Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950
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Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950 revises our understanding of the 1930s labor movement and explains how community-based organizing and radical ideals mattered in the workers movement of the 1930s and 1940s, by focusing on the history of the most democratic and progressive union in the period.

Organized into District 8 of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) in the 1930s and 1940s, and led by William Sentner, workers in the Midwest developed a style of unionism designed to confront corporate power and to be a force for social transformation of their community and nation.

The book looks at District 8 through a long lens, reaching back to the early 20th century to establish the context for the battles of the 1930s and 1940s. The story is framed by the fierce battles between Midwestern electrical and machine workers, and the bitterly anti-union electrical industry “independents”, who, since the early 20th century, organized fellow employers, and relied on labelling the labor movement as dangerous to the country in order to stifle the democratic impulses of workers. Employers organized on a community basis, targeting the most militant workers, to create a low community wage for their advantage in the market. By the 1920s, they had secured their low wages and had eliminated the radical traditions of the metal trades workers.

Yet through the struggles of the unemployed movement in St. Louis , a community-based organizing tradition reemerged in St. Louis in the early Great Depression. It was from these experiences that a core group of activists emerged that revived strategies to build solidarity and contest the political economy at the local, regional, and national terrain.

The district grew to 50,000 members by World War II. Led by open Communist William Sentner, these activists argued for a “civic” unionism that could connect community and union concerns to build solidarity. It was the most democratic union in the Midwest, Feurer argues, with direct election of officers and a shop steward system that granted workers much control of their union.

 

The narrative covers the second-longest sit-down in history at Emerson Electric in 1937; the dramatic occupation of the Maytag plant in Iowa in 1938; campaigns to “open the books” of corporations to public and worker scrutiny; efforts to democratize economic planning including environmentally-sound legislation for a Missouri Valley Authority; and local strategies for national pattern bargaining, which culminated in an intense conflict in Evansville, Indiana in 1948 and prompted a McCarthy-style investigation into the influence of “subversives” on workers, as the government joined the effort to kill the movement.

As this last point suggests, the story of District 8 is one that focuses attention not only on the role of radicals and the community basis of organizing in the 1930s and 1940s, but also on the reactionary coalition that came together to stifle the grand visions and democratic ideals of the era.

 

District 8 did not survive the anticommunist backlash of the mid-20th century, which, in the name of fighting totalitarianism, stifled the democratic voices of workers. Midwest worker protest traditions and strategies were damaged by the Cold War purge of radicals from the labor movement.

The story of these struggles, however, is relevant to those who seek to understand the way that the 1930s movement was built, how society was changed by the mass movement of workers, and those who seek to recover those traditions to struggle for social transformation. What seemed radical in the 1930s--a fight for living wage, the fight for a voice in the economy, the taming of corporate power--is still a radical notion today.

Comments about the book:

"Feurer's careful analysis, well aware of the contemporary crisis of organized labor, will quickly become the first book examined by labor scholars and activists who seek to find maps to a better future in the experiences of the past."--Peter Rachleff, professor of history, Macalester College

"This is a superb and much-needed study of St. Louis and its radical union tradition. Feurer's thick description of the culture of community unionism and her deft handling of the complex role of the Communist Party locally make for a book that will realign the debates of historians on a variety of subjects for years to come. In the bargain, she provides a compelling biographical account of open communist, William Sentner, a legendary figure in the local and regional labor movement." --Shelton Stromquist, professor of history, University of Iowa

"As my union works to build a national nurses' movement, including in the Midwest, I want to thank you for resurrecting and analyzing such an
important part of our history, full of lessons for the challenges we face today. "--David Johnson, Director of Organizing, California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee

The book won the 2007 Wentworth Illinois Prize for Best Book in American History

This book prompts the questions:

What strategies have workers in the past used to combat the “race to the bottom” that still animates labor activists' concerns?

Why is it important for us to understand the radical aims that have motivated workers in the past? What relevance do the radical visions of the past have for confronting corporate power?

 What relevance is community-based movement organizing to the power of workers to confront corporate power, even in a global economy?

What might a radical labor movement have suggested about strategies over the issue of plant closures, loss of middle-class industrial jobs across the Midwest ? How might a radical vision have addressed the decision to abandon Newton, Iowa by Whirlpool, the newly acquired corporate owner of Maytag?

What visions can replace the tendency to play workers against each other against the globe in the competition for decent jobs?