A. H. Raskin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

["Bread—and Roses: The Struggle of American Labor, 1865–1915"] is a one-dimensional story of battle by an infant labor movement against the forces of corporate greed in a period when all the institutions of government and polite society were on the side of the employer. The very fact that the book is episodic and often overdrawn adds to its usefulness in supplying a new generation of readers with some illumination on the atavistic hatreds and insecurities behind many of the seemingly irrational things unions do now that they enjoy large membership, huge treasuries and economic power sufficient to paralyze entire communities….

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Mr. Meltzer's pages, prickly with eyewitness accounts of unionism's birthpains in the sweatshops, the factories, the railroads and the mines, are a goad to revitalized activity in defense of industrial democracy and higher economic standards for those who remain on the outskirts of American affluence….

Many will feel, with considerable validity, that Mr. Meltzer's book is oversimplified history—that none of the epic labor struggles he recounts could possibly have involved such a monopoly of guilt as emerges from page after page of workers' laments about the villainy of their employers. Still others may argue that, in any event, such an unrelieved picture of industrial oppression has scant relevance to this day when labor is often the aggressor and shows autocratic unconcern about the hardship its abuses of power inflict on the public.

But those who put forth such demurrers will find it hard to explain why other pillars of the community, through all the period of which Mr. Meltzer writes, were invariably certain that labor was ruining the country by its arbitrariness and its contempt for lawful process. No present executive of a giant corporation looks back with pride on what happened at Homestead or Ludlow; the fashion now is shamefaced dismissal of such episodes as skeletons to be buried with the vanished "robber baron" phase of capitalist expansionism….

Mr. Meltzer's book will not tell young people all they need to know about labor. But it will give them a better understanding of the reasons for labor's undiminished belief that its unity is its only dependable source of strength, the rock on which rest both its material success and its capacity for survival.

A. H. Raskin, in his review of "Bread—and Roses: The Struggle of American Labor, 1865–1915," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 28, 1968, p. 26.

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