Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: "Labor Wars," by Sidney Lens

Sidney Lens, author of the also-great book "Forging of the American Empire," provides an important service to all those looking to learn more about the tradition of working class struggle in America.

First written in the 1970s, Lens's goal was to reintroduce the generation of newly-radicalizing youth of the 1960s to the series of class battles that shaped the very social and economic terrain upon which they now stood. Though one would not necessarily know it at the time (the decade spanning the late-1950s to the early-1970s was one of general economic prosperity and relative "labor peace"), the history of labor-capital relations in this country has been anything but peaceful.

It wasn't until the 1930s that unions were even generally recognized as legal institutions. Therefore, since the rise of the first "union" in the 1870s (dubbed the "Molly Maguires"), through the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912, to the "class war" year of 1919 when 1 in 5 American workers was on strike, every attempt by the exploited and downtrodden working class to organize itself into a union for mutual defense and struggle was met with the full arsenal of civil and military repression meted out by the collective government and corporate barons of the day. Even the simple act of passing out a leaflet to fellow workers was considered a highly-criminal undertaking.

In this way, through sheer perseverance, solidarity, creativity, and oftentimes dogged militancy, the American working class fought tooth-and-nail to win for itself the modicum of rights and liberties it enjoys today.

In the end, though, Lens's book is left "to be continued," as the future of this ongoing "war" between capital and labor has not yet been written. From the detente of the '50s and early-'60s, to the brief uptick of radical and militant wildcat strikes of the late-'60s and early-'70s, to the one-sided re-initiation of hostilities on the part of "neo-liberal" Corporate America with the onset of the '80s, the war that Lens is describing as history has clearly not been concluded in the present.

As for the future, he leaves the question open as to whether America will come to once again see the same kinds of turbulent labor battles it saw in the past, or whether, amidst a faltering economy and new forms of production, correspondingly new forms of resistance will also emerge.

Either way, those who see themselves as lined up on the side of the exploited as against those who rule, will find in this book an amazingly fruitful history full of lessons for today.

(If you like this book, also check out: Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States)

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