- Fighting for Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working-Class Citizenship by Robert Bussel
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015
272 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $32.00 (paper)
Since the murder of Michael Brown in suburban St. Louis in 2014 and the acquittal of the police officer who shot him, the economic, racial, spatial, and political dynamics of this southern/northern city have highlighted for many the deep and complex roots of American urban and suburban inequalities. Robert Bussel's dual biography of St. Louis labor and civil rights leaders Harold Gibbons and Ernest Calloway furthers understanding of the class and race landscape of metro St. Louis. It is a welcome contribution to historical conversations about mid-twentieth-century mid-sized American cities' deindustrialization and suburbanization. It explores the nexus between the labor movement and the civil rights movement as well as the Teamsters union.
The seed for Bussel's project was planted three decades ago with the chance gift of Steven Brill's famous tome on the Teamsters (The Teamsters [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978]). Intrigued by Brill's portrayal of Gibbons—Teamsters Local 688 president and intellectual friend of Frank Sinatra—and informed by his own career in organizing, labor education, and history, Bussel embarked on a study of Gibbons. While in the archives, he was introduced to the papers of Calloway, a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the dual biography was born.
There are a number of reasons this dual biography works. First, as Bussel points out, Gibbons and Calloway had similar experiences that shaped their visions for change and their activities in St. Louis. Both were born into the hardscrabble world of Appalachian coal mining. As boys, both experienced the full power of mining companies and witnessed the ways in which labor unions and working-class families and churches could be resources for building a life with dignity. At other times, the younger Gibbons and Calloway learned that these institutions, as they experienced them, were not enough to protect them from the harsh blows of cruel corporate domination and race and class prejudice. Bussel builds solid character sketches of the two men in brief biographical chapters, despite the difficulty of the task. Gibbons left very little in the way of self-reflective materials, and Calloway, while a prolific essayist, also held his personal cards close, making the endeavor challenging. The task is an important one, because the world these organizers attempted to build together, Bussel argues, was built on the commonalities of their experiences. Both made their way to Chicago in the late 1930s, where they each grappled with political ideologies, rejected communism, embraced labor education, and worked as organizers. In a vein similar to that of Erik Gellman and Jarod Roll's dual biography The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor's Southern Prophets in New Deal America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), Bussel grapples with the developing philosophies of these men and their intertwined efforts to claim economic, political, social, and cultural space [End Page 105] for the working class by situating their organizing within the context of their separate but similar personal experiences.
The center of the book is an exploration of the development and implementation of the philosophy Gibbons and Calloway created together in St. Louis in the 1950s and 1960s: "total person unionism"—the notion that a "new kind of unionist" could exist, with his or her workplace and civic lives integrated (1). Bussel explains that the two men "sought to create a community bargaining table where empowered worker-citizens negotiated with St. Louis's economic and political elites to ensure an equitable distribution of social resources" (5). This idea was embodied in their community stewards program, in which union members could bring their knowledge and experience from the workplace bargaining table into the community to play an active role in the other sixteen hours of workers' lives. Calloway and Gibbons saw the citizen-worker model as the antidote to what they believed was the overreach of dominant elites...