US and Canada
The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace: A Memoir
Cohen, Phil, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press 375 pp., $26.95, ISBN 9781621902430 Publication Date: July 2016
From widening disparities in wealth and income to the growing power of conservatives and business, the decline of the labor movement has cast a long shadow over American politics and society. Over the past half century, a wide range of scholars has documented the role played by weak legal protections, strong business opposition, global competition, and bureaucratic union leaders in reducing organized labor to a state of crisis.
Phil Cohen’s compelling memoir combines and complicates these explanations. A thirty-year veteran of the labor movement in the South, Cohen is well positioned to recount the successes and the failures of organized labor in the region. After moving from his native New York City to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late 1970s, Cohen found employment as a municipal driver. His work with his own local labor union eventually drew the attention of the southern regional staff of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), which he joined in 1987.
With the exception of the opening chapter and occasional flashbacks, most of the narrative covers an eleven-month campaign in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1989–1990. Charged with stabilizing and rebuilding Local 281, Cohen encountered a flagging interracial union in a capital-starved, competition-swamped textile mill of just under 400 employees. In sometimes grim, often moving prose, Cohen recounts the local union’s subsequent efforts to navigate managerial opposition, rank-and-file splits, and corporate restructuring, taking the reader from the bargaining table to the courtroom to the picket line.
At its best, the book offers an unusually vivid and accessible window into the practical operation of American labor law. In recounting the give-and-take of negotiation, the marshaling of evidence for arbitration, and the resolution of a seemingly endless number of individual and collective grievances, Cohen conveys a sense of the power of the contract. Yet in recalling the inaccessibility of the bankruptcy process, the secrecy of new foreign investors, and the flagrant violation of workers’ right to organize, he also reveals its inefficacy. Though a dedicated group of picketers managed to restrict the plant’s access to raw cotton, win surprisingly positive coverage from the press, and garner significant support from the local community, the campaign ultimately failed. Bankruptcy proceedings displaced the old union, the new owners blacklisted the old union members, the regional office pulled Cohen, and the firm went under soon after. In the end, the local’s leadership was trapped by the same dilatory, insulated legal structures that otherwise afforded their members a modicum of protection from arbitrary action.
There is a throwback quality to the book, which sometimes has the feel of a rust-belt drama with a southern accent. Cohen recognizes that organizing drives are emotional, as well as tactical, and that workers respond to empathy and passion as much as to bread and butter. Demonstrating a remarkable capacity for resisting simplification, Cohen humanizes the struggle without romanticizing it. The law is both useful and broken. The employer is both greedy and trapped. The workers are both desperate and resilient. The union is both committed and pragmatic. Organizing is hard. The firm’s troubles owe much to global developments beyond anyone’s comprehension, much less their control. Though a sometimes callous, incompetent management exacerbated these macro-pressures, there are more victims than villains in a sad story that ultimately underscores the human costs of the war on workers.
That story is worth telling. Scholars and observers of the labor movement will find much of the account familiar, but the memoir has potential to be useful as a teaching tool. At a time when few students are familiar with the world of unionized labor, Cohen’s memoir offers a compelling starting point.