union power

Union Power is a revealing account of a vibrant and militant union in one US city in the century of Depression and McCarthyism, finds Kevin Crane


James Young, Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania (Monthly Review Press 2017), 264pp.

This new labour history opens with a preface by the author, James Young, that goes to very unusual lengths to explain the author’s intentions. This is partially because he wishes to make his allegiances (sympathetic, but not uncritical) clear. It is mainly, however, because of the undeniably very specific nature of its focus. This the story of two branches of a single union in a relatively small American city. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it does mean that those of us who aren’t familiar with the place may struggle to see what is the general significance. In fairness, if you do persevere with it, the observations the book manages to tease out of its source material do go some way toward explaining that.

The union branches (‘locals’ in US terminology) in question are components of the United Electrical Workers, UE 506 and UE 618, representing the blue and white-collar employees respectively of General Electric in Erie during the heyday of electronics manufacturing in that town in the twentieth century. Early on, Young is keen to emphasise two of the features of UE that in his view make it admirable. One was its strongly organising focused and rank-and-file focused strategy, the other its very strong efforts to unite rather than divide salaried and non-salaried workers in one union. He emphasises that there was a great deal of scepticism about this project from both the left and right that UE significantly defied.

The extent of UE’s role within Erie’s working-class communities, both established and new, is certainly impressive. Beyond workplace representation, the union provided extensive cultural and political facilities. It had a widely-circulated newspaper, the People’s Press, which printed not just union news, but news and commentary in general and from an unashamedly class-politics based perspective. This was really rather radical when most papers were owned by businesses and had strictly religious-directed editorials. More surprising, though, is that UE actually had a broadcasting arm during the 1940s. It sponsored its own news and factual programming on both radio and television, which is astonishing to consider in these times in which our own unions are still lagging behind the curve on internet media.

Even at the get-go, or at least not-long after, UE’s goals of unity were hampered by the formation of a more conservative rival, the IUE. With rightist rhetoric about partnership with the company and constant smears of treachery and communism against their rivals, IUE consistently attempted to oust UE from workplaces. It never fully achieved this, but, and despite painstaking attempts to be as polite as possible by the author, the story of IUE’s campaigning makes for a shameful display of false strategy and absent solidarity. This aspect of the story becomes seriously dark in the 1950s.

UE engaged in politics, but politics consequently impacted upon it. During the 1930s, it was a key part of the Roosevelt New Deal coalition. This was partially a response to the fact that progressive change (within limits) was being made possible as America turned away from the extreme laissez-faire that had accentuated the Great Depression. It was also, however, part of the international turn toward ‘popular front’ politics, influenced by the Communist Party of the USA, to seek alliances with perceived progressive elements of business and establishment politicians. As America finally joined World War Two, UE supported American opposition to Nazi Germany like most of the American left. Part of this was actually downplaying industrial militancy in favour of mobilising for the war effort, although some of the unions’ more rebellious representatives did eschew this in favour of suggesting that perhaps GE’s bosses might also downplay their pursuit of profit (apparently this is above and beyond the call of patriotism, of course!).

It is after the war that relations between the union and the establishment start to move from conventional confrontation over workers’ conditions and rights, into the downright frightening McCarthy era. This gives probably the best part of the book, and certainly some of the most gripping moments of genuine working-class heroism in the face of not just adversity, but active repression. The writer shows neatly how a coalition of right-wing forces, many traditionally indifferent or even hostile to one another, such as opposed Churches or conservative and liberal thinkers, came together to fight a common enemy.

This was, of course, in the form of a ‘communism’ that encompassed the USA’s recent allies in the Soviet Union and with it all the world’s various communist parties, such as the American one. But it also extended far beyond these to almost anyone in the trade-union movement, popular media or even elected office, who opposed this new agenda and had hitherto even been broadly part of the establishment under New Deal. Young argues that reading the writings of Cold Warriors at the time makes it clear that the demonisation of this sprawling communist entity was always a focused project to shift both America and the world toward a more free-market paradigm. It was essentially intended to usher in what would later be known as globalisation.

The international aspect of this is well-known, primarily affecting working-class Americans in that they were under huge pressure to support uncritically, or fight and die in, bloody wars in the Far East. The book is much more about the domestic side of the project: criminalising and de-legitimising unions that were trying to defend workers’ conditions and public services.

Accounts of individual trades unionists in kangaroo-court hearings, and the valiant rearguard media self-defence that UE had to make, really convey the bravery of many of these people. Young reproduces a large amount of court material to illustrate the resolve that union activists had to bring against some of the most loaded and accusatory interrogation imaginable. Reading all this, you honestly will feel something of the terror that it must have been to them then. It is satisfying to read of the eventual survival, albeit greatly weakened, of UE, as the Cold War coalition gradually brakes up under the weight of its own anti-democratic excesses.

As the book moves on through the 1960s, we start to get a bit less detail about big events, with the considerable exception of the fights for the rights of female workers in the later part of the century. Alas, gains made by this time tend to be relative, as the de-industrialisation of America has set in. The book concludes with UE in Erie, still existing and proud of and in touch with its roots, but many times smaller than it used to be and, like much of the movement, facing significant challenges in the near future.

There are numerous positive things to say about Union Power. This book is well-written, thoroughly researched and well argued. Its focus on the difficulties of the organisation in the mid-century really convey some of the unpleasant realities about American life in the 1950s that are actually often glossed over, or viewed through a prism of Hollywood. It explains the political conditions that created them insightfully. Ultimately, it is a really impressive account of the role played by a union in a particular working-class community through several turbulent decades.