On Labor Day: Two interesting reads on unions

I’ve only been in a union once in my career. It was the Writers Guild East and I had to join as a condition of employment for a company that produced sports news highlights for a couple of New York City news stations. Aside from the night my friend Michele and I got to volunteer at the Writers Guild Awards, I never really felt *part* of the union, but that’s not surprising as it was a part-time job while I worked at a newspaper during the day.

Sometimes I think that if there were more unions around, perhaps we would not have so many laid off Americans who feel hopeless today. I mean, unions were created to protect workers rights, right? Maybe people would have had to take pay cut or a decrease in hours, but they might still have their jobs if their unions would’ve negotiated some kind of deal. Who knows? As I mentioned above, I don’t have much experience with unions at all.

On this Labor Day, I stumbled upon an obituary for Alexander Saxton, a novelist and historian who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on August 20 at the age of 93.

Saxton had a very interesting life. He went from “upper-income youngster to working-class adult; from Harvard student to Chicago laborer; from novelist to union organizer and Socialist; and from activist to academic who wrote many books.”

Among them, as it says in his obituary in the New York Times, was “The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, known as one of the foundations of ‘critical whiteness studies,’ an academic field that examines the assumptions underlying ‘whiteness’ as a racial designation and political organizing principle.”

But it’s his first historical book, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California, that I found interesting. Considered a landmark of labor history, the book describes how “19th- and 20th- century labor unions used racism against Chinese immigrants as a tool for unifiying and organizing white union members.

“It challenged one of the foundational stories of the labor movement,” said Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor and Pulitzer prize winning historian. “Instead of the story of solidarity and democracy usually told, Saxton showed how racism was one of labor’s most important organizing tools.”

Who knew? So some unions were created to protect only a certain kind of worker in this country. Can’t be surprised, I guess. Read more about Saxton’s life and work here.

I’d like to recommend another Labor Day read. It’s by Fordham University sociologist, Christopher Rhomberg. His book, The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Laboruses interviews and archival research to examine the labor and management disputes of the Detroit newspaper strike of the 1990s and the effect it has had on business-labor relations and workplace governance.

Listen to an interview of Rhomberg on the Craig Fahle Show on Detroit radio station, WDET, here. Read an article about the book in Dissent magazine here. And stay tuned for a GREAT opinion piece on labor and unions he wrote that I am working on getting placed in the media this week.

 

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