When Staughton Lynd told me that he was writing a review of both my book, An Injury to All, and David Montgomery’s, The Fall of the House of Labor, I quipped that he had put me in some fast company. After all, David Montgomery is not only an established labour historian, but widely recognized on the left as the person who turned the attention of labour historians from the minutes of afl conventions and other such deadly documents to the thoughts and actions of rank-and-file workers. It would certainly be thrilling to keep such company, even if only in the pages of New Left Review.
On further reflection, however, it occurred to me that the temptation to turn a twin review into a comparative review was probably built into the project, and that what had promised to be a sort of literary night-on-the-town, might inadvertently be turned into an intellectual boxing match. This was disconcerting not only because I had no argument with the works of David Mongomery, but, frankly, because I could predict what the odds-makers would say. A Moody–Montgomery match was no match at all, even if the principals involved were not present and the whole affair took place in the closed-circuit print media of the Marxist Left. I felt the need to declare
When Staughton Lynd sent me an advance draft of his review my worst fears were realized. There in the first few pages of the review I was caught red-handed not having rewritten David Montgomery’s thorough analysis of the old afl. That is, there were aspects of the consciousness of afl craft workers I had not elaborated on when I briefly stated in the introduction to the book that even much of the mutual action of nineteenth century skilled craftsmen was conducted in the name of individualism. Of course Lynd is right to point out that there were other elements to the consciousness of these craft workers. One could go even further, as David Montgomery does, in pointing to the eventual (though unsuccessful) push toward industrial unionism among many of these craft workers in the period of 1916–22. But since I was dealing with an entirely different period, I simply used the business-unionist ideology of the majority wing of the afl leadership to draw a contrast with the ideology of modern industrial unionism. Still, I wondered why this point, which took up a few paragraphs of the book, was so central to his opening argument. After all, I did not deny that, as Montgomery has shown, these craftsmen took mutual action or, indeed, that they conducted some monumental struggles. I was simply making a point that the heart of business-unionist ideology, then and now, bows to the individualist paradigm of so much American discourse. Would Lynd really deny this?
In contrast, I pointed to the embryonic collectivism of the industrial unionism of the cio, and of the social unionism that was its expression in its early years. To refute the distinction between business unionism and social unionism, Lynd cites the ideas and actions of a few top cio leaders such as Philip Murray and Sidney Hillman. But social unionism was not their exclusive property. The leaders I was pointing to in the paragraph Lynd quotes at length were not simply or primarily the holy trinity of Hillman, Murray and John L. Lewis. In my view, the leaders who actually built the cio unions were primarily those who came out of the shops. Some of these, such as the Reuther brothers, moved rapidly into regional or national positions; others remained local union leaders. In the 1930s and early 1940s, most came to hold some version of a social-unionist outlook that accorded with the industrial organizations they had built from the bottom up. Furthermore, as I point out in the book, this social unionism had its radical (even socialist) as well as its conservative variants. What most variants had in common was the belief that the ‘labour movement’ was more than just the unions, and that the unions themselves had a responsibility to the entire working class. Prior to the era of the cio, this view had been limited primarily to socialists. With the emergence of industrial unionism it became the framework within which labour politics were debated and fought out, until it was twisted and eventually dismissed in the postwar period in all but rhetoric.
The project of An Injury to All was not to reiterate David Montgomery’s work or to restate the origins of the cio, but to explain the crisis of the contemporary us labour movement. I begin my analysis in the 1940s because it was then that the sharpest turn toward the bureaucratization, routinization and conservatization of the new cio unions was taken, and modern business unionism formed. Thus, so far as An Injury To All is concerned, Lynd’s opening comments strike me as being beside the point.
The heart of Lynd’s real critique of An Injury to All appears in two sentences around the middle of the review. They are worth quoting in order to focus the disagreement. The first is: ‘To begin with, the cio unions came into being in the context of the National Labor Relations Act as exclusive bargaining representatives certified by the state.’ The second reads, ‘Further, cio unions were from the outset committed to contractualism, that is, to the regulation of relations between employer and employee by means of a legally binding collective bargaining agreement that (1) forbids strikes for the duration of the contract; and (2) cedes management decisions to the employer.’
Since Lynd and I are on the same side of the struggle to remake the labour movement and to create a socialist movement that is democratic, working-class based and internationalist, I do not want to exaggerate or mischaracterize the differences. Lynd is not only conscious of working-class self-activity as a key element in social change, but plays an active role in encouraging it. But the difference in analysis is significant, because it points toward a difference in perspective for dealing with labour’s current crisis.