Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Book Review: Bruce Watson's Bread & Roses

Back in late December, I caught writer Bruce Watson, on C-Span's Book TV, discussing his book, Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants and the American Dream. The book chronicles the 1912 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

As a writer, one of the best things you can do to keep your writing fresh and energized, is to keep yourself supplied with good reading material, preferably the kind the pushes you to make your craft better. Bruce Watson's book certainly falls into that category.

After reading the book, I pitched this review to a couple of left-leaning publications. I haven't heard back, so I'm guessing they are going to take a pass on it.

I'm posting it here because I hope others read Watson's book, an excellent work that captures a period of America's labor history that tends to gets ignored by most.

Book Review--
Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream by Bruce Watson

Reviewed by Jim Baumer

There's an old adage says that we are doomed to repeat history due to not learning the lessons that it teaches. One wonders if our lack of understanding—even among so-called progressives—and proper reverence for the pioneers who came before us is leading us back down the dark path of wage inequality and a surrender of the ground won by labor’s vanguard. It's important for those of us who care about labor to remember that many of these pioneers spilled their blood during brutal battles with owners and thugs, all for some crumbs from the tables of their masters.

In Bread & Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream (Viking Adult), Massachusetts author, Bruce Watson, recreates the world of early 20th Century New England, particularly the lives of immigrants and others who streamed to urban landscapes teeming with workers in search of a better life, drawn by the lure of wages and opportunities for a better life for their families.

Watson is someone who knows his labor history and doesn’t shy away from the lessons inherent in the bygone battles pitched on the icy streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts during the winter of 1912. What makes Bread & Roses so powerful is that Watson weaves the story of these immigrant textile workers in a manner that is devoid of ideological axe grinding. Carefully and meticulously, Watson crafts the story, now nearly 100 years old, so that it reads like a modern-day thriller.

Drawing on the facts and accounts from newspapers of the day, including The Boston Globe, the New York Times and newspapers from Lawrence, including the The Tribune and Daily American, Watson gathered a mountain of information on Lawrence, the key participants, and the events of the strike over its two-month duration. What makes it all inherently readable and hard to put down is Watson’s ability in piecing all of it together. As a result, readers are transported into the kitchens of crowded tenements, to the picket lines along the Merrimack River in sub-freezing temperatures, and thrown into battles between the police and state militias, as they slugged it out with textile workers bent on gathering a few crumbs from mill owner’s tables.

Rather than preaching or cajoling readers, Watson presents the facts in a straightforward and entertaining manner. While it would be difficult not to sympathize for the desperate conditions faced by most mill workers and their families, his honest and even-handed approach commends the book to anyone, regardless of their views on labor or political persuasion. He presents the facts and leaves it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. What he ends up with is a airtight indictment of a labor system obviously stacked against the working people of Lawrence.

The Bread & Roses strike drew the attention of some of labor’s most radical organizers, including the International Workers of the World (also known as “the Wobblies”). The scene was set and the atmosphere ripe for organizing unlike any New England had seen up to this point.

Local 20, of the I.W.W., summoned a young, charismatic organizer to lead their campaign in Lawrence. Joseph Ettor, known as “Smiling Joe,” was an organizer who had run strikes from lumber camps in Oregon to the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Ettor, an Italian and fluent in several tongues, would lend his considerable skills and organizing abilities to the strike until authorities locked him up on trumped up charges. Not to be deterred, the I.W.W. had gained a foothold with Ettor and later, sent in the “big guns,” national labor luminaries such as the notorious, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the 21-year-old firebrand, already famous for her role in other strikes nationwide.

Bread & Roses is meticulously researched and cited. The author spent countless hours tucked away in libraries in Lawrence, Boston, as well as Yale, and the University of Massachusetts. In addition, he found an abundance of firsthand accounts at the Lawrence History Center and Immigrant City Archives.

Watson’s book should be read, not only to understand the history of its time and the labor strife that characterized that age, but also because in many ways, it parallels issues rearing their heads again in our own day—owners and CEO’s making excessive profits, laborers lacking bargaining clout, and society’s desire to push poverty off into a corner, out of the public’s eye. While research alone doesn’t make an interesting read, combined with Watson’s readable writing style and an ability to bring news accounts and other stories to life, this a labor book worth reading for anyone who cares about the struggles of America’s working classes. This is a book that will reward anyone who wants to know more about labor history and the power that human beings can wield when united behind a viable cause.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

A writer's resource

If you are ever bored and would like to bone up on your knowledge of Maine writers, then head on over to the Waterboro Public Library’s website. Here, you’ll find a cornucopia of writers, accompanied by brief profiles, representative of Maine’s diverse writing talent. Of course, there are the famous ones, but fame and book sales aren’t the governing criteria. Molly Williams, who maintains the site, is always on the lookout for members of the state’s community of wordsmiths. Even relative unknowns are included if you take the time to send information Williams’ way.

This is a valuable undertaking and helpful database and one that I’m sure takes time to update and maintain. I know I’ve found it helpful in gaining a better understanding of the breadth of the writing talent that currently resides in our state, while also gaining an appreciation for those who have come before.

Maine has a wealth of writing talent and natives would do well to read some of their works. Many of the state’s writers have releases that stand up quite well alongside books written by writers who reside elsewhere. Make a point to read some local fiction or non-fiction on a trip to your nearest branch of the public library.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Falling further behind in the Pine Tree State

According to two nationally-recognized, non-partisan organizations, Maine’s poorest families are falling farther behind the rest of the state in income growth.

Both the Washington, DC-based, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Economic Policy Institute, found that the average income of Maine’s poorest 20 percent, grew only 13 percent, to $15,975, over the past 20 years. The state’s richest 20 percent, however, saw their 20 year incomes boosted nearly 60 percent, to an average of $103,785.

There are multiple factors stimulating this economic divide in this state, as well as other rural states, between the haves and have-nots. According to the state’s “paper of record, the Portland Press Herald, which commissioned a report on this study, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, replaced by low-paying service jobs, and tax policies that inordinately favor the rich, over the working-class and the poor, were two primary factors.

Having just returned from a trip, last week, to Washington County, the state’s poorest region, the poverty in this area of the state is both palpable and discouraging. While this area of Maine has been written about and continues to occupy some prominence on lawmaker’s radars, there seems to be little short-term hope of turning the tide in an area of the state that has no shortage of natural beauty, or hearty employees eager for a ray of optimism.

Per usual, comments on the report gravitate towards finding a solution with an eye to that great panacea of all problems, more education. Yet, despite our lip-service we pay towards fulfilling our commission to providing a highly-educated and well-trained workforce, programs that might make a difference often receive the axe, with the continual call from some quarters, to pare budgets. Adding to the problem is that despite having a college degree, many Maine workers continue to be under-employed due to the state’s low rates of pay, compared to states to our south.

Rather telling of the ignorance by lawmakers, are Christopher Rector’s (R-Thomaston) comments about preparing Mainers for the workforce. Rector, who is the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee is quoted on promoting education, in the Press Herald.

“What it (the study) speaks to is our need to do a better job making our employees job-ready and capable of doing higher-skilled work,” he said.

Oh, does it? By higher skilled, does that mean the skills necessary for checking out shoppers at Target or Wal-Mart and answering telephone calls for diet pills for one of the state’s many call centers? Or maybe it’s being paid $11/hour to answer customer calls for T-Mobile in Waterville, after being paid manufacturing wages at Hathaway Shirts, before it closed its doors?

The issue is not lack of education. I just spent time talking to students at the University of Maine at Machias, where 95 percent of them told me they are leaving the state after they graduate in May. The primary reason—no jobs in their respective majors of Biology/Science, or Recreation Management.

The problem for Maine workers isn’t that they lack skills, or other qualities, such as motivation and productivity. The biggest issue seems to be the lack of living-wage occupations in a state that is increasingly made up of service-sector occupations. With these jobs often paying less than $10/hour, this type of economy will continue to widen the income disparity in Maine, as well as perpetuating the state's image as a haven for well-heeled retirees.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A writer's funk

Maybe it’s the winter season and the doldrums that accompany this season's lack of sun that has me in such a rut. Maybe it’s the fact that since just after Christmas, nearly every aspect of my life has seemed like a never-ending string of kicks in the teeth or some other part of my anatomy. While most would say I am just being overly sensitive, my experiential meter has me worried. I’d be the first to admit that “life is a bitch, and then we die,” but this winter seems particularly difficult, and even cruel on many fronts. It’s not the worst winter of my life, but it certainly ranks in the top five!

I’m perfectly capable of handling the reality that I’ll never be a best-selling author, or a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, but at some point, when you’ve been writing and having some quality work published, at least locally, it would seem to grow a bit easier to receive some recognition and have an occasional bone tossed your way. I know enough writers and am part of a big enough network to know that most of Maine’s busier writers had some fortuitous breaks that landed them career-building assignments.

I grow weary of the preponderance of self-help and other books, aimed at teaching readers how to be docile underlings for their overbearing managers. These books inevitably preach self improvement, always on your own dime, and prepare you mostly to tolerate being bossed around and exploited by some semi-literate, mid-level manager of a boss. Or, if you live a freelance existence, as I currently do, to have your pitches rejected, or even worse, ignored. Meanwhile, in your regular jaunts to the library, to do research, you keep seeing the same names bylined, in Maine’s miniscule roster of publications.

My experiences, which I’ve acquired in the trenches of life, reveals to me the ubiquitous layer of mediocrity and close-mindedness that pervades businesses, organizations, and particularly, non-profits in our state. If you have more than perfunctory interactions with the so-called “movers and shakers” in Maine, it’s easy to become jaded, or worse, cynical, about what absolute charlatans many of these folks are. I have no doubt it’s the same in other places, across the country.

It defies my understanding why good people seem to find it so difficult to make a success out of their business, and the usual suspects (the poseurs who don’t return phone calls, yet promote their company or organization’s people-oriented focus) have customers lined up at their doors. Recently, a wonderful local bookstore was forced to close its doors, due to lack of sales and untenable overhead, partly caused by a lease that just wasn't workable. This store was one of the state's most supportive of local writers and had the type of diverse inventory that readers should have flocked to. Instead, after moving several times and trying a variety of marketing promotions, they were forced to liquidate their inventory, and shutter the shop.

On the writing side, it amazes me that most writers who seem to get regular work, or whose books succeed, are often formulaic and are nothing more than scriveners for the status quo. Other writers, the ones who have roots firmly planted in Maine’s soil and culture, are rarely read and find discouragement at every turn. I recently engaged in some correspondence with one of these writers—someone who would be recognizable if I named them—told me they are writing less than ever before. It was their opinion that there are too many writers and that their time would be better served producing something of value, like food, or other usable goods. I can’t say that the thought hasn’t occurred to pitch it all and do something less frustrating than write. The problem is, I have a need to set my thoughts down, even if it’s to read them myself.

Maybe my spring book tour, for When Towns Had Teams will shake this lethargy and sense of foreboding that I currently feel. Possibly, happier days are just one hidden assignment away. All I know is that of late, the day-to-day grind of scratching out an existence and promoting other people’s mediocrity has caused me write as little as I have for the past year.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

On not giving up

Since this is a new blog, I’m not really sure who my audience is, at this point. One is never quite sure about any online endeavor, but with my more established site, Words Matter, I have a regular group of readers who post and keep me honest. Maybe at some point, this blog will have a similar group of “regulars”.

I’ve been thinking lately of many things, one of which is the difficultly that many new businesses have in breaking into the marketplace. Granted, there are always companies who strike it rich by being at "the right place at the right time, but for most, it takes perserverance and pluck to be succussful. Even then, there is always some equal measures of good luck and hoping the gods of fortune smile upon you in order to to carve out some small measure of fame, or a slight profit.

Speaking of perserverance, the example of Sean Morey, special teams player for the Super Bowl-bound, Pittsburgh Steelers is a case in point. Morey, who has a Maine connection in that he prepped at Hebron Academy, before attending Brown, was first drafted by the New England Patriots back in 1999.

While high profile teammates such as Jerome Bettis and Ben Roethlisberger garner the majority of press attention during the media circus that accompanies the week before professional sport’s premier event, Morey’s story is an interesting, as well as inspirational one.

As a 30-year-old special teams captain of the Steelers, he had many chances to turn in his chips and call it quits before this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in football’s grand finale materialized.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Brookover has written a flattering article on Morey that captures the grit and determination of a player who should have quit five or six years ago. I’m sure friends and family told him to, or at least whispered behind his back about how foolish he was continuing to pursue a dream that was beyond his reach. Obviously, his wife deserves equal billing here, as her support allowed her husband to continue to pursue the elusive opportunity to play in a Super Bowl.

As my regular readers know, I'm not given to bursts of optimism, or and wouldn't characterised as overly sanguine. Yet, there are so many things about this article that are inspirational. Whether you follow sports or not, the example of Morey can be applied to anything, whether its pursuing a dream of running your own business, publishing a book, or ascending the corporate ladder.

I wasn't planning on paying much attention to the Super Bowl, but on the strength of this piece, I might just watch the opening kickoff and keep my eyes on #81 and his opening kamikaze dash down the field on the Steelers' kickoff squad.