Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'There Is Power In A Union'

There Is Power In A Union by Philip Dray

There was no work, and New York City's unemployed were desperate for food, coal, the means to pay the rent and provide milk to the chil­dren. The trouble had started a few months before, in September 1873: a sudden financial panic. The broker­age firm of Jay Cooke and Company went first, then all of Wall Street collapsed, taking with it banks and investments, fortunes, jobs. On the chilly morning of January 13, 1874, they huddled fifteen thousand strong in Tompkins Square to demand government relief and public jobs. Stamping their feet to stay warm, they smoked and waited. Speeches were to be made. Mayor William Havemeyer, who knew of their difficulties, had agreed to address them. But something was wrong: police on horseback had appeared at the edge of the square, sent by city offi­cials worried about the large number of people who'd recently taken to marching in the streets. Fear had been stoked by the newspapers, which described the protestors as "reds" and "Communists" and warned that they might revolt. Only three years earlier French Communards had seized the eastern precincts of Paris in the name of the dispossessed, thrown up barricades, and had then been crushed by soldiers in an orgy of horrific street fighting and drumhead executions. "There is a dangerous class in New York, quite as much as in Paris," the New York Times advised the city, "and they want only the opportunity or the incentive to spread anarchy and ruin.

"Certainly those in Tompkins Square had done their cause little good by naming their coordinating group "the Committee of Safety," a phrase borrowed from the Commune as well as the French Revolution. Nor had they set civic minds at ease a week earlier, when on January 5 a delegation from the Lower East Side visited city hall. There they asked for work on municipal projects such as street- paving, an advance of either money or food for the poorest families, and a temporary ban on evictions. When the aldermen offered no immediate remedies, some of the unemployed in anger offered to "throw those whelps out of the windows," and threatened to go all the way to the legislature in Albany and throw officials out of the windows there as well. And so the authorities had had second thoughts about the gathering in Tompkins Square; they had canceled Mayor Have­meyer's speech and withdrawn the permit for the rally. No one, however, had informed the event's organizers. The police commissioner, Abram Duryee, strode into the park to order the crowd to disperse, a squad of officers walking behind him and using their batons to prod the reluctant. Two German workers who resented being shoved struck back, prompting police on horses to enter the square. The crowd panicked and rushed to the gates, but the pathways were narrow and the horsemen came on swiftly, charging "like Cossacks," one Russian immigrant recalled, swinging their clubs and chasing the protestors out of the square and through the nearby streets as far as the Bowery. There were injuries from the policemen's blows and numerous arrests. One group of organizers hurried to city hall. "All we want is work!" they assured the mayor. Havemeyer was sympathetic but explained, "It is not the purpose or object of the city government to furnish work to the industrious poor. That system belongs to other countries, not ours.

"When they implored him to honor his promise to address the unem­ployed, the mayor demurred. "I have heard what occurred this morning, and I do not desire to address crazy or excited people, who might be anx­ious to send brickbats flying."

"When industry appeared in the United States in the early years of the republic, the country dared hope that its democratic virtues would forge sufficient regard between labor and capital that scenes like Tompkins Square would never come to pass. Now the police, with the use of unnec­essary force, had added to the workers' outrage by denying their right to free speech and assembly. "What citizens were those who wanted to meet on Tompkins Square on the 13th of January?" demanded Augusta Lilien­thal of the German Free- Thinkers Union at a public meeting convened two weeks later at Cooper Union. "They were a portion of positively the best class of our citizens. They were the true taxpayers. They were work­ing men! (Cheers.) They had assembled to ask for work, and for that they were knocked down! (Hisses.) What a condition of affairs is this?" A Dr. Emil Hoeber spoke in answer, noting that although "favorable auspices" had attended the long- ago founding of the nation, now the country "is situated as if placed atop a volcano, the present circumstances tending to make some rich while consigning hundreds of thousands to permanent poverty. There must, sooner or later, be a change. Jour­nalist and labor advocate John Swinton reminded the hall that "twenty years ago 'Abolitionist' sounded as terrible as the word 'Communist' does today. . . . Let us not wait in this case till our tongues are tied and our hands are manacled. Let us not lie supine till our chains are forged, but let the forgers be warned and thwarted in advance.

"The audience understood these allusions all too well — slavery, the division of classes, of bosses and laborers, of "haves" and "have-nots." The hint of impending struggle — that, too, had a familiar ring. A gen­eration earlier the country had been warned that an "irrepressible con­flict" was coming, a titanic struggle over the issue of slavery. The result had been civil war more devastating than anyone had imagined, a trauma from which recovery was yet incomplete. Would another such "irrepress­ible conflict" be required to right all that had gone wrong in the relations between those who provided work and those who relied on it, between capital and labor?

In the crowd in Tompkins Square had been two men destined for far different roles in the nation's labor struggle. Samuel Gom­pers, a twenty-three-year-old member of a New York cigar makers' union, had fled the police charge and narrowly avoided a crack over the head by diving into a cellar stairway. Justus Schwab, a resident of the Lower East Side, had reentered the park after the police had cleared it and raced across the grounds waving a red flag. Tackled and taken into custody, he was brought to the nearest precinct house, where, to the annoyance of the arresting officers, he defiantly began singing "La Marseillaise." Gompers within a decade would become the president of the American Federation of Labor, and would cite the riot at Tompkins Square as having convinced him of the futility of radicalism; disgruntled people confronting author­ity in public places was not the means of bettering the lot of the work­ingman. Labor's rights could best be won through negotiation and the careful use of the workers' leverage over profits and production. Schwab, who would have further brushes with the law, went on to operate a saloon on East First Street popular with neighborhood radicals, including anar­chists Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Johann Most, who wished to abolish the wage system, saw capitalism as a useless, inhumane form of social organization, and advocated violence where necessary to awaken insurrectionary fervor.

As Gompers and Schwab's divergent paths suggest, the saga of orga­nized labor in America is not one story but many. It is also much more than a catalog of strikes, picket lines, and flailing police batons. The debate about work and industry and the struggle for workers' rights and dignity have been consuming subjects since the birth of our nation; they have shaped laws and customs, acted as a crucible for social change, and ultimately helped define what it means to be an American. This book attempts to relate that remarkable account by exploring the ten­sion between skilled and unskilled labor, the impact of immigration, and the changing role of government in labor issues. It focuses on the evolu­tion of labor's hopes and expectations from the introduction of industry in America in the 1820s to the modern labor movement's decline in the 1980s, and considers what kind of future workers in every era believed in for themselves, their families, and their country. It examines what they felt they were entitled to, what they demanded, and how their tactics for realizing those objectives evolved.

That some people thought unions to be an obnoxious and unwelcome intrusion in the workplace dawned on me for the first time one weekday morning in March 1976. I was sitting in the office of Evelyn Johnson, an advertising manager at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, who was about to become my boss. Evelyn was a soft- spoken older woman, kindly, and I could tell she wanted me to have the part- time job for which I'd applied. I had told her how when I was eight or nine I'd sometimes gone out in the freezing predawn darkness to help my big brother deliver the Tribune, the paper's morning edition, and she and I had lapsed into a typical Minnesota conversation about the harshness of the past winter. Then suddenly she was talking about a recent attempt to unionize the workers in the advertising department; she wondered if I'd ever be inclined to join such an effort. I knew at once that the "correct" answer was "No." Still, it caught me off guard that so direct and obviously determinative a question had come from this otherwise pleasant-looking person, who, as I remember, was wearing a pastel blue sweater.

Having grown up in the late 1950s and 1960s, at the end of what some now call labor's golden era, I had always been given to understand that labor unions were valuable and necessary to society. They fought for workers, brought dignity to people's lives, decent hours, the five-day week, benefits, and paid vacations. The photographs I'd seen in my junior high school social studies textbook of strikers marching or picketing seemed images of American heroism no less exemplary than the illustra­tions of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" or pioneer families making their way west along the Oregon Trail. The labor giants — the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, the United Mine Workers, and historic ones like the Industrial Workers of the World or the Knights of Labor — these were venerable institutions, part of our nation's heritage.

My own limited experience as a union worker, when I was sixteen and worked as a busboy in a suburban supper club, had been a positive one. New hires were required to join a local hotel and restaurant work­ers' union, which extracted monthly dues from our paychecks. The shop steward, a burly cook named Larry, made sure the staff punched in and out on time, reminded us to take our allotted breaks, advised the cock­tail waitresses how to politely fend off unwanted advances from custom­ers, and acted as a buffer between the employees and the often erratic demands of the club's owner and its executive chef. I didn't doubt that the few dollars I contributed in dues were worth having Larry, my coworkers, and the union officers downtown perceive me as someone with needs and rights — someone who might have a grievance with a boss, require a sick day, or want to be transferred off the Sunday brunch shift. That sense of belonging is the very essence of labor unionism.

Later I came to know that labor leaders themselves were often dif­ficult, argumentative people, and that strikes could involve sharp dif­ferences of opinion and conflict, but these I assumed to be less failings than manifestations of a process that, however tumultuous, was good for America. It was democracy at work. No one could expect labor unions to behave like the Boy Scouts or a church choir; they were dynamic organi­zations that took on life-and- death issues: economics, government policy, workers' health and safety, and fair pay. To do this they stood up to the powerful. They made demands and caused inconvenience. Yet they did so as parties to a kind of covenant: behind their strong language and equally strong actions, they shared the same goals as management — productivity and national prosperity.

In the beginning the artisans, apprentices, tradesmen, and farmers of the youthful American republic — long restricted by the British in the Colonial Era from developing manufacturing — were unsure if they wished to welcome the factory. Work indoors regulated by the chiming of bells was a new type of regimen; gone were the intimacy of the small workshop and the autonomy and gratification of making a living with one's own hands.

After a brief initiation, workers began to react and rebel, casting back to the American Revolution for inspiration to declare their own inde­pendence from the brutal conditions and sameness of industrial work. Organizing into workers' associations, they demanded fair wages and hours and challenged unjust regulations. While not all Northern workers opposed slavery on moral grounds, their concern for its extension into the West bolstered the spirit of "free soil, free labor, and free men" that swept Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party to power in 1860 and helped bring on the Civil War. From workers' ranks came the soldiers for that war, as well as the call for land that fostered the homestead movement.

In reaction to the economic injustice of the Gilded Age, workers helped transform the vistas of reform by bringing new concern for the underclass of urban poor. They inspired and guided Progressives to chal­lenge the reigning ethos of laissez- faire, and to address the problems of crowded tenement housing, sweatshops, child labor. Where industry was cruel or uncomprehending of the human beings it employed, labor insisted on the ten- and eight- hour day, time for leisure and the enjoy­ment of life, and ultimately health benefits and insurance that would pro­tect workers and their families; none of these achievements came easily, indeed all were resisted fiercely, yet in time they became standard features of American life.

Labor unions also exerted a civilizing influence on politics, govern­ment policy, and corporate behavior, by either forcing beneficial changes like regular factory inspections and fire laws, or inspiring accommodat­ing developments such as the creation of Henry Ford's "Five Dollar Day" and the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed workers the right of col­lective bargaining. Unions also helped assimilate new arrivals to America, serving as the social and political organizational apparatus of choice for waves of immigrants — Irish miners, German craftsmen, Russian and Ital­ian garment workers — while left- leaning unionists such as the IWW and the Socialists fought for free speech and challenged the nation's sedition laws, conscription, and war-making itself.

Early on, however, American workers learned something unfortu­nate about their country: it did not care much for labor unions. In no other nation has organized capital so resisted organized labor, perhaps because in contrast to England and Europe, powerful American corpora­tions developed before the emergence of strong centralized government or "overt class politics," as scholar Nelson Lichtenstein writes. By the time unions came to strength and legislatures took an interest in industry's affairs, the "most critical decisions about the direction of American eco­nomic development were in private hands."

The courts also proved unfavorably disposed toward the idea of asso­ciations of ordinary people standing up against corporate might. The right to property, to own and conduct a competitive business — these were concepts held sacred — while the notion of an independent group of workers leveraging power, impacting economic and social policy, was not. "A union movement in America will always be a scandal," labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan has said, for "the subversive thing about labor is not the strike, but the idea of solidarity."

Employers leveled charges of foreign radicalism against labor with devastating effect. Business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Com­merce and the National Association of Manufacturers learned to play on such fears, vilifying workers' groups by invoking cherished American ideals of individualism, personal freedom, and liberty. Workers did occa­sionally couch their unhappiness in revolutionary terms. But there was a painful irony to the fact that the labor movement was regularly tarred as an antisocial conspiracy when it was the corporations, the railroads, and the government that most often acted in collusion, frequently with the aid of the courts, the police, and at times soldiers' bayonets.

Organized labor would sometimes prove its own worst enemy — excluding minority workers with whom they might have formed useful coalitions, paying inadequate attention to the needs of workingwomen, aligning with the worst tendencies of cold war anti- Communism, suc­cumbing to corruption and racketeering, and mimicking the arrogance of big business. The fundamental urge behind labor organizing, however, the idea that workers have a right to be equitably paid for the work they do, to be treated with dignity, and to believe their efforts might better their own prospects and the lives of those dear to them, has always been legitimate and just. Against the gathered power of moneyed interests, the state, the ideology of the free market, and often public opinion, they clung tenaciously to the faith that they deserved to be seen as human beings, not cogs or commodities, and that America would be the better for it if they were. In this they were certainly right.

For a century or more labor leaders like Eugene Debs, "Big" Bill Haywood, "Mother" Jones, Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, and Walter Reuther were names respected in millions of American homes, their opinions in the newspaper or their words carried over the radio as important as those of leading politicians and even presidents. No less vital were the Haymarket martyrs and the Molly Maguires; Ira Stew­ard, the so-called Eight- Hour Monomaniac; William Sylvis, America's original itinerant labor organizer; the "soldiers" of Coxey's Army; young Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Wobblies' "Red Flame," who once brought an entire city to a standstill from her jail cell; and of course the garment workers, autoworkers, steelworkers, and other rank and file who risked everything to strike and protest and give union demands authority.

These were in a very real sense the makers of our world. Yet most today are little known, if they are remembered at all. That is unfair to them, and to us. Organized labor today may have been reduced to a whis­per of its former greatness, and no one can divine or guarantee its future, but we can know its past. It is this book's faith that there is power in a union, as the old labor song goes, and that in neglecting the valuable his­tory of unions we risk losing something worthwhile in ourselves.

Excerpted from There Is Power in a Union by Philip Dray Copyright 2010 by Philip Dray. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Philip Dray