Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s
By George Lipsitz
University of Illinois Press, 1994
Softcover, 368 pp., $21

Even though we can point to a number of promising developments in today’s trade union movement, the declining membership numbers nag away at our hopeful attitude. After the General Motors and Chrysler contracts gave a grim edge to our expectations, more and more unionists came to realize that finding a way forward is needed.

Before anyone can find their way, they need to know where they are. Even better, they need to know how they got there. Those who study American labor history notice a certain “black box” effect that masks the events of 1946-47.

Most of us know how virile and effective our labor movement was before that time, and we are living every day with the pain of what happened afterward, but we generally don’t know much about the postwar events.

It isn’t in our history books. Even the United Electrical Workers’ excellent history, “Them and Us,” tends to soft-peddle what happened, and lets 1946-47 go by without a meaningful explanation.

George Lipsitz, in his book “Rainbow at Midnight, Labor and Culture in the 1940s,” explains what happened with a clear understanding of postwar class struggle.

He explains how the unions and the corporations worked, often together, to win the World War. He explains the abruptly changed situation after V-E and

V-J Days. He explains how the American ruling class chose a long-term course of action, how they decided to deal with their rivals, and how they decided to deal with the union movement.

Furthermore, Lipsitz describes how the union leadership reacted. Before he finished the book in 1994, it had become clear that the unions’ 1946-47 course would lead to disaster unless it were understood and radically changed.

The recent auto contracts suggest that the lessons in Lipsitz’s book merit our study.