Literature for Labor Activists and Impact on Union Density
Author: Laura McClure, Nick Coles
Date of source:
- Novel Idea: Fiction for Labor Activists (Laura McClure in Labor Notes)
- Union Density: What's Literature Got to Do with It? (Nick Coles in Working-Class Perspectives)
by Laura McClure
January 31, 2013
When we're not reading Labor Notes, many activists rely on fiction for inspiration, new perspectives, and, of course, entertainment. For some of us, novels even helped start us down our paths of activism.
But - which novels? A survey of a handful of labor activists and educators revealed their favorite class-conscious novels.
Since fiction is built on conflict, it makes sense that some powerful novels center on strikes.
Longtime CWA organizer Steve Early recommends The Ink Truck, by ex-journalist William Kennedy, a "comic novel about a flailing and failing newspaper strike. It's a must-read for any strike organizers sitting around fantasizing about what might rescue them from impending defeat."
John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, about a strike by fruit pickers in California and the difficulties of organizing, is controversial, says labor educator and author Stanley Aronowitz, because it "does not glorify the decisions the organizer makes to win."
God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene, nominated by UE organizer Erin Stalnaker, tells the story of a strike by Senegalese railworkers against their French employers in 1947-48. The novel isn't just about anti-colonialism - it's also a nuanced exploration of solidarity, including by women, who eventually become leaders in the strike begun by their men.
Michael McCormack Enriquez of Kansas City's KC99 likes Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest. The backdrop for this detective novel is the 1917 strike by copper workers in Butte, Montana - and the murder of IWW organizer Frank Little, perhaps by Pinkerton goons. Hammett had a firsthand feel for the story, since he'd been a Pinkerton goon himself.
SAG-AFTRA organizer Allison Harger says one of her favorites is Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. The famous counter-culturalist of the 1960s here digs deeply into the motivations of a family of Oregon loggers who keep working during a bitter strike. (Paul Newman directed and starred in the 1970 Oscar-nominated movie.)
Early also mentions Strike! by labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, based on the 1929 action by textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina. Says Early: "It's an American Germinal, about a much-red-baited revolt by North Carolina workers that the state has been ashamed of ever since."
Germinal, the 1885 classic by Emile Zola, made several peoples' lists, too. "No novelist has better explored the emotions aroused by working class exploitation, poverty, and misery," says Early, and Zola's fictionalized account of a French miners' uprising "will seem very familiar to those following recent strike activity - and its bloody repression - in the South African mining industry today."
While strike novels may occupy a special place in organizers' hearts, most books on the list don't feature organizing at all. They're about the everyday lives of fellow working-class people, whether familiar or unfamiliar.
For instance, I like Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which pulls no punches on class politics or racism in 1930s Georgia. Health care organizer Teresa Tobin recommends Sandra Cisneros's intimate novel The House on Mango Street, whose heroine Esperanza Cordero straddles cultures as a Chicana growing up in Chicago.
"Dorothy Allison is my girl!" writes Portland organizer Kari Koch, who grew up in Oklahoma. "All her books are working-class as hell and Southern to boot. Bastard Out of Carolina is only the tip of her great works."
Ontario labor radio journalist Scotty Hertz suggests the 1987 novel In the Skin of a Lion by Canadian-Sri Lankan writer Michael Ondaatje, about the immigrants who helped build Toronto (but didn't get the credit).
Aronowitz recommends several other poignant novels about immigrants, including Pietro Di Donato's 1939 Christ in Concrete. Like the protagonist, Di Donato was 12 when his father, a bricklayer, was killed in a building collapse.
Aronowitz mentions Mike Gold's classic Jews Without Money, about growing up in Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 1920s; Low Company, by Daniel Fuchs, about restaurant workers in Depression-era Brooklyn; two by maritime organizer Alexander Saxton, Grand Crossing and The Great Midland; and Harriet Arnow's The Dollmaker, a portrait of a woman and her family who move from Kentucky to Detroit seeking work in the factories of World War II.
Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes suggests another of Arnow's books, Hunter's Horn, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 and set in the Kentucky mountains. "On the surface it's about fox-hunting - the mountain way, not the English lords and ladies way," she says, "but deeper down it's about the lives available to girls and women." She adds that "the people are poor, yes, but the novel is not `about poverty.'"
Several readers suggested stories or novels by Sherman Alexie (such as his 2005 Reservation Blues). "Most of his characters struggle with racism and poverty living on the reservation," says Labor Notes' Samantha Winslow, "and feel conflicted, if they leave the reservation, about whatever success they achieve."
Winslow also recommends Toni Morrison's classic The Bluest Eye, for its portrait of the "divide between the poor and the working class" in an Ohio African-American community, and Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, whose Dominican-American characters "are the first in their families to go to college, struggling to find a place in the U.S."
Retired auto worker Dianne Feeley cites The Street, by Ann Petry, about a young black woman trying to raise her son in 1940s Harlem. Dianne says The Street "ranks with the work of Richard Wright and is told from a woman's viewpoint."
Feeley's top picks sketch out some of the diversity of the 20th century U.S. working-class experience: Zora Neale Hurston's black feminist classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, set in rural Florida; Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men, about several generations of a Chinese-American family; Meridel Le Sueur's The Girl, about moving from farm to city life in Minnesota; Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, in which a young woman from Barbados comes of age in Brooklyn; and organizer Tillie Olsen's collection of short stories, Tell Me a Riddle.
Natasha Beck, a Portland educator and activist, suggests a slew of books by women authors with women protagonists, including Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Meridian and any of Marge Piercy's varied novels, such as Woman on the Edge of Time, about a future society where everyone has their own room.
Los Angeles organizer Eric Mann says Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man "hit me like a ton of bricks and shaped my thinking for the rest of my life." He describes it as "a classic introduction to Black cultural dissent," following its hero's "journey through structures that do not see him, from the `Negro college' to the Communist Party to the Black Militant to the white liberals."
And speaking of life-changing classics, several people mentioned Richard Wright's Native Son and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Aspen Swartz, a member of the Carpenters and the Labor Chorus in Seattle, says simply "Dickens!" (I just reread Dickens's own personal favorite, David Copperfield, and was surprised by how funny it was - and tender, of course.)
Swartz also adds Tolstoy's War and Peace. "It's written from the point of view of an aristocrat, but it gave me some insight into the lives of the serfs," she says.
Some novels highlight the experience of work itself.
Steve Early suggests The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, a book about "how the already hard life of a school bus driver is changed by a fatal accident on the icy roads of her small upstate New York town. The movie was good, the book is even better, because nobody writes with more sympathy and insight about blue collar workers in small towns than Banks," Early says.
Early also likes Richard Ford's Independence Day, about "the agony and (much less frequent) ecstasy of a real estate agent in the suburbs of New Jersey - one of the best accounts ever written about this kind of white collar work."
Bob Downing, who organizes hospital workers in Seattle, says he's "a big fan of B. Traven. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a brilliant and fun statement against the rush for riches that defines capitalism. (I love the movie too.) The Death Ship is a harrowing tale of the hopeless life of a merchant marine - less fun, sort of like a Conrad novel written from the perspective of the lower decks."
Natasha Beck recommends two by Meredith Tax: Rivington Street, about women involved in the Women's Trade Union League and garment workers' organizing in the early 1900s, and its sequel, Union Square, about women's organizing during the Depression.
Dianne Feeley was powerfully affected by On the Line, a collection of short stories by Harvey Swados about the tumultuous lives of auto workers in New Jersey in the 1950s. "It was the first book I ever read about people that were like my family. It changed what I looked for in fiction!" she says.
Ed Ott, former executive director of the New York Central Labor Council, recommends a novel soaked in New York City: Table Money, by the famously salty columnist Jimmy Breslin, centers on the raucous life of Owney Morrison, an alcoholic Vietnam vet and tunnel builder.
Ott also likes Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly, a vivid account of 1930s New York and the people who built the Empire State Building. Both of these books, says Ed, "understand that a job is about more than a paycheck. There is dignity in all work."
I'd like to add here a short gem by labor cartoonist Bill Yund, Reaper's Choice, a quietly gripping story about love and danger among the construction workers who cluster around Mick's Paradise Lounge in 1960s Pennsylvania.
And Labor Notes staffer Al Bradbury chimes in with one of my favorite authors: Barbara Kingsolver. Bradbury suggests Kingsolver's 2009 novel The Lacuna, "whose main character crosses paths with the Bonus Army of World War I vets demanding their paychecks, as well as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and the House Un-American Activities Committee." I love Kingsolver's earlier books too, beginning with The Bean Trees.
Steve Early suggests Nobody's Fool, a funny, wise book by one of my favorite authors, Richard Russo. The main character is "a struggling building contractor, who's been reduced to working as a `handyman'" and who is "a walking, talking, flush-broke, hard-luck example of why many workers with building trades skills are anything but `independent.'" I find a lot of warmth and respect for working people (often blue collar guys in upstate New York) in all of Russo's books. And they're fun to read.
Erin Stalnaker also has some fun suggestions, including John Nichols's Milagro Beanfield War and John Sayles's short story collection that begins with the hilarious Anarchists' Convention.
Speaking of fun with a class-conscious spin, labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki likes Walter Mosley's mysteries, "especially his Easy Rawlins series, which has a great African American working-class perspective." Mosley's most recent Rawlins mystery is Little Scarlet.
I'd like to put in a word for Barbara Neely's mystery series featuring a middle-aged black mother, domestic worker, and amateur sleuth named Blanche White. The series starts with Blanche on the Lam.
Sara Paretsky writes about a female private investigator, V.I. Warshawski. Paretsky takes on issues ranging from racism and homophobia to blacklisting and corporate conniving. And she never neglects class.
Donna Leon is one more class-conscious mystery writer, though she's best known for her rendering of Venice and the quietly sensual and deeply ethical Commissario Brunetti. Her Through a Glass Darkly tackles not only political corruption but also unsafe working conditions and environmental pollution in Venetian glass factories.
Class for Kids and Teens
We have four books for younger readers:
For teenagers, Dan Lutz of the New York State Nurses Association submits For the Win, a sci-fi novel by Cory Doctorow (no relation to E.L.). Says Lutz: "The main characters are `gold farmers,' kids in India, China, and Singapore who play online games - and then sell their accumulated gold, swords, spaceships, and ray guns to Westerners who want to level up fast (a totally real phenomenon). They work in sweatshop conditions - until they decide to organize their own cross-border union."
For the younger set, Change to Win researcher Mariah Montgomery writes, "One of my favorite books growing up was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, about a black family in Mississippi during the Depression. They are small landowners, but most in their community are sharecroppers. The main character, an 11-year-old girl named Cassie, is coming of age and understanding more about racism and violence, and her family's (and others') struggle to push back against a white landowner."
Surgery resident Elinore Kaufman suggests the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary. Kaufman writes, "The Ramona books were the first books I ever saw aimed at kids that had any mention of class issues at all."
And for the littlest class-conscious readers, I'll put in the picture book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, about intrepid farm animals organizing for justice: "Dear Farmer Brown, The barn is very cold at night. We'd like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows." They don't stop at petitioning.
What class-conscious books have you loved? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section.
[Laura McClure, a long-time labor journalist, is author of Organize or Die, a new mystery novel about love and organizing.
Read a review here.]
by Nick Coles
February 4, 2013
So union density in United States has declined yet again. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of American workers now belong to unions. This compares to 11.8% in 2011, and it's a long way from the all-time high of 35% in the early 1940s. The "right to work" campaign is expanding - even to Michigan, of all states - along with "austerity" policies that target working people. Since Ronald Reagan launched his attack on labor in 1980, when union density was at 20%, real wages have declined along with union membership to a point where we now have a "gilded age" level of income inequality.
In times like these, it is useful to be reminded of what unions can be good for. A labor history like From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend (2001) explains in readable style what it took to establish unions in the first place, while New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse makes clear in The Big Squeeze: Hard Times for the American Worker (2008) why we need them now more than ever. Novels, too, can make the case for working people's rights, through compelling fictional narratives that engage us with characters we care about. Two Depression-era novels from the Pittsburgh steel district, Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace and William Attaway's Blood on the Forge, both in published in 1941, do this particularly well, though in very different ways.
Bell's book - subtitled "a novel of immigrant labor in America" when it was republished by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1976 - follows three generations of a Slovak-American family from arrival in the 1880s up to the unionization of the steel mills in the New Deal era. Along the way it addresses the Homestead battle of 1892, as well as the great strike of 1919 and the struggles of 1934-37. Attaway's is a novel of the Great Migration, tracing the experience of three African-American brothers who are lured north from Kentucky to work the mills during the 1919 conflict. By this time, eastern European laborers have been admitted into some union lodges, while blacks are excluded and demonized as strikebreakers.
Although Bell's novel is a family saga spanning fifty years of steel-town history, while Attaway's focuses on one pivotal year, they have several points of contact. Both address the dislocations of [im]migration, the hazards of steelmaking, racial/ethnic subjugation, labor strife - and the strength of the human spirit in response to these conditions. And there are telling coincidences of detail between the two: fourteen men die in the blast furnace "accident" that kills Joe Dubik in 1895 in Furnace and fourteen in the explosion that blinds Chinatown Moss in 1919 in Blood.
But there are equally telling points of divergence. Bell takes the family as a social ideal and traces its process of Americanization within a known community. The health of family and community depend on strong representation in the workplaces that dominate life in the steel towns. Although they are discriminated against as "Hunkies," assigned the worst housing and the worst tasks in the mill, Bell's characters grow into a sense of citizenship and belonging. And they are recognizably white in relation the lowest stratum of immigrants to the steel towns. Looking back on how Braddock has changed in fifty years, Bell's aging Slovaks lament the arrival of the "shines" in the First Ward, "brought here to break the strike" in 1919.
Attaway's characters are rootless single men, focused on survival and what pleasure they can find in the present moment, with the aid of corn whisky, dog fights, and the prostitutes in Mex town. Only the eldest brother, Big Mat, who has left his wife behind in Kentucky, sees any future for himself in the mill town. Working steel, "His body was happy. This was a good place for a big black man to be." When the strike starts, however, he lends his strength to the company's campaign to crush it; as a sheriff's deputy, he becomes a "black riding boss," trampling those who have mocked him, including the Hunkies.
From contrasting standpoints, both novels demonstrate how racial division was as much a product of industrial management as steel from the mills, and how this division, reinforced by craft union prejudices and racial exclusion, bedeviled any attempt at industry-wide organization - that is, until the CIO swung into town in 1935. Dobie, Bell's third-generation protagonist, understands the racial system: "Once it was the Irish looking down on the Hunkies and now it's the Hunkies looking down on the niggers. The very things the Irish used to say about the Hunkies the Hunkies now say about the niggers. And for no better reason." Whereas Bell does not criticize the steel unions for their part in maintaining this cycle of racism, its destructive power is central to Attaway's story.
Differences in narrative style make it a pleasure to read the two novels alongside each other. Bell writes with a naturalistic matter-of-factness, leavened with gentle irony, and sometimes with finely pointed commentary. Of the death of Joe Dubik and his workmates, Bell writes: "Officially it was put down as an accident, impossible to foresee or prevent . . .. In a larger sense it was the result of greed, and part of the education of the American steel industry." His style is also capable of great tenderness, especially in his scenes of courtship, married love, and family losses. Attaway's writing, by contrast, crackles and hums with a dark music. The novel's first sentence reads: "He never had a craving in him that he couldn't slick away on his guitar." But Melody's healing blues cannot survive the move to the steel towns, nor can it save his brothers Chinatown and Big Mat, who used to love to hear him play in the red-clay hills of Kentucky.
The two novels' titles suggest not only this contrast in style but also in narrative outcomes. "Out of this furnace" comes a vindication of the steelworkers' aspirations and the possibility of a better life for their families. At the end of Bell's novel, Dobie, having helped to build what became the United Steel Workers, engages in a nighttime reverie about issues the union could address in the future: technological unemployment, environmental destruction, anti-worker politics, bosses and "bossism," and the degradation of work itself. As he spins this web at the bedroom window, his sleeping wife is pregnant with their first child - completing the picture of productive and reproductive futurity.
The "blood [spilled] on the forge" in Attaway's novel is not redeemed by any such optimistic conclusion. The book itself becomes a kind of blues, and any uplift it provides comes from Attaway's ability to sing it. Big Mat, Melody, and Chinatown do not recover from the combined violence of cultural dislocation, deadly working conditions, and racist labor politics - and they do not understand what has happened to them. But we, as readers, are invited to develop the consciousness they can't. The novel offers us the insight and empathy out of which to draw our own conclusions about the industrial system and the need for racial solidarity in labor.
For me, novels like these suggests that unions can be good for much more than better hours, wages, and working conditions. What they achieved, on the evidence of Bell's novel at any rate, included a sense of personal dignity and collective strength in the present, and a hopeful vision pulling one forward. When Bell wrote that in 1937 "the fifty-year struggle to free the steel town was nearly over," he was claiming that the fight to organize, to be recognized, to bargain implied more than "labor rights" alone; it was a struggle for what came to be called civil and human rights. Conversely, Attaway shows us, in visceral scenes, the damage done, no only when companies and their henchmen engage in violent suppression of those rights but also when unions play into a company's hands by excluding the unorganized and the "other."
Most unions today seem to get this - though, for now, they are still on the losing end of the most concerted legal and political assault since the robber barons ruled the roost. But we would be much worse off without them, and they may be due for a revival. Read any good labor novels lately?
[Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the Past-President of the Working-Class Studies Association.]