In Print : Critical unions
Philip Dine's "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence." McGraw-Hill, 276 pages. $27.95.
While its stately book jacket might fail to entice the shopper browsing for a summer read, Philip Dine's "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," is an ambitious and important book, relevant to everyone.
The veteran labor journalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch not only provides an assessment of America's ailing labor movement, but also attempts to do what unions have failed to do for decades - to use labor's few success stories to inspire and inform the public. He reminds us that unions are just as important today - if not more important than - they were 50 years ago. What results is a well-wrought book that combines compelling narratives that illustrate how labor can triumph with in-depth analysis of how the continuing decline of America's unions affects us all.
Mr. Dine, who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, owns a house in Vineyard Haven. In a recent phone interview, he admitted that he was hesitant when he first sat down to write the book. "There was a bit of trepidation that this was a fading movement, so why write about it?"
The answer, the thesis of his book, was developed and fine-tuned throughout the research and writing process - a portion of which he did at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. "It is no overstatement to say that labor has contributed mightily to what has made America work - and what has made it unique. Yet despite this backdrop, labor's current plight is both broadly misunderstood and badly underrated. The prevailing wisdom is that organized labor's long and steady slide reflects a loss of relevance."
In countering this misconception, the author completes his main argument. "Rather than becoming irrelevant, unions are increasingly needed by workers because they are taking it on the chin - with virtually no institutional means of fighting back. The very problems that beset workers and unions in the past are precisely the same ones that are driving the need for a renewed labor movement today."
For the American worker, Mr. Dine explains, the stakes are as high as ever. "Living wages, enforcement of health and safety regulations, the retention of good jobs in this country, pensions earned during a lifetime of work - these and more are seriously threatened."
As lessons on how unions and workers can regain their footing, the author examines grass-roots labor movements that maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses to triumph against odds. These first-person accounts are the richest and most persuasive sections of the book.
Mr. Dine shows how the Iowa Firefighter's Union was responsible for John Kerry's victory in the 2004 caucus, and how the American Federation of Teachers played a role in toppling the Iron Curtain.
In what may be the most riveting tale, Mr. Dine writes of driving to the Mississippi delta after convincing his editors that St. Louis readers would care about 900 African American women who rejected unjust working conditions, and waged a war against the seemingly insurmountable Delta Pride, the world's biggest catfish processor. In what Mr. Dine describes as "the biggest strike by black workers in Mississippi's torturous racial history," the workers' unlikely victory was a result of the union's clever tactic of placing the women in the spotlight, which humanized the strike and won massive public support.
Mr. Dine argues that the lesson to be learned is, "The chances of success can be increased when labor develops an innovative strategy geared to the task at hand, instead of going through the motions and relying on time-worn approach..."
He writes that while this story serves as an example of how labor can revitalize itself, "It is nonetheless an exception in a growing tide of union ineptitude that has concrete consequences for workers, union or not."
Due to the determined reporting and clear-minded prose of its author, "State of the Unions," manages to be as compelling as it is thorough, and as practical as it is profound.
Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," will be giving a talk on Friday, June 27, at 7:30 pm, at the Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven. 508-693-2291.