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For Jobs and Freedom

Race and Labor in America since 1865


Robert H. Zieger


The University Press of Kentucky, 2007

276 pages; Cloth: $37.50, Paperback: $22.95

ISBN: 978-0-8131-9259-8


Reviewed by Cécile Cottenet

Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille




Robert H. Zieger's solid reputation as a historian focusing on the history of labor in the United States is by now established with labor historians. His previous publications include a history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations from its creation to its merging with the American Federation of Labor (The C.I.O., 1935-1955), as well as a biography of one of its charismatic leaders, John L. Lewis.(1) For Jobs and Freedom convincingly draws on various strands of bibliography, offering an invaluable state of scholarship on American labor history.

The term "race" in the subtitle unequivocally refers to African Americans, as the book proposes a history of race and labor from the era of Reconstruction (1865-1877) to 2005. It demonstrates how the "problem of the color line," as identified by black sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois, was inextricably connected with the issue of labor, as he himself underlined in his groundbreaking essay, Black Reconstruction, published in 1935. Zieger's chronological and comprehensive study both documents the "struggles of African American workers to attain full citizenship, in the workplace as well as in the polity" [2], and examines the complex and conflicting relations between colored workers and organized labor. In so doing, it reflects on the House of Labor's constant hesitations between interracial cooperation and racial exclusion, and provides insights into organized labor's positions on civil rights throughout the 20th century.

Zieger appears as a committed yet nuanced historian. Attempting to justify the object of his book in the introduction, he explains that although other ethnic groups have been the target of discrimination in the workplace, and been repeatedly excluded from labor unions, the distinctiveness of the history of African Americans has clearly made them into the "ultimate other". As if readers needed a reminder, Zieger recalls the fact that African Americans are the only ethnic or racial group that were made "the specific subject of constitutional amendments" [2].(2) He does not take for granted the view of organized labor as "a positive factor" in American democracy, but rather takes time to underline the necessary and essential role of unions in American life, into the 21st century.

Still, expounding on the scope and framework of his study, Zieger does not fail to acknowledge the legitimate critique of organized labor, on the part both of early Civil Rights leaders and free-market economists. His own perspective, however, emphasizes the "role that unions claim in fostering workplace equity and civic engagement" [6]. His command of secondary bibliography on labor history, a rapidly expanding field of research, is impressive, as evidenced in the bibliographical essay [255-266]. Particularly insightful, this final essay presents a state of scholarship, ranging from general histories of race and labor, biographical studies, to specific studies focusing on the South in the post-emancipation period, the emerging black working class in the North, and surveys concentrating on specific historical decades.

The seven chapters that compose the book are arranged chronologically, following a rather classic progression: the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras (I), the early 20th century (II) , the first World War and the 1920s (III) , the Great Depression and World War II (IV) , the 1950s (V), the 1960s and 1970s and the prominence of Affirmative Action (VI), and the period from the 1980s to 2005. This last chapter offers an overview, and perhaps does not foray as closely into the situation as the previous ones; rather, it tends to restrict its focus to the consequences of Affirmative Action policies, namely the problems of the black inner-city male population, faced with public and governmental indifference to racial prejudice in the 1990s and early 2000s. The author's synthesis of the African-American scholarly debate on these issues will prove most valuable, as it pits the sociological approach of William Julius Wilson against the conservative Thomas Sowell and John McWhorter.(3) The other chapters methodically explore in rich detail the labor patterns and relations of African American workers to organized labor for each period, providing numerous examples of strategies whereby workers either sought entrance into the House of Labor, or created Black unions. In the process, Zieger demonstrates if need be that the North/ South division remained operative for much of the century following the Civil War.

Zieger's narrative is a carefully balanced account, illuminating both the gains and regressions for each period, and rigorously highlighting the role played by federal policy—or its actual inefficiency—as well as local initiatives, in furthering the progress of black workers. Although Zieger clearly holds white labor responsible for the continuous subordination of black workers throughout the 20th century, he painstakingly depicts the rare occasions of genuine interracial collaboration.

One of the central themes is precisely the evolution of organized labor from general discriminatory practices—notwithstanding an official discourse on the common plight of white and colored workers—to a penchant for interracial labor unions and a "melding of union and civil rights struggles" [198]. Zieger goes back to the roots of interracial labor organizations, pointing out the pioneering role played by the Knights of Labor in the 1870s and 1880s, the Industrial Workers of the World founded in 1905, and the United Mine Workers of America (U.M.W.A.), before the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which immediately proved more open on race issues than its sister organization, the AFL. Yet he readily acknowledges that the early and later forms of interracial activism "owed little to humanitarian sentiments of ideological convictions," but rather, in many cases, were "rooted in practical calculations of mutual benefit" [36]. When reforms shook the AFL-CIO in the mid-1990s, activists held on to the "article of faith" "that blacks and other people of color represented the only real hope of reviving and revitalizing a labor movement that had been in decline for a quarter century" [229].

While looking at early interracial cooperation, Zieger also underlines the initial circumspection of early Civil Rights leaders toward labor organizations. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of Reconstruction, men like Booker T. Washington were prompt to reassure white employers, asserting that African American workers "'were not inclined to unionism'" [30]—while repeated strikes and walkouts were being organized in the Southern Louisiana sugar plantations and elsewhere in the South. The author forcefully demonstrates the evolution from the early wariness of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), the strong divisions of the 1890-1914 period, to an increasing articulation of race and labor issues, as illustrated by Martin Luther King's commitment to the Sanitation workers' strike in Memphis in 1968, and culminating in the 1980s and 1990s, when

the labor movement, which had for decades regarded race and gender as distractions in its efforts to advance the interests of its core white male constituency, now increasingly identified itself as a champion of interracial solidarity and cultural diversity [209].

Incidentally, Zieger is less convincing on the issue of gender and labor, which he scarcely touches upon except in the fifth chapter on the post-war era, than on the correlation between immigration and black labor. He shows that the waves of immigration throughout the 19th and 20th centuries affected both the actual entry of black workers into particular occupations, often relegating them to menial jobs, and the very often two-sided union discourse. For instance in the late 19th century the Knights of Labor supported black workers, while refusing to organize Chinese workers, officially for the sake of curtailing competition; at the turn of the 21st century, as black workers continue to contend with immigrant competition, in particular from Hispanic workers, labor organizations do not always rigorously uphold the priority of worker solidarity before ethnic issues. As Zieger outlines,

Although labor activists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds might ritualistically invoke the rhetoric of solidarity and mutuality, the United States has a long historical record of transforming once-despised and ethnically 'other' immigrants into fellow whites—and always at the expense of African Americans, the perennial "other" [231].

The history of African American labor cannot be dissociated from the history of immigration, and

[t]he questions raised by the debate over immigration are only the latest evidence of the ambiguities and ironies that have characterized the story of African American workers and their relationship to the broader working class and to the labor movement [231].

For Race and Labor is a significant and conclusive study, that will definitely engage labor historians and race scholars alike, and more widely, shed light on American labor throughout the 20th century.



(1) The CIO, 1935-1955. University of North Carolina Press, 1995; John L. Lewis : Labor Leader. Twayne's 20th Century American Biography Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.


(2) Namely the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery in 1865, the 14th amendment guaranteeing citizenship to former slaves (1868), and the 15th amendment which granted them the franchise (1870).


(3) See for example William Julius Wilson. The Declining Significance of Race. University of Chicago Press, 1980; The Truly Disadvantaged : The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. University of Chicago Press, 1987; and Thomas Sowell. "Discrimination, Economics, and Culture." In Beyond the Color Line : New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, Abigail Thernstrom & Stephan Thernstrom, eds. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2002 : 167-180; John McWhorter. Losing the Race : Self-Sabotage in Black America. New York: The Free Press, 2000; Winning the Race : Beyond the Crisis in Black America. New York : Gotham Books, 2006.





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