The Story of Working People That Needs to be Told

September 8, 2014

Over the past six decades, it has probably been the most popular history of American labor, teaching thousands of workers and students about the struggles of working people in this country. It’s been translated into other languages, including Spanish and Italian, and enabled workers and readers in many countries to see the United States differently than the way it’s portrayed in the media. What many UE members may not realize is that, since 1970, their union has been the publisher and distributor of this very important book about the workers’ movement in our country.

The authors of Labor’s Untold Story were journalist Richard O. Boyer and historian Herbert M. Morais. Boyer had been a newspaper reporter in St. Louis, Dallas, Boston and New York and a foreign correspondent in Germany in the late 1920s. Later he wrote profiles for The New Yorker magazine, and he was the author of three other books, including a biography of the great abolitionist John Brown. Professor Morais taught at Brooklyn College and wrote four other books on American history. The labor journalist Len DeCaux, former editor of the CIO News, worked with Boyer and Morais on early drafts of the book, but the duo were the authors of the final product.

Labor’s Untold Story covers the history of labor in the United States from the Civil War to the 1950s. It was first published by a small press, Cameron Associates, in 1956, in the dark days of the McCarthy Era, when the country was caught up in anti-communist paranoia, civil liberties were under attack, and UE and other progressive unions were fighting for their survival. The book showed that the attacks of the 1950s were not entirely new, and that the enemies of unions had often smeared union members and activists as “subversives”, “reds” and “conspirators.”

UE’s leaders immediately saw the value of the new book, and General Secretary-Treasurer Julius Empak sent a letter to all locals urging them to purchase copies of the book, which the union was selling at the price of $1. In a letter to members of the General Executive Board and UE field staff, Emspak urged them to “work out a planned campaign in each area and District to achieve the widest possible distribution of the book. He added that the book “can be a key weapon in the fight against the Brownell-Butler bill [which attempted to outlaw UE] and the other aspects of the red-baiting that are current practice by employers, Congressional committees, politicians and disrupters.”

In 1965 publication of the book was taken over by another small publisher, Marzani and Munsell, started by Carl Marzani, former editor of the UE Steward who had also made UE’s great 1946 film Deadline for Action. A few years later Marzani and Munsell went out of business and the book went out of print, but demand for Labor’s Untold Story soared during the 1969 GE strike, a UE struggle that drew broad support in GE communities and from the student movement. As then-Secretary-Treasurer James Matles told the 1970 UE convention, “The few dog-eared copies available were at a premium as the workers and students involved in the strike gobbled them up. Little wonder! The book reads like an adventure as it tells the real story of the union movement in America.”

UE decided to take on the responsibility for publishing Labor’s Untold Story, beginning in 1970. The union has published the book continuously since then. Labor’s Untold Story is now in its 28th printing. Foreign language editions are published by unions in other countries, through arrangements with UE.

“STIMULATING, INSPIRING”

Over the years, Labor’s Untold Story has been used in many unions for educating staff, local officers and members. Some building trades locals have purchased the book for their apprentices, on the premise that becoming a union craftsperson involves learning union history as well as learning the trade. Current customers with standing bulk orders for multiple copies of the book each year include the Texas State Employees Union in Austin; SEIU Local 503 in Salem, Oregon; the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, UAW Local 2320 in New York City; and the William W. Winpisinger Education & Technical Center, a union training school run by the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) is another bulk customer, and the UE NEWS asked ATU International President Larry Hanley why. “I read the book, I guess about 30 years ago,” said Hanley, “and I found it stimulating, inspiring, and I always thought it was something more stewards, officers and members should read. When I was a local president back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we used to buy it and give it out to our stewards. So when I became the international president I just expanded the program. Now we send it out to locals, we give it out to officers, we try to use it as an educational tool every chance we get to better inform people of the roots of the movement and some of the undisclosed facts that they’re not going to learn elsewhere.” Larry Hanley was president of ATU Local 726 in Staten Island, NY for 16 years. He was elected international president in 2010, and says he then “started buying the book by the case.” The ATU recently purchased the National Labor College in Silver Spring, MD and will be moving its headquarters there, as well as using it for a training center open to other unions, Hanley told us. “I guarantee this book will have a prominent place at that training center.”

Labor’s Untold Story has also been used by countless teachers and schools. Current big customers in the academic world include the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. One of the biggest purchasers of the book, purchasing 60 to 150 copies a year, is a textbook distribution company called Inquisicorp, based in Littleton, Colorado. When we called to ask who buys the book from them, they told us, “home-schooling families.”

Professor Marvin Finkelstein uses the book in his teaching in the Department of Sociology at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. He told the UE NEWS, “This book does a great job of making students aware of the contentious relationship between employers and workers in the history of American society. But more importantly it demonstrates the way workers fought for rights and working conditions which today are often taken for granted. It shows how workers formed unions despite the overwhelming power of employers and how they successfully helped to bring greater equality and democracy in America.”

Retired UE President John Hovis says he thinks that Labor’s Untold Story is not getting as much use in UE as it once did, and that some people outside UE seem to have a greater appreciation of the value of the book than to many UE local officers, staff and members. Hovis recalled that in his early days as an organizer on the West Coast, the book was widely used in organizing and for training UE leaders, members and staff. “The fact that it comes from a different source, we could use it more in organizing because it wasn’t just UE propaganda… We used it a lot in the ‘70s for staff education. In District 10 we’d assign the staff chapters to read and then we’d discuss it at meetings.”

All UE members can benefit from reading this wonderful book, and locals should look into distributing it to members, using it in leadership training, and donating copies of the book to local public libraries and school libraries. UE sells Labor’s Untold Story at $12 to UE members and $15 for all others. Orders of 1-5 copies can be purchased from the UE online store. Contact the national office to order the book in quantity.

NOTE: The final paragraph of this article has been updated with current pricing and ordering information.

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