Robert D. Parmet: Review of Lisa Phillips's "A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism" (Illinois, 2012)

tags: unions, Robert Parmet, Local 65, AFL-CIO, Lisa Phillips

Robert D. Parmet is Professor of History at York College of The City of New York and author of The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement.

I was introduced to District 65, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, in the 1950s, when I was in college and employed part-time as a sales clerk by the Gimbel’s department store in Manhattan. Union membership was required, for which I received benefits, including inexpensive prescription eyeglasses. From my vantage point, the store’s full-time unionized employees received low wages, but also protection against arbitrary dismissal, something the store’s executives evidently did not enjoy. With the union behind them, the store’s “65ers” possessed a sense of dignity.
Lisa Phillips, an assistant professor of history at Indiana State University and the author of Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, has written A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism, the story of this organization.  Begun early by immigrant Jews on New York’s Lower East Side early in the twentieth century, and called Local 65 in 1933, it sought to provide “better pay and working conditions for low-paid workers” in “non-factory-based settings throughout the United States.” Rather than organize according to such divisions as craft or ethnicity, it targeted those who were the most poorly paid, who were shunned by other unions. Local 65’s approach was on an “area,” or “catch-all,” basis, which was different from what was used by such other unions as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union, for example.

Despite an increase in the unionization of American workers and a boost for many of them into the middle class by the 1950s, the kind of jobs Local 65 organized have remained “low wage, unstable, and dominated by people of color, some US citizens, some recent immigrants, and some here illegally.” In brief, Local 65 failed. The author in part blames this lack of success on union presidents Arthur Osman and David Livingstone, alleging that they concentrated too much leadership in their own hands without permitting leaders of the groups they were attempting to assist to have “greater influence.” Her book details missteps by Osman and Livingston, but the overall impression it conveys is that the task was overwhelming in view of numerous factors, including the social differences among the workers it sought to organize and its status as a left-wing union during the Cold War. To navigate through the thicket of unions and other organizations engaged with similar constituencies was a daunting task. Nevertheless, as she notes, in the 1960s the union was in the forefront of the civil rights revolution of that decade and one of few unions that “was designed to confront the structural causes of poverty directly.”

By generally adhering to its “catch-all” approach, and maintaining an independent streak, Local 65 entered into a variety of relationships that often turned sour. It confronted both ideology and personality in dealing with such groups as the Congress of Industrial Organization, Communist Party, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, with a non-Communist oath required of union leaders, Local 65 had to contend with hostile congressional investigators as it declined to comply with that obligation. Gimbel’s’ president, Louis Broido, regarding non-compliance as a national security issue, expressed concern that in a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, Local 65 and other unions like it, could generate “real trouble” for the former. On the other hand, in 1963 District 65 (as it was then called), was central to the civil rights movement. Phillips points out that the 1963 March on Washington “was organized by black trade unionists at District 65’s headquarters in New York.”

The portrait painted by Phillips is of a union that was indeed “renegade” in its inconsistency with regard to organizational loyalty, such as to the CIO, or later the AFL-CIO. However, regarding its greater goals it remained steadfast. Her fully documented account, based mainly on primary sources, requires patience as it is laced with a myriad of acronyms for various labor and civil rights organizations. Yet what eventually emerges is an image of a union continually committed to tapping into movements “that offered it the chance to pursue its goals of economic equality for its racially and ethnically diverse members.” That its machinations have not produced the desired uplift is regrettable, but not from a lack of effort.

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