Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-July 2000

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

Howard Kimeldorf.
Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999, 244 pp. $26.75 paper (0-520-21833-7), $66.75 cloth (0-520-21832-9)

Gerald Friedman.
State Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998, 317 pp. $66.75 cloth (0-8014-2325-2).

Using comparative methods, these two books attempt to shed new light on the millennial question about the exceptional nature and direction of the American labour movement. Friedman elects to compare the U.S. labour movement with that of France in the generation before the First World War, while Kimeldorf selects to contrast the experience of dockworkers in Philadelphia and hotel and restaurant workers in New York in the period after the War. It is not surprising that given the nature of these comparisons the authors suggest two different approaches to American exceptionalism. But their conclusions differ as well because the authors use different techniques and styles of analysis and it is on this basis that the ultimate success of their endeavors should be judged.

Trained as an economist, Friedman argues like a political scientist. Up until the mid 1880s, the U.S. and French labour movements, both sharing common republican roots, were on a similar course, and as exemplified by the Knights of Labor the American branch was in some respects the more radical of the two. By 1900, however, a different portrait emerges. French labour had adopted revolutionary socialism and syndicalism; the American unions had adopted Gomperism. The sea change, according to Friedman, was the outcome of shifts in the political environments in the two countries. Although there were differences in industrial, employment and demographic structures – the usual fodder for economists – at some level the two countries were market economies in which the forces of demand and supply operated, sometimes freely at other times less than perfectly. As well, both countries had access to the same blueprint of technologies and organizational models.

The point is that multinational comparisons highlight the fundamentals, and in Friedman’s view it was the ability of French workers to form coalitions with liberals and reformers that enabled them to advance their cause. The Third Republic needed workers on side in order to defend itself against monarchists and to this end the French state was willing to intervene on behalf of workers. There was more mediation in France, and taking advantage of political circumstances, unions went out on strike more frequently and for shorter durations than in the U.S. Unions were not necessarily more successful at striking in France, although unlike the U.S. strike success rates were independent of durations. The French union model was based on low dues and reaching as many workers a possible. As workers got involved in struggle, whether they won or lost, they learned to trust each other, overcoming the perennial free-rider problem that inhibits mass worker involvement in unions.

In the U.S., liberals had no need to form coalitions with workers and they turned a blind eye when and where employers attacked workers and their organizations. As a result, workers and their unions had to go it alone. The typical U.S. union was supported by high fees and thus reached fewer workers than in France. Industrial disputes resembled a war-of-attrition. Unions were less prone to striking and this meant that workers did not overcome the free-rider problem. When they did go out, disputes were longer than in France because of the winner take all nature of their result. Employers would try to outlast unions knowing that state mediation was unlikely. Hence, strike durations were longer in the U.S. and worker success rates inevitably declined with durations.

Friedman draws on the observations of French commentators in the U.S., and Americans in turn of the century Paris to buttress his argument. But his long-lasting contribution will be the rich, newly constructed database pooling together observations on individual strikes over time and across space from a variety of archives and secondary sources. He also constructs a new time series for union membership in the U.S. The statistical analysis is presented in graphical form, although some readers may have preferred to see the entire regression models and their results in order to identify independent and dependent variables. This is not a mere quibble. Friedman assumes that the political environment and its institutions are exogenous, but a case can be made that they were endogenous to the unique economic histories of the two countries. Friedman does not deal with issues of causality as much as one would have wished. Be that as it may, he sets new standards for labour historians. Ever the economist, Friedman will not make argument unless it is supported empirically.

Kimeldorf would dispute Friedman’s conclusions. He argues that the AFL. of the 1920s was in fact more militant than previously thought because it successfully integrated the radical views and demands of workers whose original allegiance was with the IWW. In a more traditional style than Friedman, Kimeldorf presents a narrative account of the rise and fall of the IWW in the port of Philadelphia and in the hotels and restaurants of New York. An open shop at the turn of the century, the IWW led strike of 1913 transformed the Philadelphia docks into a ‘hotbed’ of unionism that was guided by the principles of industrial syndicalism. At Local 8, equality and solidarity lay the basis for the union’s control of the workplace, in its dealings with race relations and in its progressive politics. By the mid 1920s the experiment had ended with its rival, the craft-oriented International Longshoreman’s Association, taking control of its membership. In New York the story was similar where the Knights of Labor had left a tradition of radicalism. The culinary workers first turned to the IWW for leadership in 1913, but after a failed strike, reinvented themselves as the International Federation of Workers in the Hotel and Restaurant Industry, an industrial organization modeled after the IWW and led by former Wobblies and their allies. By the 1920s the IFW had recruited a widely diverse membership, including women from traditionally unorganized sectors. After a series of raids, the IFW was absorbed into the Communist led International Food Workers Industrial Union which in turn self-liquidated in 1935. IWW ideology which had never died resurfaced in the newly refurbished AFL led union of the late 1930s. In both New York and Philadelphia, Kimeldorf asserts, the destiny of the IWW led unions was not predetermined. Rather, the failings of the IWW were internal, a combination of bad lack, misguided leadership and miscalculation.

Kimeldorf’s strength is his focus on the workplace and how it generated and sustained workers ideological perspective and their strong preference for industrial unionism. The emphasis is on internal dynamics. Workers can do it themselves – and they are still doing it according to Kimeldorf’s rather optimistic interpretation of the current situation of the American labour movement. The bottom line is that worker ideology is seemingly invariant.

It would be unfair to compare Friedman’s use of data with that of Kimeldorf’s, but the latter prides himself on his empirical work. Yet the numbers do not seem to mesh with his own account. He recognizes early on that the IWW membership was small relatively to the AFL, but this does not deter the analysis. As for the result that the AFL adapted itself to workers’ demands, Arthur’s Ross two-union model in which organizations compete for worker support and thereby whipsaw employers to obtain and raise workers’ demands is also consistent with the evidence from the two case studies. The two-union model, however, makes no strong claims about worker ideology.

My hunch is that Kimeldorf’s book will be popular among labour historians while Friedman will find a larger audience elsewhere. This is because Friedman’s method of testing remains the common currency in social sciences. He is also willing and able to draw on a variety of disciplines, from political science to economics to history. Readers outside labour history will find Kimeldorf’s narrower approach and study less convincing.

Michael Huberman
Université de Montréal
July 2000
© CJS Online