Our Frame Work

Every once in a while, I wonder whether CommonWealth magazine is one of the most backward-looking publications produced today. They say it’s possible to be so square you become hip, so maybe a magazine can be so retro in perspective it becomes cutting edge.

Or maybe we just like history. It seems to me the only way to figure out why things are the way they are is to look back in time–especially if one is thinking about work, or to use the more political term, labor. One is almost transported back to the 1930s, or maybe the 1950s, by hearing the words “organized labor.” That may be why most of the pieces in this issue ask, in one way or another, what happened then that explains where we are now? As Pauline Maier, the eminent historian at MIT, told us a while back in an interview (CW, Fall 1998), “Every time you understand what’s distinctive about a different time you are understanding what is distinctive about our time.” Perhaps that’s the groundwork that allows us to imagine the future, as well.

For this issue of CommonWealth, our 12th, there were two questions that organized our labors:

* How has work changed over the years, decades, centuries? We spoke with Harvard economist Juliet Schor about that, and we assigned Contributing Writer Chris Daly to take a look at Brandeis professor Jacqueline Jones’s important book American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor.

* And what role have unions played in politics and in the workplace? Former Boston Herald business reporter Phil Primack looks back at some recent elections and gives us a probing look at the way organized labor in Massachusetts uses its political muscle. Former Boston Herald columnist Peter Lucas profiles Sen. Stephen Lynch, a former ironworker who is one of labor’s strongest allies in the Legislature – and, some think, a political leader on the way up. Associate Editor Carol Gerwin looks at the way teachers unions have used their power in the public school system. And labor historian James Green considers The Transformation of U.S. Unions and the role of democracy in the union movement.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
In all of these pieces, there are the kinds of illuminations I like. To take just one example, consider Carol Gerwin’s provocative look at teachers unions. There’s enough material here to spark a week’s worth of debates. But one event she puts her finger on is essential to understanding the story. It happened in 1965. That’s when teachers won the right to collectively negotiate contracts with school systems. What happened next is a story that is not widely known. No point in spilling the beans here. Look forward in the magazine and see if you agree that it makes sense to look backward.

One more thing. About our cover photo: We somehow prevailed on the good-natured Sen. Lynch to take a step back in time and return to the kind of high-altitude work site he used to know well. Talk about a blast from the past! It was windy as a gale up there, by all accounts. But that didn’t stop our intrepid photographer, Webb Chappell, and our just-as-intrepid art director, Meg Birnbaum, from making the climb, 16 stories above Storrow Drive and the Charles River. The building is going up on the campus of Boston University, with Ironworkers Union Local 7 doing the steel framing. We wish to thank the ironworkers on the site, especially Charles Wright, Moncef Eladhain, and Paul Rinaldi, for being willing to take CommonWealth magazine to new heights.