From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Mon Dec 4 14:10:13 2000
Date: Mon, 4 Dec 2000 09:37:23 -0500
Reply-To: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Charles Brown <CharlesB@CNCL.CI.DETROIT.MI.US>
Subject: Labor History and Action

Historians as allies of the labor movement

By James Green, 4 December 2000

For several years now, we’ve been hearing about the shortcomings of so-called public intellectuals. Their efforts are neither new nor daring; they mistake the word for the deed; they are unable to bridge the chasm between academe and the public and, therefore, they make little impact on culture or politics.

For scholars like myself, who study labor history and seek to influence the current union movement, the problem is especially troubling. Many of us came of professional age in the 1960’s, with the hope that we could affect public policy or build movements for social justice. My own work was inspired by Progressive-era historians who had large public audiences and made a significant impact on the social-justice movements of their time. Mary Ritter Beard held no academic position, but she wrote a fine popular history of the labor movement, actively participated in the educational efforts of the Women’s Trade Union League, and made intellectual contributions to the women’s suffrage movement. Her spouse, Charles A. Beard, the great historian of class conflict, also contributed to worker education and shaped popular understanding of how propertied interests limited the possibilities for democracy in the United States.

One of the last Progressive historians who followed in Beard’s footsteps was my graduate-school mentor, the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward (whose study of the New South, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, was called the Bible of the civil-rights movement by Martin Luther King Jr.). Woodward encouraged us to read W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, with its classic “history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America.” When I arrived at Yale in 1966, it was a time for reading the previously unrecognized writings of Philip Sheldon Foner, the prolific Marxist labor historian. It was also a period when we joined in the New Left’s criticism of some of the Old Left’s writers, for whom class struggle had defined just about everything. We were attracted to the unorthodox Marxism of E.P. Thompson and C.L.R. James, who understood class struggle and class consciousness in more-subtle ways, and who wrote with grace about the cultures of common people.

But by 1981, most of us had to agree with Herbert G. Gutman, a pioneer of working-class history, who charged that our “new social history” had failed to reach its intended audience. Not much progress had been made by 1997, when the labor historian Leon Fink, who had studied with Gutman in the 1960’s, commented on the scene. In his book Progressive Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Democratic Commitment, Fink argued that no one of our generation has accomplished what Progressive intellectuals like John Dewey achieved as a public educator and philosopher. No professor of our time has matched the influence of the economist John R. Commons, who not only shaped labor policy, but also founded the “Wisconsin school” of interpretation, which governed academic understanding of workers and unions for several generations.

To be sure, none of the historians of my generation can compare our contributions to those of historians like the Beards, Woodward, Du Bois, or Thompson. But we can measure our efforts by more-modest standards.

As some scholars in African-American studies have recently pointed out, intellectuals can be active in supporting popular struggles in many ways (even if they are not treated as stars in the media). The Columbia University historian Manning Marable recently noted in The Chronicle that activism among people of color has created opportunities for academics. “Intellectuals don’t create history,” he said. “They follow it.”

That is a good way to summarize what I have been doing in labor studies and public history since 1976. And it suggests how today’s scholars might think about their work as public intellectuals.

In 1976, I spent the year in England lecturing at Warwick University on labor history, and I became involved with activist historians in the History Workshop movement. The first History Workshop had been started by a disaffected Oxford tutor in the

1950’s, to provide classes for working people and to enable them to write their own history. When I returned home and began teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, a public university with an urban mission, I looked for a similar way to break out of the academic isolation that I had found so stifling in the United States.

The books I wrote in the 1970’s were undertaken in the hope that I could reach the working-class students and union activists I was beginning to encounter in my classes. The Massachusetts History Workshop, which two graduate students and I set up, focused on helping working people stage events commemorating their past. The labor-studies-degree program that I started in 1980 was designed to attract adult trade unionists who wanted to become more effective activists.

In two decades, I learned from those students that historical narratives can do more than just redeem the memory of past struggles; they can help people think of themselves as historical figures who, like those who came before them, have crucial moral and political choices to make. Sometimes, stories of the past provide hope, sometimes guidance. They don’t provide anything as concrete as solutions to current problems, but they do impart a sense of how tough choices were made in the past, how history was shaped by human intervention, how certain decisions explained what happened to the labor movement, what went right—and wrong.

In my various efforts, I tried to emphasize historical moments when the labor movement broke out of its institutional constraints and embraced diversity and experimented with bold tactics: I talked, for example, about the multiethnic, largely female work force that paralyzed the 19th- century textile industry in Lawrence, Mass., with a strike for “bread and roses.” But I also noted that the strike, though led by radical unionists, was opposed by the American Federation of Labor, and that it failed -- either to improve conditions for workers or to revitalize the union movement.

In reaching out to trade-union members, I also encountered opposition from some union officials. Like other New Left radicals who were attempting to engage the labor movement, I found myself traveling a rocky road. It was a toll road, manned by gatekeepers from powerful labor organizations with conservative leaders. We found that it was one thing to write an academic book with a sharply critical view of union bureaucrats and frozen ideas for a leftist audience; it was quite another matter to present radical history to a working-class audience. Some local union officials in Massachusetts found my teaching and writing far too critical of their organizations and forerunners; a number of hostile encounters gave me firsthand experience of the deep suspicion of academics and intellectuals among union officials that goes back to Samuel Gompers’s crusade against “utopians” and socialists in the ranks of his A.F.L.

Nevertheless, I did find allies in the union movement, particularly among the trade unionists who came to our program as adult students. Even in the discouraging Reagan years, when unions were attacked by employers and Republican officials and weakened by their own conservative leaders, my students shared with me a sense of urgency about rebuilding and changing the labor movement. They seemed hungry for history, wanted to recover a sense of a past when unions were part of a vibrant campaign for social justice. And they wanted to re- create that past in the present. They urged me to tell “labor’s untold story” in public, to counter the negative image of unions being promoted by many of their employers, the mass media, and politicians.

And so I turned to newspaper editorials that applied history to current problems, to television and radio interviews, museum exhibits and public- library lectures, and more. As a public intellectual, I was doing what I do best: being a writer and teacher of people’s history. I came to see the work I do as a college professor as the best medium for me to link up with labor activists. In the process, I also came to realize the truth of an observation by the British writer and critic John Berger: that the passion for history is most intense, not in the university, but in popular movements for struggle and survival.

Back then, in the 1980’s, I could not imagine that many of the union insurgents with whom I made common cause would one day lead large unions in Massachusetts and, even, hold high positions in a newly reformed national A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Nor could I imagine that I would be asked by one of those national leaders to write a new short history for

A.F.L.- C.I.O. members -- a history that would replace the old uncritical, celebratory pamphlet that scarcely mentioned women and workers of color, or the ways that those people had been excluded from unions. Democracy@Work, which will be published in the fall, provides union members traditions from their past that offer hope and encouragement, as well lessons about what went wrong in the past.

The changes in the labor movement have, not surprisingly, created a new will among labor historians to overcome the pessimism that overtook many intellectuals after the Reagan revolution in politics. Witness the efforts of historians like Nelson Lichtenstein and Steven Fraser to create a new alliance between students and workers, which culminated in the formation of a national association Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice—in 1996.

As is usually the case with intellectuals, ideological debate marks such efforts. The sharpest argument pits those who call for a class-conscious politics * uniting working people around common concerns * against others who embrace a multifaceted identity politics that recognizes the way in which divisions among workers have negated class solidarity.

Those who seek to build a stronger labor movement based on economic interest and class identity call for shifting from what some call the “victim studies” of particular groups. They want to revive the study of what the sociologist Todd Gitlin terms “the common dreams” that once united labor and liberal campaigns to end poverty and expand democracy. Others, like the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, argue that union organizers need to pay attention to culture and identities based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and gender. Only that way, Kelley believes, can labor be at the center of a diverse movement for social justice.

That debate is of great importance to those of us who teach working- class history to trade unionists. In my own work, I have placed the struggles of working people within a larger narrative of the expansion of democracy. However, I have also had to come to grips with recent historical scholarship that seems to cast a shadow on any picture of unity. In The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, for example, David R. Roediger has shown how much racial distinctions were at the center of white working-class consciousness.

Similarly, the essays in the collection Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, edited by Ava Baron, show how male constructions of the terms “solidarity” and “democracy” subordinated female workers.

In my classes with trade unionists, I have asked students to explore the causes and consequences of such exclusionary practices within the labor movement. I have found that discussions that focus on these issues in terms of current practices provoke sharp divisions; but discussions of the past seem to help us open up the topic of who has been excluded, and why. Many of my students including white males from traditional union backgrounds -- have been willing to read the historical record objectively and to learn from past mistakes. But the balance is a delicate one, particularly with women and members of minority groups, who sometimes find their faith in the movement shaken by the “horror stories” from the past.

The field of labor history, as well, has been shaken by the new scholarship on difference. Studies of deeply ingrained sexist and racist identities among white male workers seem to negate the very notion of a class-conscious labor movement and to cast a pall over a field that has suffered from pessimistic predictions of labor’s future and declining class enrollments.

Recently, however, scholars like Roediger have begun to argue that a more inclusive working-class studies can revitalize the field. Two years ago, some of those scholars created a new group—the Labor and Working- Class History Association, led by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Joe William Trotter Jr., and Vicki Ruiz, whose own research has focused on women and people of color. The organization aims to expand the field of labor history to include the lives of those who have been excluded from unions. It is also dedicated to forging a new alliance between intellectuals and union activists, based partly on a more critical understanding of the past.

The debate over the politics of identity has also surfaced, with its own variations, among the people who offer courses to workers and members of trade unions. Until very recently, that group viewed labor historians as too academic to be useful in their courses. When I became a member of the University and College Labor Education Association in 1980, it had one division for university- based teachers and another for union-based teachers. Each harbored suspicions of the other; neither was much interested in critical perspectives on the labor movement; neither used the scholarship of labor historians in their classes for opening up questions about how unions evolved. All that began to change in the 1990’s, and was greatly accelerated by the reform of the national A.F.L.- C.I.O.

Last spring, I attended a meeting in Milwaukee where the old bifurcated labor educators’ association was dissolved and a new organization, the United Association for Labor Education, was born. The conference centered on the impact of globalization and the issues raised by the vast population of immigrants who now work in the United States. In the past, none of the few labor-history sessions offered attracted much interest. This year was different. What I and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. education director, Susan Washington, had planned as a small workshop on integrating labor history into labor education ended up attracting some 75 people.

It is, indeed, an exciting time to be a labor historian. Scholars who once felt isolated in university history departments are organizing teach-ins on labor issues and supporting the new student movements against sweatshops and for the promotion of living-wage standards. Discarding older suspicions of intellectuals, the present A.F.L.- C.I.O. leaders have welcomed scholars and students, and they joined environmental activists in demonstrations in Seattle and Washington against the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund. For those of us who teach labor history, it is a particularly important time to bring decades of scholarship on working people to the subjects of our studies.

For the first time since the Progressive era of the early 1900’s, historians and intellectuals are being invited to be allies of unions and workers. A century ago, public intellectuals who participated in building progressive social movements did so, for the most part, outside the academy. Our generation of socially conscious scholars need not leave academe in order to reach out to others who are trying to build new movements for social justice and economic equity. As we try to revive the Progressive tradition of intellectual activism, let us remember what the social movements of our time need most from us: what we have to contribute as teachers and scholars.