Rating: 4.75/5Taking its name from a song by writer, IWW activist and labor martyr Joe Hill, Philip Dray’s There is Power in a Union is a comprehensive history – and, at times, a celebration – of unionism in the United States. Blending character sketches of labor figures like Samuel Gompers, Eugene Debs, Terence Powderly, César Chávez, Walter Reuther, Big Bill Haywood and John L. Lewis with the type of “common folk” approach to history reminiscent of Howard Zinn and Eric Foner, Dray’s writing is both remarkably vivid and easily accessible. The book’s scope is massive – at nearly 700 pages, it details labor history’s major events as well as plenty of lesser-known ones – yet never once feels weighted down or tedious.
As Dray notes in the book’s introduction, any discussion of unions – a hot button topic that gets tangled up in a messy mélange of politics, religion and economics – still tends to evoke emotional responses. Though conservative readers might be inclined to, unfairly, characterize Dray as an uber-progressive who leans too far to the left, the author’s study is actually very reasonable, even if his admiration for unions is, at times, obvious. Dray in fact does not hesitate to point out labor’s faults, whether it’s in oft-documented tales of corruption – most infamously, those of the Jimmy Hoffa Teamster years – or in the unions’ general unwillingness to welcome blacks into its ranks for a large part of the 20th century. By acknowledging where unions have strayed far from their sometimes-idealistic goals and moral values, Dray gives his book added credibility.
From Dray’s perspective, the unions’ greatest achievements and lasting legacies can be found in their ability to bring about social change and an improved quality of life for union members. Indeed, often against seemingly insurmountable odds – many times including an unsympathetic national media, hostile Supreme Court and a federal government willing to use both legislation and the military to combat union activity – the various labor organizations profiled in Power were able to secure the rights and benefits that most current American workers now consider standard. Tracing a narrative arc that begins with a newly-industrialized 19th century Lowell, Massachusetts and ends with pertinent questions about the future of organized labor, Dray masterfully captures the economic and social climate in which these unions operated as American industry evolved.
The difficulty any writer faces when addressing America’s labor history is finding a suitable middle ground; much of labor’s bibliography is littered with partisan writing that reduces this history to black-and-white episodes of heroes and villains. Dray maintains a wonderful balance here, deftly relying on primary source material and his own research to richly describe key moments like the 1886 Haymarket bombing, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire or PATCO’s ill-fated strike in the early 1980s. Such accurate reporting is one of the book’s best, and most relevant, aspects: as America’s labor history further recedes into the past and is unfortunately viewed as a relic from a bygone era, books like There is Power in a Union take on an increasingly important role in ensuring that this complex and contentious history is neither forgotten nor flippantly dismissed as a political matter of left vs. right.