Harpswell, Me.



Harpswell, Me.

The photographs by Eugene Richards prove the old adage that a picture is worth 1,000 words [“War Is Personal,” March 27]. His poignant text, in under 1,000 words, served to heighten the impact of his soul-searing photographs. These few photos jarred me as no bombed-out car or rows of sheet-draped bodies in Iraq could. Too bad the mainstream media don’t show more of the 16,000 wounded as they confront their “almost dead” bodies. That kind of photojournalism gets our attention and perhaps would quicken the return of more whole troops!

HARRIET RICHARDS (no relation)


Melrose Park, Pa.

Katha Pollitt’s eloquent tribute to Betty Friedan [“Subject to Debate,” Feb. 27] reminds us how much courage it took for Friedan to stand up for women in the early 1960s. More than twenty years earlier Friedan spoke out for another unpopular cause. She was a freshman at Smith College in 1938, when Hitler unleashed the Kristallnacht pogrom. Smith president William Allen Neilson urged the students to sign a petition asking President Roosevelt to let German Jewish girls enter the United States outside immigration quotas, to enroll at Smith. “A number of girls spoke against it, about not wanting any more Jews at Smith,” Friedan wrote in her memoir, Life So Far. There were four older, well-to-do Jewish girls in her dorm. “I expected them to speak up, but they didn’t. Finally, despite being only a freshman from Peoria, I spoke, urging that we open our doors to those girls fleeing persecution.” Sadly, the petition was rejected by a large margin.


Asheville, NC

In response to Katha Pollitt’s recent columns and her moving remarks on Betty Friedan, I write to add another perspective on the question of whether middle-class women are running away from careers into domesticity. Women of my generation and class who are putting careers on hold to devote themselves to family are not rejecting feminism. They are exhausted. Raising children while maintaining a career is incredibly draining, especially for women who do not have involved (or any) partners, flexible work schedules or affordable daycare. Even for those of us who do, balancing work and family is too much. The kids can’t be sent back, but the careers can, so domesticity wins. Some of us coming of age in the 1980s took Friedan and other second wavers too literally, believing we could, and should, “have it all.” As one second waver recently put it: “We said you could be anything, not everything.”



If Katha Pollitt is going to teach that class on the bad old days again, she needs details to get through to her students. Things like: In the 1960s the classifieds were divided into Help Wanted, Male; Help Wanted, Female; and Help Wanted, Colored. There were med schools and law schools that wouldn’t consider female applicants, and people who argued that women couldn’t read the news on TV because it wouldn’t sound serious. A 1973 “self-help” book: How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead, by Mrs. Dale Carnegie.



New York City

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Somewhat similarly, in “Labor Pains” [March 6] I found myself transformed into David Horowitz. Corruption! Corruption! Corruption! It’s all Fitch can talk about, complains reviewer Kim Phillips-Fein. Doesn’t Fitch realize he’s undermining the labor movement?

Evidently my book Solidarity for Sale contains a lot about the murky origins, arrested development and bad consequences of America’s fiefdom model of unionism. Corruption does turn up a lot. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle dwelt a lot on corrupt meat. His strategy was to use rotten beef to illustrate what was wrong with industrial capitalism. Mine is to try to use union corruption to explain what has gone wrong with American unionism. And beyond that, the advent of American exceptionalism.

My aim was not, as claims Phillips-Fein, to answer the rather dated question, How come there is no socialism in America? but instead to ask, How come American capitalism became the wildest, the most exploitive, most unequal variant in the industrialized world–lacking national healthcare, a minimum vacation law or protections against arbitrary firing?

Phillips-Fein claims I blame labor’s troubles on the inception of the AFL in 1885. In fact, I show the origin far earlier. Both European and American unions share a common ancestor: the closed model of monopoly unionism. Despite challenges from the Knights of Labor, the IWW and the early CIO, US unionism never got much beyond a primitive protection system. The AFL union boss who could control a territory protected his clients from the employer and the employer from the members. Eventually all three parties came under the protection of the organized crime boss. The upshot today is 20,000 petty, rent-seeking institutions buttressed by the nineteenth-century instruments of closed shop, exclusive bargaining and dues check-off.

Plainly, not all 20,000 are corrupt. It’s also plain, though, that our unions can’t grow, organize, strike, keep the pension and benefit funds from disappearing or advance a common progressive political agenda. Phillips-Fein doesn’t really dispute this. Her point is the customary claim of official labor’s defenders that it’s all the employers’ fault. But is it really the fault of big capital that most US unions side with corporate interests in opposing a single-payer health system? Solidarity for Sale shows how it follows from the logic of the fiefdom model.

In Europe labor movements led by Catholic, Communist and Socialist parties built national organizations that brought something like social democracy without relying on nineteenth-century mechanisms of forced unionism. They all have national healthcare systems. What the unions in Europe don’t have is a mob problem, not even in Italy.

Is my solution then to take away the mechanisms of forced unionism? Phillips-Fein says it is. But it isn’t. In fact, I say exactly the opposite: “The point is not to demand that old arthritic AFL unions throw away their crutches,” the conclusion states, “but rather to show that unions can be built on a voluntary basis.” What turns off more people to the labor movement? Denial, distortion and repetition of tired formulas? Or having the courage to confront unpleasant facts and face up to the need for painful changes?

The stakes are nothing less than our continued existence. There’s a growing recognition that the left can’t recover without a coast-to-coast revival of labor. But as the Los Angeles model of “progressive unionism” dissolves into the dust and disgrace of plea bargaining and the FBI raids the offices of the New York Central Labor Council, it’s clear too that such a labor revival can’t come from the inside out or the top down. Left adversaries–including Terence Powderly, Eugene Debs, W.E.B. Du Bois, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Dorothy Day and the late Herbert Hill–all insisted on the need for full-scale structural reform of America’s fiefdom model of labor unionism. Solidarity for Sale seeks to revive this critical tradition.



New York City

In his letter Robert Fitch performs his own act of metamorphosis: I become labor’s “official defender,” while he manages to carry the mantle of every great left radical and critic of labor in US history. I agree that unions are in a state of crisis. And, as I said in my initial review, corruption is part of the problem; far from denying that corruption exists or saying we shouldn’t talk about it, I pointed readers to several other books on the topic. But in my opinion, Fitch’s analytic reliance on the “fiefdom model,” whose widespread applicability to the labor movement he does not demonstrate, greatly weakens his book. That model has nothing to say about unions that grew out of social movements–like the hospital workers’ union, Local 1199, which was led by leftists and which developed in tandem with the civil rights movement. It forces him to ignore times when unions have given support to a broader progressive politics, as when the UAW helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and sent bail money to the civil rights protesters locked in Birmingham jails, or the support that unions give today to living-wage campaigns across the country. Relying on a vision of unions as monopolies, Fitch claims that the periods of growth in US labor history came when unions “competed” for workers, but in fact it’s not clear that “competition,” instead of improved legal and political conditions, was responsible for the expansion of unions in the Progressive Era and the 1930s and ’40s. Fitch argues that the fragmented, localized structure of unions is to blame for the desperate predicament of working-class Americans, but his book does not help us understand how and why this structure, to the extent that it exists, came into being. He says little about the role of business attacks on unions in shaping the labor movement, either in the early years or today, when European unions no less than US ones must confront a climate of mounting hostility.

All these examples are complex: to understand how unions have dealt with race, for example, we must look both at the long history of racism in American labor and the support of unions like the UAW for the civil rights movement. But that’s my point: History is complicated. Fitch could have used his voluminous research to write a book that really shed light on the history of union corruption, assessing its influence on the development of labor and the reasons unions have proved susceptible to it. Instead, he wrote a one-note history, relying on the rhetoric of “monopoly unionism,” also beloved by the right, in which mob infiltration and the failure of unions to broadly support national healthcare stem from an identical source.

Finally, I’m not sure what to make of Fitch’s claim that I misstate his attitude toward union shops. He writes that to revive labor, “the prime features that have to be scrapped are all those features that preempt consent: compulsory membership, exclusive representation, closed shop, ‘union security.'” He may mean that he doesn’t support right-to-work laws but instead envisions reborn unions that eschew these policies. But he argues that union shops are “despotic,” that they create conditions that breed corruption and that they destroy the ability of labor to effectively organize and represent members. I understand why he wants to distinguish his position from that of right-to-work proponents–who usually argue that they don’t object to good unions, even though the objective of the businesses that fund right-to-work efforts is to keep wages and benefits down by weakening all unions. But his assumptions, language and analytic framework are all very close to theirs.


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