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Richard E Sall

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Behind the Union Curtain
by Richard E Sall   

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Books by Richard E Sall
· Strategies in Worker's Compensation
· Straightjacket
                >> View all



Publisher:  BookSurge, LLC ISBN-10:  1419634054 Type: 


Copyright:  June 19, 2006

Barnes &

A compelling account of the union organizations that represent workers. Although only 12.5 percent of workers belong to a union, there are 15.7 million union members in the United States. But 36.5 percent of government workers are unionized.
This book chronicles the tumultuous history of labor unions beginning with the train wrecks in the 1800s. Alongside the unions were the doctors who cared for injured workers. Conflicts arose. The company-chosen doctors were put on a “common enemies list.” Doctors are accused of bias favoring the employer. Union members are accused of abusing the system. The battle between union workers and company doctors is deciphered and potential solutions analyzed.
A fascinating account of the early automotive manufacturing plants with the early workers provides a glimpse of life in the early 1900s. Life in the mining towns and logging camps is documented by personal accounts by workers. The idle workers of the depression years in the 1930s led to legislation affecting us today.
If you have ever wondered how the union system works…this book is for you.

Excerpt from Behind the Union Curtain

Collectivism is the notion of community—the collective enterprise of people with common interests contributing to the solution of problems. In regard to herd instinct, within the herd there is the comfort of a large group of like-minded colleagues who offer support and encouragement. Collective solutions are best characterized by the town meeting, by citizens of equal capacity to participate in democratic decision making processes.

Individualism, on the other hand, is the belief that hard work, ingenuity, and faith in the capacity of the individual person that has the ability to rise and achieve economic success by initiative, thrift, and tenacity in the pursuit or his or her goal (31).

In the Progressive era (1899-1918), in the interests of competing groups to legitimize the collective body of labor imbuing it with the capacity to bargain with employers, the union movement committed itself to a collective struggle on behalf of all workers. The collective action reduced some of the inequalities of income that characterized the nonunion force. The unions served a crucial moral leadership as well in negating the special interests of many of its constituents.

By the 1950’s workers dissociated themselves from the collective spirit of unionism with increased involvement in the home and family, social isolation, and attention to private rather than social issues. Its success at providing economic betterment undermined the collectivism from which success had come; unions were seen as instruments for satisfying their personal goals. By the 1960’s, workers had turned from job interests to private interests, from collective to individual orientations.

In the second part of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) focused on the remarkable independence and rugged individualistic nature of the life of an American. In many other nations, this foundational sense of independence and individualism was not present to the degree it was in the dominant culture of the United States. He described each member of the community disposed to “sever himself from the mass of his fellows, and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.” De Tocqueville suggested that voluntary associations and intermediate institutions put America on the road to democratic liberty rather than dependent on the will of the majority. During his 9 month trip to America in 1831 he kept a journal of his travels to observe the future society of “almost complete equality of social conditions.” A sense of individuality pervades everything Americans do and makes the development of a collective sense difficult to contemplate (32).

Origin of the labor problem


            What is described as labor problems is not a serious maladjustment in our industrial order but life problems of the individual worker as a consequence of being in a position as a wage earner. The roots of these problems began with the Industrial Revolution out of which sprang our industrial order and the factory system. The rise of the factory was coincident with a political and social revolution that began prior to the invention of machinery but hastened by their development (33).

            Artisans, mechanics, and laborers were largely un-free in the pre-industrial era. No wage-earner, unless a property owner, could vote. South of the Mason Dixon line, artisans were slaves or indentured servants. In Pennsylvania much work was done by the redemptioners, the German immigrants who paid for their passage by giving four years of labor or more to employers who advanced the money required for emigration. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries almost three-quarters of the immigrants to British Atlantic coast colonies were indentured servants. Such service enabled men, women, and children to borrow the payment for their passage to America in exchange for a number of years of labor. Industrially, the United States was half slave and half free at the end of the eighteenth century. Artisans of various crafts were offered for sale, the black men as slaves and the white as indentured servants. The un-free worker could be disciplined and those who ran away might be arrested and returned. The free workers of the Northern states were not represented politically and were not highly regarded.

            In the North, the first manufacturers were artisans who began business with borrowed money. Merchants in the larger towns were the chief possessors of wealth. The rise of the factories and their owners created a new class, who in time displaced the merchants as the wealthiest.  The factory system depressed the economic status of artisans and elevated the position of laborers. The experience of the shoemaker illustrates this.  The McKay sole sewing machine, introduced in 1862, did in one hour what the journeyman had required 80 hours to accomplish. In one stroke, the skill of the shoemaker for manufacturing purposes was rendered obsolete. The artisan who was able to perform all the operations of his craft to produce a finished product was replaced by a laborer who tended a machine.

            Ironically, the craftsmen of today are those in trades unaffected by the introduction of machinery, but are in unions to protect their jobs. The building trades’ workers, who employ the same skills as their forefathers, are the most heavily unionized despite being unthreatened by the machine age. The skilled workers that could be displaced were replaced long ago by immigrants as machine tenders.                                      Both men and women became machine tenders with motors determining the speed of human effort.  The leisurely quality of handwork and the pleasure of its performance were gone. The performance of endlessly repetitive tasks at a rapid pace introduced a new factor into work. It appears that repetitious work can never be rendered truly interesting. Accordingly, happiness must be found outside work. This led to shortened work hours so that leisure may exist and higher wages so that leisure may be enjoyed.

Railway Spine
In the 1890s, the majority of train wreck victims displayed acute traumatic injuries like fractures and contusions whereas others walked away without apparent injury. However, some who appeared uninjured at the time developed a host of unexplained symptoms afterwards (17). Cases of paralysis, headaches, and pain emerged at a later date that remained a mystery, although they were traced back to the traumatic experience of the railroad accident. This nebulous disorder was called railway spine.
Some physicians believed that those suffering from this disorder were conniving malingerers, and others thought that it was a mentally induced affliction. It became part of a medical legal debate with injured parties suing the railroads. The role played by juries was a source of irritation to railway surgeons who represented the railroad. Philadelphia surgeon Thomas G. Morton stated, “Juries are usually sympathetic to the plaintiffs who are swayed by the pleas of mental and physical suffering (18).”
The juries were almost universally unreceptive to the efforts of railway surgeons to attribute an accident victim’s symptoms to psychological rather than to physiological factors. At trial, plaintiffs won almost 70 % of their cases against the railroads (19). In this hostile atmosphere expressed by most jurors, railroad companies concluded that they had little to gain by contesting claims of passengers with obvious physical injuries in the courts. Not every passenger injury case was obvious, particularly railway spine, however. Dr James Syme declared (20), “A victim of a train accident [need only] to go to bed, call in a couple of sympathizing doctors, diligently peruse Mr. Erichsen’s lately-published work on Railway Injuries, go into court on crutches, and give a doleful account of the distress experienced by his wife and children through his personal sufferings, which have resulted from the culpable negligence that allowed him to leave his seat prematurely. Who can doubt that in such circumstances the jury would give large demands?”
Years of costly settlements and damage awards forced the North American railroad industry to develop a strategy to counter this development. The National Association of Railway Surgeons was formed in 1888 with a primary goal to provide its members with information and material they could use when testifying in behalf of the railroads. This was to assure that surgeons were “better equipped to go on the witness stand and protect the company’s rights in courts of justice, and thus increase their annual dividends (21).”
Given proper information, railway surgeons hoped to neutralize the expert testimony offered by neurologists and other medical experts who frequently sided with plaintiffs.
R. Harvey Reed (21) elaborated:
“The Association does not propose to stop at the mere treatment of the patient, which, to relieve promptly and permanently, is a decided benefit to the company, but they propose to study how to protect the company from impositions at court by studying medico-legal aspects of their cases, and thereby seek to discourage malingerer in all its multiplicity of forms, whereby tens of thousands of dollars are fraudulently wrung from our railroad companies by so-called courts of justice”
Disharmony developed between neurologists and railway surgeons regarding the cause of railway spine who the former believed to be caused by a concussion of the spinal cord, first proposed by the distinguished English surgeon John Eric Erichsen in 1866 (22). Dr. Erichsen noted a remarkable analogy between cases of railway passengers who had also received a shock to the spine and a case under his care of a previously fit man who had fallen 30 feet from a scaffold onto his back. Furthermore, he proposed that the clinical entity “concussion of the spine” could develop after apparently minor accidents in which the spine was subjected to a sudden shaking or jarring. The various clinical presentations included:
1. Cerebral symptoms: headache, confusion, and loss of memory.
2. Spinal symptoms: pain at one or more points of the spine, increase by pressure or movement of any kind.
3. Symptoms of the limbs: painful sensations along the course of the nerves, paraesthesia, variable degrees of lower limb weakness and resultant disturbance of gait.
Leaders of the National Association of Railway Surgeons realized that the public did not support their view because of a general hostility to large corporations, particularly the railroad industry. Efforts to influence public perception and opinion regarding the psychological nature of railway spine were unsuccessful (see Appendix D).
A leader emerged, an attorney named Clark Bell, as one of the most formidable advocates for the railroad industry, who became the NARS leader on a crusade to convert the medical profession in the following speech. He said:
Railway spine...
“Is the Nemesis of the modern railway. It is the veritable Old Man of the Sea, that it is on the shoulders and is an ever-present, ever-to-be dreaded terror to railway commerce and railway managers. Invented by one of the most clever English surgeons as a means of procuring enormous verdicts from the railway corporations in accident cases, it has baffled both railway surgeons and counsel, and, vampire-like, sucked more blood of the corporate bodies and railway companies than all other cases combined. It is the ready refuge of the malingerer, the weapon always burnished bright and sharpened, of the unscrupulous attorney and his partner in profit, the medical expert, and affords advantages for the scheming, avaricious claimant who has suffered and actual injury unparalleled by any other cause of injury known in railway cases.”

Professional Reviews

Behind the Union Curtain
BookSurge LLC, An company
5341 Dorchester Road Suite 16, Charleston, South Carolina 29418

Behind the Union Curtain
By Richard Sall
As reviewed by New York Times best-selling author Ellen Tanner Marsh

Dr. Richard Sall, a general surgeon now specializing in occupational medicine, has plenty to say about labor unions, which represent nearly 16 million American workers. After his
well-received Strategies in Workers’ Compensation, Sall took on a far more politicized subject: the controversial and often tumultuous evolution of labor unions, whose development in many ways closely parallels the history of American labor.

In Behind the Union Curtain, we learn about floating laborers and yellow dog contracts, union corruption and the dangers of corporate monopolies. But Sall chronicles more than just the unions; he delves into the people who shaped their early days and who made
them what they are today. From his vantage point as a physician, the reader becomes privy to information that might unsettle, if not shock. For example, beginning in the 1800s, doctors chosen by companies to treat their employees often found themselves on a union’s “common enemies” list of individuals caring for the workers while being accused of serving the economic and authoritarian needs of the employer. The result was a doctor client relationship of distrust and hostility that persists today.

The concept of history repeating itself is clearly mirrored in this book. What Sall has accomplished, however, is not only to define the conflict between union workers and
company doctors, but to propose some very interesting resolutions. As insightful in its own right as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, this book is a must for anyone who has ever wondered how the union system works…or doesn’t.

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Reader Reviews for "Behind the Union Curtain"

Reviewed by Tami Brady 8/14/2006
In Behind the Curtain, Dr. Richard Sall chronicles the history of American labor organizations. He begins his depiction in the 1800s and chronicles throughout history introducing his readers to unions, yellow dog contracts, floating laborers, corporate monopolies, and company doctors. In particular, he successfully interlinks the connection between union organizations and company doctors by describing their dysfunctional “feeding” off each other. Over time, this discontent is recognized and the law enters as a salve.

His book teaches readers about how the union system emerged, functions and/or does not function, and reveals the reasons for a decline in union membership, but a need for unions. His thorough attention to historical content contributes to a well researched book. This is especially expressed in the latter half in actual case studies, yellow dog contracts, and law suits portraying the status of unions in present day.

As a physician, Dr. Sall gives the reader he/she otherwise may not have been privy to on a daily basis. His shared knowledge may surprise his audience but certainly is a must read for everyone eager to learn about history, politics, and how our labor union in America came to be in general. His elegant simplicity in style keeps the reader turning the page, without any fear of confusion or boredom.

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