BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Workplace Democracy and Its Discontents

James Young serves up the pulse of workplace democracy in Union Power: The United Electrical Workers Union in Erie, Pennsylvania (Monthly Review Press, 2017). His focus is on UE locals 506 and 618 that represent electrical manufacturing workers for General Electric, a global corporation.

His narrative begins in 1937. Winds of global war rise, the Great Depression endures and the UE is born in a domestic landscape of labor dissent.

In seven chapters of Young’s book, we discover the hows and whys of UE’s participatory democracy. That is the secret of its staying power during attacks from GE, Uncle Sam and official Catholic sources after WW II, for example, and more recently.

UE’s backing of gender pay equity strengthened its tenacity. This dynamic did not arise from a superior theory, but rather resulted from privileging equality as a matter of basic justice.

Some women workers saw their pay equalize with men, Young writes. There is more. “Women no longer had to quit their jobs upon marriage.”

Further, women workers were active in the union movement on the shop floor. Young details the arduous efforts involved to win wage and benefit gains for the entire workforce.

Young’s book reminds me a bit of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Both books deliver the perspectives of ordinary individuals. They lack name recognition, but do convey their common situations squaring off with those of power and wealth.

Speaking of class institutions, the Catholic Church hierarchy’s worldview clashes with UE efforts to build up workers’ power after World War II. Half of UE’s members were Catholics, no small matter.

Anti-UE interests tried to muddy the union with allegations of communism. As the author notes, the UE and the Communist Party in fact had wide differences in part on how to deal with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which UE left in 1949 due in no small way to the CIO’s backing for the Cold War.

Moreover, the CIO created a UE foe, the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). The IUE began a years-long bid to represent UE workers, culminating in a decisive 1954 election.

“The political culture of Erie in the postwar years and the formative period of the Cold War was not monolithic,” Young writes, “but a reactionary, corporate-oriented perspective clearly predominated over fragmenting labor and left-leaning viewpoints.”

Ancient history or cautionary tale? Readers might note similarities to the current moment of Democratic Party driven-Russophobia.

To stand its ground against opposing interests during the postwar Red Scare, the UE deployed media in an era when Facebook and Twitter were unavailable. Young describes the example of the People’s Press, which provided news and views from a labor perspective to readers.

He contrasts this publication with opposition media. Then and now, corporate-friendly news outlets are neither fair nor balanced in labor coverage.

There were more than 600,000 UE members in the 1940s when the national labor force was roughly one-third of its current size. By 1956, UE membership fell to just under 100,000.

GE builds 61 plants abroad in 1, the driver of deindustrialization and mass black incarceration.

That the UE remains alive is a victory. The arc of that triumph comes alive in Young’s book.

Seth Sandronsky lives and works in Sacramento. He is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

957-67, and 10 locomotive plants overseas in the current century. The UE, like the US working class generally, faced capital flightFrom The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2017

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