Radical History Review 83 (2002) 203-210
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The CIO in Black and White
Bruce Nelson, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Bruce Nelson's new book, Divided We Stand, consists of a richly documented account of the racial dynamics of trade unionism in the longshore and steel industries welded to a surprisingly bitter polemic directed at "scholars and public intellectuals . . . who long for the 'good old days' of working-class unity" (219). Those nostalgic for the slogan of "Negro and white unite and fight," Nelson implies, blame the civil rights movement and what they see as its stepchild, identity politics, for destroying Popular Front working-class interracialism. Rather than uncritically seeing the advent of post-New Deal unions with progressive racial policies as harbingers of racial equality under the banner of working-class emancipation, Nelson instead emphasizes the perspective of dissident African American trade unionists. He concludes that in the years after the Congress of Industrial Organizations' (CIO) upsurge "where issues of racial justice were concerned, union solidarity and the fading myth of working-class interracialism were chains that bound [black workers] to an increasingly intolerable status quo" (220), even in CIO unions with a strong commitment to interracialism.
This is strong stuff. As long as Nelson sticks to exploring the perpetuation of racialized job hierarchies, oscillating union strategies to combat racism or preserve white privilege, and tensions between leadership and rank and file over these matters, [End Page 203] much of his account proves compelling. Unfortunately, when he evokes a fashionable but nonetheless amorphous "whiteness" as the deus ex machina of what one faction on the left once called "white skin privilege," he preaches a watered-down and ill-defined cultural category as the balm for the sins of "economism" he so readily detects in the starry-eyed defenders of class politics. 1
Nelson's study of longshoremen and steelworkers explores the evolution of race relations in these industries at three interrelated levels. In workplaces that relegated black workers to the bottom of the occupational ladder or excluded them altogether, Nelson weighs the "relative importance of employers and workers in shaping racially segmented hierarchies" (xxv), shifting a good deal of responsibility to the shoulders of labor. He treats the role of trade unions in perpetuating or challenging racial proscription in the workplace as a second, related issue. Finally, Nelson considers the question of working-class agency. Did, in short, white "rank-and-filism," rather than conscious policies on the part of capitalists and managers, cement a racially discriminatory division of labor on the docks and in the mills? The answer seems to be yes.
Despite its sweeping subtitle, Divided We Stand remains quite specifically rooted in the peculiarities of dockwork and steelmaking. Very tightly bound links between ethnic association and internal job structure characterized both industries. On the docks, especially in New York City (though Nelson also looks closely at San Pedro and New Orleans), each pier "belonged" to a particular ethnic group and remained as much an institutional part of an Irish or Italian neighborhood as the parish church. Similarly, work inside steel mills was organized by departments with a high degree of ethnic homogeneity, categorization by skill, and internal lines of progression, forging unusually tight links between ethnocultural identification, preferential work, and job seniority (calculated by department, rather than plantwide, even after the advent of union contracts).
Nelson recognizes, of course, that employers often initiated these balkanized internal labor markets. But much of his argument rests on the proposition that white workers gained enough from such arrangements to seek their preservation and extension, even when they joined CIO unions ostensibly committed to racial equality. Nelson easily finds plenty of examples of covert and overt violent resistance by white longshoremen and steelworkers to the perceived encroachments of blacks on what they consistently regarded as their turf.
But racialized job structures were not impermeable, especially as some of the power to shape job allocation shifted from the employer to the trade union, and from shop floor or...