The Magazine

Labor's Little Giant

Once there was something called the "labor vote."

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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Dubinsky had known both men as a boy in Poland before he emigrated to the United States. When he heard about their arrest, he announced a public protest meeting at Carnegie Hall. Here is where a little scholarly research would have been in order. In the name of winning World War II, Dubinsky was pressured privately to call off this meeting by such eminences as Eleanor Roosevelt, who said she was speaking for FDR. Wendell Wilke sent a letter to Dubinsky saying he wouldn't appear at the protest meeting lest he lose his influence with Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister.

Another aspect of Dubinsky's anti-communism was his underwriting of the fight against the 1949 Stockholm Peace Appeal, when the Moscow road show--including the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, no less--came to New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. With Sidney Hook, the embattled philosopher, in the lead, a group of us organized an ad hoc organization which we called Americans for Intellectual Freedom. From somewhere, Dubinsky found the money to finance our coup.

The Dubinsky era encompassed a time when the American labor movement was truly a movement, and was accepted as an integral part of the political process. The founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, had laid down this edict: Reward your friends and punish your enemies. In other words, no undying loyalty to any one political party.

Major newspapers and periodicals had labor reporters because labor was regarded as an important, full-time beat, which it no longer is. The New York Times once had three labor reporters, one of whom, Louis Stark, won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize "for distinguished reporting of labor stories." Labor leaders like George Meany, Walter Reuther, and Dubinsky were sought after as spokesmen for an important sector of the population. Lyndon Johnson was the last president to worry about the labor vote. (One of the book's excellent collection of photographs shows the six-foot-three LBJ helping the five-foot Dubinsky into his overcoat after a White House visit.)

Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan got along without the "labor vote," whatever it represented in the late 1960s and thereafter. But in the Roosevelt era the labor vote was so important that, in 1939, FDR, preparing for a third-term bid, wrote to Lewis and the AFL president William Green, pleading with them to "end the breach" and negotiate "peace with honor."

Dubinsky was a man of fixed principle on the question of communism and union corruption, but he was pretty flexible about everything else. I was witness to an example of his flexibility. It was during a discussion between Green's successor, George Meany, and Dubinsky on whether to accept a large grant offered to the AFL by the Ford Foundation for a history of the American labor movement. Meany, conscious of past labor difficulties with management, and possible future difficulties, insisted on rejecting the offer. Dubinsky demurred and said, in Yiddish, which he then translated with a grin for Meany's benefit: "Der goy is trayff aber sein gelt is kosher"--or, the gentile is non-kosher but his money is not. But the decision of the blunt-spoken Meany, no shtetl casuist like Dubinsky, won the day.

The foregoing is a helluva thing to be doing to an author whose admirable scholarly work I am supposed to be reviewing. Parmet's work will surely have an honored place on the shelves of Cornell University's Kheel Labor Center, as has an earlier work, David Dubinsky: A Life with Labor, co-authored by Dubinsky himself and A.H. Raskin, one of the New York Times's famed labor reporters.

Arnold Beichman is a Hoover Institution research fellow. His updated biography, Herman Wouk: The Novelist as Social Historian, was recently published.