Traditionally, labor history has centered on notable leaders like Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor and John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers. These men have a place in this account, but my main emphasis is on the relationship between the leaders and the masses of workers. Debates about labor leadership and misleadership ignore the fact that most of the important breakthroughs in labor history, notably the great industrial union up-surges of the 1910's and the 1930's, originated at the base. By taking a rank-and-file approach, I hope to emphasize the creativity and tenac-ity of ordinary workers acting together with leaders of their own choosing.
A labor history from the bottom up is now within reach because of new studies produced by social historians which uncover the hidden history of workplaces and working-class communities. The new so-cial history, when combined with older studies of workers' group life, offers the kind of information we need to understand the dynamics and structural bases of labor militancy and organization. of course, a view from below is only one angle of vision. A one-dimensional approach to worker militancy leaves many questions unanswered, notably: why was that militancy invariably repressed, deflected, or channeled into bureaucratic organizations?
To answer this question, we need a dialectical approach which ac-counts for the challenge of the rank-and-tile and response of leader-ship. The approach must be historical and not static, so that we can explain the specific events that led to the containment or incorporation of militancy. Otherwise, we are left with overdetermined sociological theories like the "iron law of oligarchy" which imply that labor orga-nizations must inevitably be undemocratic.
In addition to adopting this approach, we seek to place labor history in a wider context. The internal dynamics of labor-union development have been decisively affected by depressions and wars, as well as by long-term changes in the labor market, the structure and organization of work, and the social composition of the labor force. Strikes and union struggles must also be seen in their local setting, because com-munity support from families, relatives, and middle-class allies often determined the outcome. Labor policies and strategies developed by government and the state also require close attention, and a dialectical approach. The forces just mentioned created the conditions under which the Rouse of Labor was constructed, but within this framework, workers made their own history.
One theme of special importance, the struggle for control, runs through the book. By control I do not necessarily mean ownership of the means of production, but rather the freedom to determine certain activities in the workplace. If workers were free to take extra time off without punishment, they exercised some control over their time. If employers could arbitrarily lengthen the workday without fear of op-position from the workers, they exercised an important kind of con-trol. By showing that a struggle for control existed throughout the cen-tury, I do not mean to imply that workers have always been fighting to seize full control over the means of production. At times, notably dur-ing the second decade of the century, revolutionaries did call for the abolition of private property and the creation of a worker-dominated economy. And these ideas won some fleeting support within the labor movement, but this country lacks a revolutionary working-class tradi-tion, like the one created by the Russian soviets or the Italian workers' councils.
Struggles for control have nonetheless taken place throughout the twentieth century, from strikes to win union-dominated hiring halls to attempts to form shop committees with decision-making power. At times, these struggles were largely defensive in nature, like the min-ers' fight to defend their traditional or customary right to work free of supervision. Often the skilled workers' struggle to preserve craft con-trol was not generalized to others. But when skilled workmen did ally themselves with the unskilled, as in the United Mine Workers, radical questions were usually about the private control of industry. As Carter Goodrich noted in The Frontier of Control, workers’ struggles that question management authority are of the highest importance in studying the "control problem." and they are inherently political. The fight against being controlled disagreeably has sometimes escalated to a demand that workers be free of any control or that they take a hand in deciding control issues.
In short, my concern is not to establish a revolutionary tradition where one does not exist. but rather to describe conflict over power and authority where it does exist. These conflicts have been continuous throughout the twentieth century and provide us with entry points for studying the hidden history of the workplace. Socialists, Communists, and other radicals have generally failed to politicize the struggle for control, partly because so often they came in as outsiders. But it seems to me that the only solution to conflict and alienation that still characterize the work place is the achievement of workers’ control and industrial democracy. Radical intellectuals have helped to articulate these ideas and to employ them in making various demands, but the ideas come from the workers. They have been tested in countless workplaces for several generations.
It is important to take an approach that extends beyond the Mouse of Labor to the wider world of the worker, because throughout this cen-tury most workers have not enjoyed union protection. Even at their peak strength in the mid-1950's, labor unions only included about one quarter of the paid labor force. We can now take a broader view of this world because of the insights into working-class life recently offered by ethnic and black studies, women's studies, and the new urban and social history. This book attempts to portray workers' lives beyond the union hall, the strike meeting, and the political campaign.
The opening chapter describes two very different early-twentieth-century settings, so that we may see how workers lived on a day-to-day basis. First, the classic company town, dominated by a large cor-poration. Second, the urban ghetto, the colorful Lower East Side of New York City. We look closely at workers' social and cultural lives, at their workplace and family experiences, and at the influence of their Old World habits and traditions. Finally, we explore the ways in which union organization and political activity differed in these two settings
This study returns to these issues, but in less detail. It traces two trends of particular importance in social history: the growing participation of women, married and single, in the paid labor force, and the great exodus of black people from the rural South to the industrial cities. Both had great implications for working-class life in this century. We can clearly see that employers used sexism and racism in segregating the labor market and in dividing workers in other ways. But, it is more difficult to provide a comprehensive explanation of how the world of the worker has been affected by changes in family structure and kin relations, or in community structure and race relations. The new social history offers some insight into the effect of these changes, but generalizations are still difficult to make.
I have no doubt that a full social and cultural history of the
modern working class will be written. In the meantime, I hope that this
book will raise some new questions about the old labor history. I also
hope that it makes good use of the new social history to enhance our under
standing of the rich and varied world of the worker in the twentieth century.