What Happened to Labor in Jill Lepore’s America? Photo: Joel Batterman (Fresco by Hubert Massey)

What Happened to Labor in Jill Lepore’s America?

In these troubled times, Americans need to know our history more than ever. We need a true and usable history that dispels the Trumpian fantasy of “making America great again,” as well as Hillary Clinton’s self-satisfied retort that “America is already great.”

So it’s hard not to admire the audacity of Jill Lepore’s These Truths, a one-volume, 789-page history of the United States of America, published one year ago this month [September 2018]. In the book’s acknowledgments, Lepore admits that her publisher’s request to cram the whole nation’s history into a single book originally seemed “crazy” even to her. She probably shouldn’t have worried. A Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer, Lepore is one of the most prolific historians writing for a popular audience, and in many respects, Lepore succeeds admirably in her task, tracing the nation’s darker currents and our better angels in readable, often powerful prose.

Still, there’s a glaring silence in These Truths on one especially essential topic. Reading the book, as I hit page 429 and began making my way through the New Deal years, I started to wonder: Where are the workers? In particular, where were the labor unions whose bruising, often bloody struggles laid the foundation for the achievements of the New Deal and Great Society eras, from Social Security to Medicare to civil rights in the South? And what are the consequences of this omission for readers’ understanding of history, and for political action in the present?

Any book like These Truths is bound to have omissions. “Much is missing in these pages,” Lepore admits. For one thing, Truths is first and foremost a political history, not a cultural history; the index lists dozens of elections but no Elvis. Unsurprisingly, a lot of political history also gets left out. Lepore’s former student Christine DeLucia, an authority on Native American history, has criticized These Truths for its “vanishing Indians.” Other readers may be struck by the near-total absence of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement and the environmental movement, among others.

By far the most extraordinary omission in These Truths, however, is the broader story of the U.S. labor movement, and the crucial relationship between its fortunes and those of 20th-century American liberalism. Under “unions,” the index records just four entries: one for every two hundred pages. The AFL and the CIO are mentioned only once in the text, the acronyms never defined.

The absence is especially striking because Lepore devotes many pages to the stories of several other (often overlapping) grassroots movements: the African American freedom struggle; the women’s movement in its various manifestations; and the ground troops of the New Right, such as gun owners and evangelical Christians. The New Deal order, by contrast, lacks foot soldiers in Lepore’s account. It seems to rise phoenix-like out of the Depression, conjured by the power of FDR’s radio voice. We hear much of the airwaves, as Lepore is a keen analyst of various form of media. But we learn almost nothing of the strike waves that brought tens of millions of Americans together to build working-class political muscle, from the sweatshops of Manhattan to the coalfields of Appalachia and the assembly lines of Detroit.

The untutored reader would never know from These Truths that for much of the 20th century, organized labor in this country was, well, organized, and that ordinary working people played a key role in “making a New Deal,” as the historian Lizabeth Cohen has written. They would never know that just fifty years ago, one in three American workers belonged to a union, and that for much of the 20th century, the strength of the Democratic Party relied on the strength of the unions, so much so that for decades, Democratic presidential candidates kicked off their campaigns with a Labor Day rally in Detroit. In short, for all of These Truths’ intriguing details on the rise of mass media, the development of polling techniques, and other minutia of modern electioneering, Lepore leaves the foundation of 20th-century liberal politics unexamined.

It didn’t have to be this way. Indeed, Lepore doesn’t entirely neglect workers or the workplace, especially in the 19th century. As it should, the institution of American slavery underlies the first half of her book. Lepore describes the rise of “free labor” ideology in the years before the Civil War, and the new systems of labor discipline, like Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management,” that defined the rise of American industrial capitalism in the years after 1865.

Unfortunately, the absence of working-class political agency haunts the rest of Lepore’s story. It is almost as if workers are, as in Taylor’s schemes, so much raw material to be programmed and controlled. When workers’ agency does surface, it tends to be reactionary. Lepore notes that the 19th-century Knights of Labor fought vigorously against Chinese immigration, and that Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers expressed reservations over immigration from Mexico and Latin America a hundred years later. True enough; racism and xenophobia are part of the history of American labor, no less than they are part of the history of the nation at large.

But it’s also true that the labor movement has often been a powerful force for the emancipation of African Americans, immigrants, and women, not just the white native-born workingmen who dominated the Knights of Labor and still dominate media portrayals of unions. This is a truth which Lepore fails to acknowledge.

To take one example, Lepore notes A. Phillip Randolph’s call for a March on Washington and quotes liberally from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at its consummation two decades later. A photograph of the assembled crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial forms the frontispiece of her book. Yet Lepore does not explain Randolph’s career as a unionist. She does not note that of the thousands who assembled at the march in 1963, the largest single contingent came from the United Automobile Workers, who also paid for the sound system that carried the cadences of King’s speech across the National Mall.

These are small details of a larger truth. But they are not self-evident, and they suggest how, unbeknownst to many people today, the American labor movement helped create the conditions for some of the proudest moments in our collective past.

In many respects, Lepore’s neglect of the American union movement in These Truths is simply a sad sign of the times we live in: a time when union membership has hit its lowest point in nearly a century, and when the billionaire DeVos family has turned Michigan, once the most unionized state in the nation, into a “right-to-work” state. The labor movement, some might conclude, is simply less and less relevant to present-day politics.

But like most historians (if they’re honest), Lepore doesn’t just want to assess the past or speak to the present. She also wants her book to shape the future. These Truths, she writes, “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions, from the town meeting to the party system, from the nominating convention to the secret ballot, from talk radio to Internet polls.” American liberals have “failed to plot a course, having lost sight of the horizon and their grasp on any compass.” To borrow the maritime analogy, These Truths is intended as a chart of the voyage thus far, oriented towards helping Lepore’s rudderless liberals define their path forward.

With that in mind, Lepore’s neglect of labor is especially confounding. After all, Lepore excoriates today’s corporate Democrats for unmooring themselves from their history as “the party of labor” and calls out fellow liberals for their abandonment of “solidarity across difference.” Unfortunately, in These Truths we never learn how that “party of labor” (such as it was) came to be in the first place. We never really learn what solidarity means, or how it could be built among a heterogeneous people torn by racism and xenophobia.

The next generation of Americans, a generation that’s increasingly left of Lepore’s version of liberalism, will have to look elsewhere for such lessons. Thankfully, they’re already starting to find them, especially in places where the memory of militant unionism endures.

For one thing, it’s surely no coincidence that last year’s extraordinary wave of teachers’ strikes began in West Virginia, with its history of full-fledged labor warfare in the coalfields. West Virginia teachers also drew inspiration from the 2012 teachers’ strike in Chicago, another city with a storied history of labor and community organizing. Many of the Chicago teachers who led the 2012 strike also had family histories in the labor movement, or prior direct experience of organizing. According to Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, one was the son of a labor lawyer, and another wrote his college thesis on a millworkers’ strike he’d witnessed growing up in Maine. Teachers’ union president Karen Lewis was a veteran of campus organizing in the civil rights era, brought up in Chicago’s Hyde Park at a time when neighborhood organizations, many seeded by former CIO staffer Saul Alinsky, were taking on the local power structure.

The course of class struggle in the United States never did run smooth, at least not in the fashion of European nations that never knew settler colonialism and plantation slavery. In the United States, at least, the working class has not always played the all-encompassing historical role that Marx envisioned. Workers were not the only force driving the New Deal forward, and American unions have not always been at the forefront of the movement to expand democratic citizenship for all. Yet neither have they always been the caboose of the historical train.

Over the past fifty years, as the New Deal coalition crumbled and what passes for politics became a ratings-driven sideshow to corporate hegemony, it’s been increasingly clear that there’s no substitute for unions as a check on the venality of oligarchs and the viciousness of their political allies. Lepore is right that truth matters. But as her own book demonstrates—most vividly in relating the defeat of Harry Truman’s universal healthcare proposal—who gets to define “these truths” has always been a function of money and power.

Lepore opens These Truths with a poignant epigram from Abraham Lincoln: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” The word “disenthrall” carries a dual meaning: “to set free” both intellectually and physically. What Lepore doesn’t say—but what Bernie Sanders did say in his message on the media last week—is that a media establishment owned by the billionaire class is unlikely to emancipate anyone. To make the real truth heard, working people need to organize to challenge the corporate stranglehold on virtually everything—including, more than ever, what counts for truth itself.

The really remarkable fact of U.S. labor history is that so many ordinary Americans, of all races and ethnicities, overcame formidable barriers to win a measure of dignity for workers in the heartland of modern corporate capitalism. If we hold inalienable rights to be self-evident, we need to add unions to Lepore’s list of key democratic institutions. And if we want those truths to endure, we need to make sure the labor movement breathes new life to define a newer, truer meaning of the democratic creed.

Joel Batterman is a PhD student in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan and a member of the Graduate Employees Organization, AFT Local 3550.