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The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History

Author(s):Brenner, Aaron
Day, Benjamin
Reviewer(s):Dubofsky, Melvyn

Published by EH.NET (October 2009)

Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, and Immanuel Ness, editors, The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2009. xxxix + 750 pp. $155 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7656-1330-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Melvyn Dubofsky, Departments of History and Sociology, Binghamton University.


This is not your typical historical encyclopedia. Nor is it what one might expect to find in a reference work whose ostensible subject is strikes in American history. Unlike a similar volume edited by Ronald Filippelli and published nearly twenty years ago (1990), Labor Conflict in the United States: An Encyclopedia, which featured articles on more than 250 strikes listed alphabetically from A to Z, this new encyclopedia consists of mini-essays on a variety of subjects related to labor conflict. Instead of treating its subject matter alphabetically, it organizes its 65 short essays into five parts and three sub-sections with seven introductions written by the three editors. In addition to the editors, 59 scholars, largely academic historians, contributed to the encyclopedia, several writing more than one entry. The volume includes an elaborate apparatus that identifies all its contributors, provides a chart of the abbreviations used, features a full historical time-line, a topic finder, name and subject indexes, additional bibliography beyond the ample references found at the conclusion of each entry as well as a general introduction to the volume and a typology of strikes, both written by one of the editors, Aaron Brenner, holder of a doctorate in history from Columbia and currently employed by the Service Employees International Union. His coeditors are Immanuel Ness, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, CUNY, author and editor of several books on contemporary workers and labor relations, and Benjamin Day, the director of two Massachusetts health care lobbying groups and a doctoral student at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

As is the case with any volume built on the contributions of sixty-two individual authors, the quality and usefulness of the essays vary enormously. Overall, I found Parts I, ?Strikes: Theory and Practice,? and III, ?Strike Waves,? to contain several of the better and more interesting contributions. Three of the mini-essays in Part I stand out: Gerald Friedman?s fine description and analysis of ?theories of strikes,? Christopher Phelps? exegesis of ?socialist theories of strikes,? and Kim Phillips-Fein?s ?corporate strike strategy,? drawn from her recent book on conservative business thought and strategy in the mid- and late twentieth-century United States. None of the contributions in Part III are quite as good but, taken together, the five entries here cover several of the more notable strike waves in U.S. history. It is unfortunate, however, that the editors chose to focus the section on relatively short and somewhat singular strike waves rather than those of greater duration linked to the expansion and contraction of the national and world economies.

The remaining four parts of the encyclopedia offer a much more mixed bag with fewer goodies and more lemons. In Part II, ?Strikes and Working-Class Culture,? for example, I found the selection of topics puzzling. Why an entry devoted to Polish workers and strikes but not Jewish, Italian, British, or any one of several other ethnic groups that played an even larger role in strikes and union history? Why the role of the Catholic Church but not Protestant churches, or the Communist Party Trade Union Unity League but not the IWW, or A.J. Muste?s Workers party and the various socialist and anarchist labor groups that represented different aspects of working-class culture? It is hard to discern what links working women?s style of dress, strike songs, civil rights strikes, hate strikes, and North Carolina women on strike (subjects of other entries) as vital facets of working-class culture.

The final two parts of the encyclopedia cover respectively strikes in the public sector and in the private sector, with the latter part encompassing the largest number of entries and the most pages in the book. Here as elsewhere in the volume the quality of the entries varies as does their authors? treatment of the subject matter. Several focus on specific incidents of labor conflict such as Joseph Slater?s well-wrought entry on the 1919 Boston police strike, Myrna Donahoe?s on the less significant 1985-87 Watsonville, CA cannery strike, and Gary Zabel?s narrative of the Boston University strike of 1979. Nearly all the other entries focus on multiple strikes in specific industries or service sectors over extended time periods. Yet some authors prove more concerned with the growth and evolution of specific trade unions than with analysis of any single strike or series of industrial conflicts. Among the entries that I found most informative were Andrew Dawson?s treatment of strikes and union evolution in the motion picture industry, Teresa Ann Case?s description of labor conflict on the railroads between 1877 and 1922, and Dorothy Sue Cobble?s analysis of strikes by waitresses, drawn largely from her book and published articles on the same subject.

Almost without exception the entries in the encyclopedia, especially those that treat individual unions and specific strikes, cover their subjects from the perspective of the strikers and/or union leaders. Rarely does the reader see the evolution of industrial relations or the dynamics of conflict through the eyes of the businessperson or the enterprise. The authors refuse to hide their overt pro-worker sympathies.

Given the idiosyncratic structure of the encyclopedia, the choice of subjects covered or omitted, and the perspectives on labor-management relations shared by the authors, the volume will probably be most useful for undergraduate students seeking a foundation on which to construct a research paper about the general history of industrial conflict in the United States, the dynamics of such conflicts in a specific sector of the economy, or the evolution of trade unionism in different economic settings or among different sorts of workers.

Melvyn Dubofsky, Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology (Emeritus) at Binghamton University, SUNY, is the author and editor of numerous books in U.S. labor history and a forthcoming article in the next issue of the journal Labor History, ?A Stroll Down Memory Lane: My 50 Years-plus Association with Labor History.?

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII