Blogs > HNN > Robert D. Parmet: Review of Andrew E. Kersten's Labor's Home Front: The American Federation of Labor During World War II (New York University Press, 2006)

May 4, 2008 10:55 pm

Robert D. Parmet: Review of Andrew E. Kersten's Labor's Home Front: The American Federation of Labor During World War II (New York University Press, 2006)

[Robert D. Parmet is Professor of History at York College, The City University of New York.]

Most historians regard the American Federation of Labor as an example of conservative trade unionism. Under Presidents Samuel Gompers, and then William Green, the AFL battled the Socialist Party, Industrial Workers of the World, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and other forces for social as well as economic justice. In Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor During World War II, Andrew E. Kersten accepts this view, but contends that at the outset of the Second World War the AFL underwent change. He says it forsook its worship of “volunteerism” and “pure and simple unionism” and engaged in increased activism in American political and social life. However, he also notes that the Federation’s “transformation” was incomplete. The AFL “remained a bulwark of white male hegemony,” resisted “racial equality or gender equity,” “refused to bury the hatchet” (as did the Congress of Industrial Organizations) with the rival CIO, and “virtually ignored” the issue of shop-floor safety.

With material drawn from numerous archival as well secondary sources, Kersten states his case in crisply written prose, carefully tracing the AFL’s mixed record. For example, he examines the AFL’s wartime fights for “equality [with business] of sacrifice” and the closed shop and its post-war advocacy of full employment. On the other hand, he cites its concession to management of responsibility to ensure worker safety, begrudging acceptance of women union members “under the stress of necessity,” and generally discriminatory attitude toward African Americans. As the Federation’s unions had to be pressured to accept women workers, there was “a good chance that Rosie [the Riveter] did not represent the typical AFL woman unionist,” and, for the most part, the organization “was a bastion of racial conservatism and discrimination.”

Though this book is not a general history of the AFL, it nevertheless offers excellent insight into the Federation’s early years. Kersten regularly presents reminders of its conservative, pre-war attitudes. With amazing deftness he recalls the origins of the AFL, noting the conflict between Gompers and Terence v. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, and that of the CIO, recalling the punch John L. Lewis landed on the face of “Big Bill” Hutcheson of the Carpenters’ Union at the 1935 AFL convention. In addition, he presents excellent accounts of the safety problems faced by factory and women workers, accompanied by statistical charts for both groups.

The heroes that emerge from this book are relatively few in number, and generally not household names. Among them is Agnes Nestor, a labor feminist with a Women’s Trade Union League background who attracted the attention of Gompers, which led to a fifty-year career assisting the AFL enroll women workers. Born in England, lawyer Joseph A. Padway assiduously served the AFL, moving the Federation away from “volunteerism” and the avoidance of government to a new relationship with Washington aimed at expanding the New Deal to protect labor rights and improving society. The Russian-born Boris Shishkin held several government positions and served the AFL for forty years, becoming its chief economist. A prolific public speaker, he was a spokesman for the AFL, and in that capacity warned about an economic depression that might strike the United States after the Second World War. Shishkin provided statistical assistance to a Post-War Planning Committee established by William Green late in 1942 in anticipation of problems arising at the war’s conclusion.

Kersten concludes his study with an epilogue on the current labor scene, which he exemplifies by detailing unsuccessful attempts to organize Wal-Mart stores in Colorado, Texas and Pennsylvania. Regardless of what caused this situation, about which scholars have had much to say, it is “uncompromisingly bad.” Perhaps, as Kirsten suggests, it has to do with “the decline of liberal politics.” He observes that post-war conservatives, rather than eliminating the New Deal “limited its growth and later took over its machinery,” particularly the National Labor Relations Board. In any event, today’s problems afflicting workers and unions are indeed dire and much more complex than when the Federation began to move beyond “pure and simple unionism” more than six decades ago. Nevertheless, Kirsten ends his book on a positive note, hoping for a “new, revitalized labor movement . . . to finally complete the work” begun in part by AFL members during the Second World War.

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