Recently there was a post on Seth Wigderson"s H-Labor on the value and usefulness of attempting to study labor comparatively "North" and "South". I wrote one response, but I'd like to hear what others might think about such comparisons. Peter Alexander, of Oxford, is doing a comparative study of race in the labor movement of the Birmingham (USA) coal miners and the South African gold miners. One organized racially mixed unions, etc , the other opted for the racially segregated policies. I wrote the following response. I'll try to find the original one.
I think these comparisons can and should be made. As a person who does "South" labor history, I am constantly frustrated by the reluctance of "North" labor historians to go beyond this area. It also confounds me how "comparative labor history" can be purting book by Anne Phillips called THE ENIGMA OF COLONIALISM: BRITISH POLICY IN WEST AFRICA, in which she argues that the colonial state rejected its initial "project" to separate producers from the land and create a "proper" proletriat at the service of expatriate capital. This rejection, which occurred by approximately 1914, arose from the realization (by state administrators) that they lacked the power to exercise the violence implicit in proletarianization and settled, to "save face" on a romantically constructed peasantry, which it argued could supply the goods (and market) for metropolitan economies. It would be important to compare similar processes(or lack there of) between Africa (or another "South" continent) and The West (both North AMerica and Europe). I'm eager to see such a comparison. I can also think of other areas or processes to compare. Strike strategies, for example. The way that South African trade unionists organized during the most repressive periods of apartheid and refused to select leaders for fear that they would be killed would, it seems, have many lessons for trade unionists operating in "not to friendly" environments today. There is also a considerable literature on race, class and gender in South Africa. Iris Berger's Book, THREADS OF SOLIDARITY describes the struggles of the S. A. Garment Workers union to organize a multi-racial female work force as Afrikaner nationalism is emerging w/in South Africa. It raises interesting questions about race and labor force segmentation.
Finally, I think comparative labor process studies would be useful as well. In many cases the technical aspects of the organiztion of work are transferred from the "North". But in many cases it gets indigenized. And the way that workers develop and express consciousness is also worthy of study.
I'd like to see a comparative study of coal mining. Peter Alexander's proposed study could lead to additional efforts of this type.
Sorry to have gone on so long.
Carolyn Brown, Dept of History
New Brunswick, N. J. 08903-5059
(908) 932-6763 (Fax)