Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Robert D. Parmet's The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky & the American Labor Movement (New York University Press, 2005)

Nov 6, 2005 9:44 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Robert D. Parmet's The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky & the American Labor Movement (New York University Press, 2005)

Robert Parmet is Professor of History at York College of the City University of New York and author of Labor and Immigration in Industrial America.

His biography of David Dubinsky is the much-needed story of a powerful labor leader during the halcyon post-WWII era for labor unions (disclosure: I know him). It arrives, however, at a very different and difficult time for American labor.

America’s industrial engine has largely been abandoned and service industries with low paid non-union employees predominate. We now live in an “anything goes” economy replete with corrupt and cutthroat competition and widespread firing of loyal employees who played by the rules and still got sacked. Stock prices often decide which firms and workers live or perish.

Outsourcing, cheap foreign imports, and manufacturers, retailers and consumers racing to buy anything produced as cheaply as possible in places most Americans have never heard of is our way of life.
Unions no longer attract educated professionals except for service jobs, and civil service employees. The future seems even more dismal, given the recent AFL-CIO split. And especially hurt by these sweeping changes is New York’s Garment Center, once the source of Dubinsky’s influence and authority.

All the more reason to welcome Robert Parmet’s exceptional portrait of the life and times of a powerful labor leader who for years moved easily in and out of the halls of power, welcomed by the likes of FDR, LBJ and JFK.

Once the boss of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, he was an ally and sometime rival of fellow unionists and liberal politicians. Politicians and VIPs, liberals and conservatives, made sure they checked with Dubinsky and his close friend, the AFL-CIO’s George Meany, on legislation affecting their members. It was an ethnic coalition—Jews, the ILGWU’s Italian local, and Irish Catholics—except that blacks and Latinos were kept out of the mix for decades. Ironically, however, and to Parment’s credit, he details the contentious and shameful conflict when ILGWU employees tried to organize their own union but were bitterly opposed by Dubinsky and his colleagues. That alienated the late great American journalist, Murray Kempton, in his New York Post column (when that paper hadn’t yet become a knee-jerk rightwing organ) when he warned Dubinsky that it was “always easier to break a union than to organize one.” Dubinsky was also rightly criticized by the veteran Socialist Norman Thomas in the conservative New York Herald Tribune, who cautioned the ILGWU that refusing to allow its own people to form a union wouldn’t help its efforts to reach millions of unorganized working people.

Dubinsky, though, as Parmet effectively points out, was a man of considerable talents. His was a remarkable if controversial life -- a self-educated immigrant who fought to provide decent living wages and housing for working people. Almost as significantly, he was a Cold War anti-Communist liberal who played a vital role in fending off efforts by American Stalinists to wrest control of various unions. He courageously fought the Communist-dominated Progressive Party in 1948 when it nominated Henry Wallace. He also helped form New York’s Liberal Party, which became an opponent of the leftist American Labor Party. The ALP eventually disappeared during the wave of McCarthyite hysteria but the minuscule Liberal Party still exists, though it is nothing more than a supplicant for political patronage.

Abroad, Dubinsky aligned himself with other trade union leaders in battling communist control of unions in France and Italy. Following Meany’s rigid support for the Vietnam War (Meany refused to recognize that the war he so passionately supported was consuming the lives of many of his union members’ families), Dubinsky also backed the war but unlike his hawkish ILGWU colleagues, he refused to resign from the anti-war Americans for Democratic Action even though Parment believes he hoped to get the ADA to change its mind and support the war, which it never did. Anyway, it was 1967. Americans had already turned against the mass killing.

Before he died at age ninety in 1974, he wrote, “The important thing is that the union goes on.” Years after, in 1995, the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, renamed itself UNITE and claimed 350,000 members. “We do not live in the past but the past lives with us,” Parmet quotes Jay Mazur, the newly elected leader. Maybe so, but it will take a very long time before unions are able to recapture the economic muscle and prestige once held by past leaders like Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky. Still, Parmet suggests, Maser’s UNITE is also dedicated to the actions and principles of “social unionism,” pioneered by Dubinsky and Hillman. In a nation now committed to “anything goes,” where everybody is supposedly on their own, caring about American working people may yet be the best way to get more men and women to join unions.

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Alonzo Hamby - 11/7/2005

Disclosure: Like Polner, I know Parmet also, have since graduate school. I've looked forward to this book for a long time and hope it gets the attention it deserves.