Union Density: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

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

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7 Responses to Union Density: What’s Literature Got to Do with It?

  1. Sherry Linkon says:

    Just in case you missed it, Laura McClure put together a great list of labor fiction for Labor Notes: http://portside.org/2013-02-04/novel-idea-fiction-labor-activists


  2. Nick Coles says:

    Thanks, all, for the comments.

    Alan, I hope someone better versed in labor history will fill us in on “right to work” [for peanuts] and how it gained such currency that it is beating out the right to organize and bargain. John’s comment helps: RTW may build on the idea that the “closed shop” is anti-individualist and therefore un-American. But federal labor law has been repeatedly weakened and often left unenforced since the Wagner Act of the 1935.

    Laurie, thanks for the reminder about Tressell’s novel. Didn’t he originally call it Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists? I think I read that in Raymond Williams. Speaking of Williams, do you know his novel Border Country, set in South Wales and looking back to the 1920s general strike? It’s a terrific book, and it takes in the experience of leaving the village to go to university, and then trying to come home.

    (PS, although I teach mostly US working-class literature, I’m a Brit also.)


  3. John Kretzschmar says:

    It’s all about “framing” of messages. Well-framed messages can resonate with us at an “emotional” level then our “rational/logical” minds do what they can to support the emotional connection.

    The anti-workforce democracy folks did a great job with RTW. They thought it an improvement on “The American Plan” (open shop scheme) of earlier in the century. The branding of unions as un-American, selfish, and greedy is nearly as old as organized labor in the U.S.

    If children in the U.S. were exposed to the history of how the employment relationship was “HUMANIZED,” their understanding of who supported and opposed those improvements would inform their workplace decisions upon graduation.


  4. Laurie Clements says:

    Thanks for this – we continually under-estimate the importance of cultural factors in working class struggle – it is sometimes like literature is the property of the wealthy – yet there is a treaure of working class culture.
    Labor education also needs to address the issue – has done a poor job in general and plays lip service to culture – margainalized largely because the trade union leadership does not see it as important.
    If you go global you see how important this is – the wellington dancers in South Africa – gum boot dancing – as a sign of resistance.
    We tend to have the most anemic version of Solidarity Forever as a clarion call – three easy verses with the three Wobb verses ignored and – most only know the refrain anyway.
    I remember when Icame to the US nearly 30 years ago from Britain and was asked about Right to Work and agree with Alans comment – how could anybody be against it?? But this is part of the ideo-cultural distortion that is American labor relations and why there is a need to get serious about this.
    I just sent reference to the Ragged Trousered Philantropist by tressel to a friend – re the struggles in the UK 100 years ago. We need to build this also into our education programs – as unions have to be instruments of class and the struggle that face workers the world over. Keep up your work. So important. You cannot build working class consciousness without building working class cultural awareness. Thanks.


  5. Thanks, Nick. It’s always informative to reconsider the historical perspective. And, if history teaches us anything, collective bargaining is the only way that the labor class will be able to secure living wages. Americans like to think of themselves as progressive, but the reality is that every culture wants an underclass that will do their dirty work for cheap. Now, the same thing is happening with Hispanic immigrants. Interestinly enough, it was the recent election that gave them power. After the GOP was soundly defeated, with the help of Hispanic voters, suddenly we are seeing a push for immigration reform. Yes, voting is a form of collective bargaining. To protect their wages, however, Hispanics will need to get organized more along the lines of a union. Otherwise, they will be the underclass, much like the Irish and every other wave of immigrants before them.
    Scot Patterson, Working Class Pride


  6. Roy Wilson says:

    Nicely done.


  7. Alan Harrison says:

    I have a pretty vague understanding of “right to work” as used in America, but I’m completely baffled about how it came to take on this utterly bizarre meaning. Maybe an act of semantic piracy by the capitalist class?

    Over here in Britain, it’s a term of the left, as in the “right to work” marches organized by unions against Thatcher.


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