Harold Wilensky Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Comparing Rich Democracies: Conversation with Harold L. Wilensky, Professor Emeritus of Political Science; October 29, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Working with Labor Unions

What's interesting about your career is that before going to graduate school, you had had a lot of experience both in the political realm and working for labor unions. Tell us a little about that experience and how it's shaped your later academic work.

I had a number of jobs in or around the labor movement that did shape my interest in comparative politics, comparative labor movements, and how the world works -- how the lower half can, maybe, have some say in the democracies. All of this turned me on to social change and social reform and the kinds of things that the New Deal represented to my parents and the labor movement represented to me. I worked for the NMU in New York.

What's the NMU?

National Maritime Union. I was in awe of how they had cleaned up the waterfront. You may have seen On the Waterfront ?

Yes, On the Waterfront, the movie. With Marlon Brando.

Yes, Marlon Brando. The NMU cleaned that up. It was a communist-dominated union, but that's one reason it cleaned up the waterfront. That is, left unions tend not to be corrupt. In contrast, the Longshoremen on the East Coast, you know, were corrupt. So what the seamen had was a clean union that eliminated the shapeup system. It eliminated the waterfront corruption. It had a very orderly way of allocating jobs.

I was doing a background memo of a hundred pages on the role of the merchant seamen in all the wars from colonial to World War I. The New York City Public Library is where I did it -- that was some maritime collection. That was the first time, when I was nineteen or eighteen, that I had done research like that.

So in these jobs, and there were various of them, you encountered the real-life experience, both of politics and the laboring man and labor unions, and that came to inform your later research.

It certainly did. While I was waiting to be called up to fly, I was in the headquarters of the UAW while Walter Ruether was fighting the Communists for control of that union, at the very top level. I was down the hall. What more can you ask for? book coverThat was an education in left politics, and union politics, and everything. I mean, it was a real cauldron of conflict. In Detroit at the time, Blacks were really going after Whites. There was a real race riot while I was there. So I learned a lot in those few months.

I also learned what sectarian politics were. I had already gotten an innoculation from my independent-minded parents about that. But the Communist Party tried to recruit me in such a clumsy way. They were contemptible, switching back and forth in their policies on race, on labor union issues, on everything, according to the shifting requirements of Soviet foreign policy. That innoculated me permanently against sectarian ideologies, which you'll find in my book. So, that was very important.

I later (1946) had a job which was directly political, and I learned something about quantitative and qualitative research. I interviewed politicians in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania in twelve congressional districts that were marginal. It was for a group that was a front for the Democratic Party and labor unions. We studied precinct elections statistics, which I gathered. I interviewed county chairmen -- Republicans, some of them, though most were Democratic -- and newspaper editors, labor people, negotiators, the leaders of labor. I made an estimate of where the Democratic Party should put its money in the 1946 election in these marginal districts. If that doesn't teach me something about politics, I don't know what would.

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