Book Review: The Life and Times Of a Union Organizer At a Tennessee Textile Mill

By Jonathan Harkavy

The Jackson Project
By Phil Cohen
The University of Tennessee Press, 2016

Phil Cohen’s memoir of his days as a union organizer at a troubled southern textile mill is a worthwhile read for any audience. The book’s subtitle, “War in the American Workplace,” is a pithy summary of the author’s main point about unionization in our country. Mr. Cohen traces a tortuous and (spoiler alert) ultimately unsuccessful battle to save the jobs and preserve the dignity of hundreds of mill workers in Jackson, Tennessee. On a deeper level, the book portrays Mr. Cohen’s own struggle to juggle his many roles as a relentless proponent of workplace justice, a trusted confidant of the workers he represents, an effective adversary of mill owners and management, a faithful employee of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and – not incidentally at all – a loving father to his pre-school daughter.

What makes this book worthy beyond the story of that struggle, however, is Mr. Cohen’s stark depiction of a vanishing breed – a union organizer in a dying industry of a manufacturing era gone by. And, the timing of this book in the midst of a new Gilded Age gives it a special poignancy.

The story of one labor organizer’s attempt to shore up a local union at a small southern textile mill might not seem like the stuff of literary drama. But Phil Cohen’s telling of the tale puts the reader on a ride that, regrettably for the workers and their families, spirals downward to a shuttered mill with creditors and their lawyers squabbling over financial scraps. Along the way Mr. Cohen describes in detail a number of strategies employed by the union (and some created on his own) to build worker solidarity in order to pressure the mill owners and managers to negotiate a meaningful labor contract during fraught economic times. Layered over that project are changes in mill ownership and some apparently poor management decisions, all of which put the workers in jeopardy of losing the only livelihoods many of them had ever known.

A portion of the book is devoted to edgy maneuvers that make the narrative fascinating for labor lawyers. For instance, pressuring the new owner of the mill, who regarded the union as an opponent and not a partner, was freighted with problems. Mr. Cohen had to school the workers in union tactics, such as picketing to persuade Teamster truckers not to deliver raw materials to the mill.That strategy worked pretty well until the employer began sourcing raw cotton elsewhere, storing the goods nearby and using small non-union truckers to make deliveries. In the book’s most troubling moment, Mr. Cohen writes that he flirted with the prospect of torching those stored materials. He quickly rejected the idea of arson because it might have caused harm to innocent parties. Alas, the reader is left to ponder the apparent disconnect between Mr. Cohen’s “end justifies the means” flirtation and his otherwise punctilious honesty in dealing with his constituents. One quibble with the book is an absence of details about the author’s early life and family background, which might have offered clues about Mr. Cohen’s approach to his organizing job.

In contrast to a few snippets about the author’s life before his ACTWU employment, the reader learns plenty about Mr. Cohen’s personal life as an organizer – from his daily sleeping, eating, exercising, and personal care habits to an intimate affair with one of the mill workers in Jackson. One might conclude that writing about personal intimacy is gratuitous in a book about the union movement. However, this dimension of the author’s life could hardly go unremarked in a story about his relationship with the workers he is trying to represent.

Though not a large part of the story, Mr. Cohen’s personal life did inform the way he did his job. His fastidious habits, detached demeanor, and attention to detail all shaped the way he managed the concerns of the workers, negotiated with management and engaged with his union’s higher-ups.

The book unavoidably lurches from workers’ homes to the union hall to the picket line to the negotiating table and to the courtroom, as the mill changes hands and its fortunes ebb. The reader quickly learns about securing workers’ trust, running a union meeting, conducting picketing, processing grievances, dealing with lawyers, going to court, learning bankruptcy law’s effects on labor contracts, and bargaining with management. Mr. Cohen’s explanation of this dizzying array of tasks is spare, but clear and informative. And, even for the most experienced labor lawyer, absorbing this story of how labor law is actually applied enriches one’s understanding of the law’s limits as well as its possibilities.

On a more personal level, the author emerges as a fearless union stalwart thrust into a nearly impossible situation. Although solitary in his approach to organizing and not quick to credit others, one cannot conclude that Mr. Cohen was simply a loner. Instead, he comes across more as a self-educated, detail-oriented, and nearly obsessive strategist who was less than enthusiastic about having to rely on others for work that is so intensely personal in nature.

Many readers might justifiably find this book to be a useful primer for union organizing. Others may find it a testament to the virtues of collective action. In my judgment, it is both. For me, one facet of the author’s life during the Jackson project stands out: Mr. Cohen’s loving commitment to his daughter, Colie, to whom he dedicated the book. Nearly every chapter has a vignette about driving then-four-year-old Colie around the South and bringing her with him on all sorts of union business. Each chapter of this book is infused not only with the author’s commitment to justice for the workers, but also with his steadfast devotion to being a loving parent to his daughter. Fortunately for Colie, the story ends better for her than for the mill employees on whose behalf Phil Cohen worked so tirelessly and has written so touchingly.