Part memoir and part reflective essay, David Ranney's Living and Dying on the Factory Floor is an absorbing read. Shakespeare tells us that “old men forget,” but seventy-nine-year-old Ranney has not forgotten much, and he demonstrates that his experience of industrial life forty years ago still holds lessons for labor activists and scholars today. In the late 1970s, Professor Ranney left academia to do manual work in steel fabrication shops, rendering plants, repair shops, and factories producing boxes and paper cups, all in the immense heavy industrial belt that once sprawled and smoked over southeastern Chicago. Like many other earnest young socialists, he believed that “a new society could be built from the initiatives of ‘mass organizations at the workplace’ ” (ix). What he found was in many ways very different from what he, as a leftist intellectual, had expected. The raw reality of race and class relations was confronting,...

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