded less than optimal harvests. But this criticism speaks more to my questions about labor history generally than it does regarding what Minchin intended to accomplish in this book.

So is Labor Under Fire a significant contribution to the historiography of Labor in the United States? Go ask someone else; I’m not an academic. Yeah, that’s a cop-out answer. But here is what I’m comfortable saying. If Timothy Minchin wanted to set the record a bit straighter for Kirkland, he makes a good but probably futile argument. On the other hand, for most people with a layman’s interest in the union movement, this is a useful introduction to the AFL-CIO’s history even if the focus ends up on the top leadership. In particular, I think it is useful in illustrating the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation of independent unions. During the Meany years and during much of the Kirkland years, this awareness of being a federation was as much a part of the organization’s ideology as it was a political fact. It informed what Kirkland was willing to undertake and had a similarly big impact on the success and failure of various programs in the Sweeney years. You might nod your head when told that the AFL-CIO is not a union but a federation of unions, but Minchin’s account makes it real. In a federation, “solidarity” is often only the title to a song no one remembers the lyrics to.

For people with an interest in unions, it’s certainly worth your time to read and, depending upon your wallet, your money too.