RecensionsBook Reviews

The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor and Class War in the American Heartland, By Toni Gilpin (2020) Chicago: Haymarket Press, 422 pages. ISBN: 978-1-64259-181-1[Record]

  • Braham Dabscheck

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  • Braham Dabscheck
    Senior Fellow, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, Australia

Toni Gilpin completed a PhD entitled Left by Themselves: A History of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union, 1938-1955 at Yale University in 1992. It is probably worth mentioning that her father, Dewitt Gilpin, worked for the Farm Equipment Workers (FE) from 1941. From the late 1930s, he wrote for the Communist newspapers’ Daily Worker and the Chicago-based Midwest Daily Worker (p. 5-6). Early in the 2010s, two Louisville long-time labour activists, Walter and Kay Tillow, tracked her down and convinced her to publish her PhD as “the FE’s story is exactly what those endeavoring to revitalize the labor movement need to know”. She contacted her thesis supervisor, Steve Rosswurm, who persuaded her not to tinker with the thesis and “start from scratch to create something with scholarly integrity and broad appeal” (p. 321). Gilpin divides her account into four periods. The first examines the establishment of IH, its success in wresting control on the labour process from skilled artisans, the introduction of technological change and Taylorism to work out ways to extract increasing profit from workers, wage cuts and retaliatory strikes by the workforce. It includes an account of the bombing at Haymarket Square in Chicago, on 4 May 1886, and the subsequent trial and hanging of radical labour spokesmen such as Albert Parsons and August Spies–Haymarket Martyrs. Material is also provided on IH’s use of a Works Council, beginning in the 1920s, to “consult” workers. Gilpin’s examination of the minutes of these meetings reveals how IH used these councils to keep unions at bay, ignore issues raised or requests of worker representatives who were constantly regaled with the needs of management to increase efficiency, profits and revenue. IH used piecework (both individual and group) as a means to control and “speed up” workers in enhancing profits. Piecework systems operate on the basis of a rate being set for a particular job/task with bonuses when the rate is exceeded. On the surface, this looks “fair enough”. Piecework, however, was a continuing source of conflict at IH plants. First, supervisors could decide if the work was of a high enough standard for workers to qualify for whatever payment the system ostensibly held out. Second, supervisors and engineers were constantly revising rates and using bullying to speed up the work process, push workers for more effort and reducing the “reward” for such effort. In the second section, Gilpin examines how Works Councils morphed into nascent unions. Those elected to them began to organize fellow workers in one-on-one meetings away from the workplace. Once they believed they had enough committed followers they sought registration as a union under the 1935 Wagner Act. IH strenuously opposed this. Intervention by the federal government, prior to and during World War II, forced IH to accept a deal. Gilpin documents how during the “no strike and wage freeze years” of World War II the rank and file used walkouts/wildcat strikes to resist attempts by IH to speed up work and/or obtain higher payments. Another major dispute occurred in 1946 where the federal government again persuaded IH to agree to a deal due to problems associated with the lack of farm equipment for farmers. The third section mainly focuses on developments at a plant in Louisville, Kentucky. IH decided to move South to take advantage of the opening up of new markets. It hoped that it would be able to employ more passive workers than it had in the North. From its formation FE had a policy of emphasizing the importance of solidarity between African American and white workers, to stop IH from playing …