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  • Rights Delayed: The American State and the Defeat of Progressive Unions, 1935–1950 by Charles W. Romney
  • Lisa Phillips
Rights Delayed: The American State and the Defeat of Progressive Unions, 1935–1950
Charles W. Romney
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
viii + 271 pp., $82.00 (cloth)

Charles W. Romney has written a detailed account of the interplay between the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the various labor unions that organized canneries under both the AFL's and the CIO's umbrellas. His is a very welcome addition to the ongoing "declension" debate among historians who study labor from the New Deal through the beginnings of the Cold War. Not surprisingly to many of us whose focus remains centered on workers who were the lowest paid, whose employment was the least stable or seasonal, and who were far more likely to be people of color and women, you find here the expected mix of Communist and Left-led—what you might call "anti-establishment"—organizers. Also not surprisingly, you find them making the same arguments about why the AFL's and some of the CIO's organizing policies just did not work for this segment of worker. What Romney does is to bring in a much-needed analysis of the government's role under the auspices of the NLRB in developing procedures that benefited cannery and agricultural workers.

The book is divided into three declension-oriented sections: "The Progressive Union Victory, 1935–1945"; "The Teamster Restoration, 1945–46"; and "The End of Progressive Unions, 1946–1950." In part 1, Romney uses extensive transcripts of NLRB hearings, prehearing briefs, correspondence between NLRB's legal team and various union officials and organizers, and cannery/company records to paint a picture of a near-constant negotiations process between government, union, and company representatives. Romney argues that in this period the NLRB functioned as a kind of broker with a significant amount of influence. With the backing of the Wagner Act, the NLRB's lawyers institutionalized the process by which labor disputes were resolved. They first amassed evidence by interviewing cannery workers (they started with fisheries in the Pacific Northwest), union organizers, and employers. Neither the AFL nor the CIO, at least early on, had the research wherewithal to amass the evidence that provided the NLRB with the authority to set the terms for resolving disputes. In a fascinating (and especially detailed) section, Romney demonstrates that in several industries, including lettuce, grape, citrus, tomato, and seafood, employers initially resisted the NLRB's rulings but rarely appealed because of the "respect" they had for the evidence gathering the NLRB's regional offices conducted (13). By the latter half of the 1930s, unions began amassing evidence themselves before negotiating collective bargaining agreements.

Another fascinating section reveals how the process of gathering pledge cards not only exacerbated jurisdictional disputes among competing unions but completely disadvantaged those organizing temporary workers. Agricultural workers who were only on the job for four months at a time were often not even physically present to sign the cards or to participate in an election. Pledge cards were at the center of the AFL-versus-CIO [End Page 127] rivalry as well. In the northern California canneries, the AFL had new cannery workers sign pledge cards upon employment (with the employers' support). These "sneaker" cards, as the CIO called them, made collecting real pledge cards indicating workers' preferences difficult at best (37). Romney details the pledge card saga industry by industry in varying locations. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, local NLRB and CIO organizers realized that the procedures the NLRB had set disadvantaged the CIO's cannery drives. CIO Local 78, which organized lettuce, citrus, and melon temporary workers in California and Arizona, joined forces with local NLRB lawyers to institute the Sandilands principle, which exempted seasonal workers from having to present pledge cards before an election. This was a big victory, but, as Romney argues, it left Local 78 dependent on the support of the NLRB (62).

Moving the story to the Pacific Northwest, Romney details the AFL's Teamsters' attempts to cut into the Seafarers International Unions' (SIU) successful organizing drives among cannery workers, arguing that...


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