Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews





Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th Century Struggle. By

David Brody. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. ix + 257p.;

notes. $14.95.)



In recent years, as the intellectual luster of the labor movement has

dimmed and unions have become as attractive to scholars as, say, the

Knights of Columbus, labor historians have beat a hasty retreat. Labor

history has become working class history; ethnic divisions, social mobility,

and the "consciousness" or workers increasingly have absorbed the energies

of graduate students; and institutional history has all but disappeared.

Even the successful holdouts try to cover their tracks. Hence the misleading

title of this collection of essays on unions, organizing strategies, collective

bargaining and other presumably passe' subjects. Granted, Professor Brody

pays tribute to the "new" history in the first twenty pages of his essay on the

"American Worker in the Progressive Era," but that is the only lapse and it

is devoted not to workers but to the industrial wage earners who were

potential union recruits. Having thus lured the unsuspecting reader, Brody

proceeds to demonstrate that there is profit in beating dead horses. The best

of his essays are very good indeed; the others-mostly book reviews that are

too fragmentary to do more than raise questions-still warrant careful

examination. In short, this is a useful volume that should rate high on the

reading list of anyone who will admit to an interest in the role of unions in

recent American history.

Professor Brody is most comfortable with the industrial union issue in the

1930s and 1940s. His classic essays, "The Rise and Decline of Welfare Capi-

talism" and "The Emergence of Mass-Production Unionism," have long

been required reading for serious students of the Great Depression and

alone would be worth the price of the book. Together with a series of Brody's

book reviews, they emphasize the uniqueness of the Depression era: the

unaccustomed vulnerability of employers, the restiveness of industrial

workers and the growing pro-union partisanship of the government and the

courts. Yet, as Brody stresses, these developments did not produce indus-

trial unions, only opportunities. The other novel feature of the 1930s was

the remarkably vigorous and resourceful leadership of John L. Leis and his

CIO lieutenants. And it was Lewis's leadership that, in the final analysis,

proved decisive. These points are by no means new or startling; for the most

part Brody adheres to well-trod paths. His contribution has been to analyze

these features of the Depression environment with greater force and clarity

than other historians. Indeed, one concludes this book with a sense of regret

that Brody has not applied his talents more widely. What about the AFL

revival of the late 1930s? The effects of the industrial union in the plant?

The rapid growth of unions in the immediate prewar years when public

opinion had turned decisively against them? Alas, the book review, even the

extended review essay, is no substitute for substantative historical writing.