Title Reviewed:
A History of American Labor

Author Reviewed:
Joseph G. Rayback

D. W. Murphy


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 417-418

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of American Labor. By Joseph G. Rayback. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1959. Pp. vi, 459. Bibliography, index. $6.00.)

The literature of the American labor movement is immense, but few general histories of American labor have been published. Of these, the Commons four-volume History of Labour in the United States, completed in 1935, is the most comprehensive and the most scholarly. Since the publication of the Commons history, there have been only two general histories of American labor: American Labor History by Foster R. Dulles, published in 1949, and the current work by Professor Rayback.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, "The Colonial and Revolutionary Era," includes a description of the colonial economy and an examination of the kinds, sources, and conditions of colonial labor. Colonial experiments in regulating the conditions of labor are described, and an interesting account is given of labor's role in colonial politics and its activities in support of the Revolution.

Part II, "The Transitional Era," relates the story of American labor during its formative years. It begins with a description of significant changes in the nature of economic enterprise following the Revolution and traces the development of permanent trade unions from these early beginnings to the time of the formation of the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and its successful struggle with the Knights of Labor. The fragile nature of unions during this period, union efforts to remain organized in the face of hostile government action and the activities of employers' associations, and frequent union involvement in politics and reform movements are well presented.

"The Modern Era" in the history of American labor begins around 1890 and for the next fifty years the American Federation of Labor was the dominant labor organization. It was not, however, an inevitable success. Professor Rayback describes its efforts to establish a strong and stable labor movement based on the principle of craft unionism and economic action. From the beginning it was involved in problems with the Knights, with "recalcitrant" trades, with Socialism, with strike failures, and with a depression. From these early struggles of the newly formed federation through the trying days of the great depression, the New Deal period, and the rise of the CIO, Rayback presents an interesting description of events. He examines the factors leading to the formation of the CIO and the period of struggle between the two federations; he concludes with an analysis of the reunion movement and the efforts of labor to maintain New Deal and Fair Deal achievements in the Eisenhower administration.

Throughout the volume Professor Rayback has viewed the evolution of the labor movement against the background of American economic, political, industrial, and social history. Especially worthy of comment is the section on the Colonial and Revolutionary era. Though the book as a whole contains little that is new in the way of interpretation or analysis, it is a well-written and interesting history of American labor from the colonial period to the present day.

Indiana, University D. W. Murphy

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.