Cover image of "Yellow-Dog Contract," a novel about dirty politics

It’s been so long since labor unions have appeared high on our radar screens here in the US that you may be unaware what the phrase “yellow-dog contract” means. I for one had forgotten. Well, it turns out that such a contract, or a clause in a contract, requires that a new employee never join a union. And that archaic concept is the hook at the centerpiece of this brilliant novel about dirty politics, union style. The book was published in 1976, so the concept was by no means archaic then.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

The reigning master of dirty tricks

Though not yet 40, Harvey Longmire has long since retired to his farm near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, as Yellow-Dog Contract opens. There he lives with his wife and a zoo’s worth of animals when two men from his checkered past show up in a large Mercedes. Murfin and Quane were his henchmen in an unsuccessful union election campaign a dozen years earlier, when their candidate, the incumbent president of the Public Employees Union (PEU), narrowly lost to his challenger despite their considerable electioneering skills.

Yellow-Dog Contract by Ross Thomas ★★★★★

Now the two men have come to enlist Harvey in an effort to find the man who defeated their candidate and has served as PEU’s president ever since: the man has disappeared, and shenanigans are afoot in the union under his successor. Harvey had proven himself the reigning master of dirty tricks in politics by winning eleven of the twelve “hopeless” Congressional and Senatorial campaigns he took on after their work together at the union. Their new boss, the multimillionaire head of a family foundation, insists that they bring Harvey back to investigate the disappearance of the PEU president, and he won’t take no for an answer.

A plot that twists, turns, and does little dances

You can expect three things above all in a novel by Ross Thomas: colorful, three-dimensional characters; dialog that is unfailingly witty and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; and a plot that twists, turns, and does little dances before your very eyes. Yellow-Dog Contract offers all that and more, including a huge dollop of suspense. It would spoil the fun to describe any more of the story. Read it. You’ll thank me.

Falling union membership

By the end of World War II, the percentage of workers employed in the US economy who were members of labor unions peaked at more than one-third. Three decades later, in the mid-1970s, that proportion had fallen to between one-fourth and one-fifth. (In 2013 the share was 11.3%.) Most economists today consider this trend to be a major factor, and perhaps the greatest factor, in creating the yawning gap between rich and poor in America today. Undoubtedly, dirty tricks of the sort portrayed in Yellow-Dog Contract as well as corruption within a few major unions helped undermine the trade union movement. However, it’s clear that the biggest factor by far was a massively funded nationwide campaign by the American Right that began in the US Chamber of Commerce, gained steam throughout the 1970s, and continues today under Republican governors in such states as Wisconsin and Michigan.

About the author

According to his bio on Wikipedia, Ross Thomas “served with the infantry in the Philippines during World War II. He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Bonn (Germany), and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” Is it any wonder that Thomas would be well positioned to write Yellow-Dog Contract and so many other great books about dirty politics?

For more great reading

This book is one of Top 10 great popular novels reviewed here.

I’ve listed and linked my reviews of all the Ross Thomas novels I’ve read here: Reviewing Ross Thomas – thrillers that stand the test of time.

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