President's Corner | Labor History Panel | From
Below the Citgo Sign
I, Number 1
President Eugene Genovese
warm response to our first convention has been stunning. But since presidents,
like deceived husbands, are the last to know, I remind myself that severe
critics often say little while the enthusiasts gush. Still, the convention
turned out to be all we could have hoped for. Alan Kors and Marty Sklar
did a great job, as did Jeff Vanke, Lou Ferleger, and the quickly cobbled
together staff in Boston. In this case, as in all other cases, the support
of Boston University could hardly have been more generous.
is not our thing. We are receiving good criticism—and hope for more—and
we are taking it seriously. The convention was a good start, nothing more,
and we have a lot of work to do to improve our effort. Here, I wish to
clarify out intentions and reiterate that, for reasons I touched upon in
my presidential address, we have no intention of trying to replicate the
Establishment’s big national meetings, which primarily serve as meat markets,
promote political correctness, and notoriously, put people to sleep.
begin with, in the interests of truth in advertising, we should probably
refer to our general meetings as "conferences," rather than "conventions."
We intend them to serve as guideposts and sources of ideas for the regional
and local meetings on which the future of The Historical Society and, indeed,
of our profession, depend. As such, national meetings will focus on two
or three problems and not attempt to duplicate the work of national conventions.
for regional conferences and local meetings are another matter, to be determined
by the regions and the localities themselves. (In other words, by you.)
Our Boston office is ready to assist you in any way it can, but it has
neither the authority nor the desire to interfere in your deliberations.
Here too, in accordance with the stated purposes of the society, we may
expect our regional and local groups to focus on "the big questions" but
also to do the monographic work that historians must and normally do do.
You will determine for yourselves what that guideline means in your area.
Please note the list of regional coordinators and communicate your ideas
and proposals to them.
word on the size of our meetings. The attendance of more than five hundred
at our first national meeting exceeded the expectations of most participants
and observers. It was especially remarkable because, by the time it was
announced, few departments, including the friendliest, had any money left
to facilitate the attendance of their colleagues. It is therefore imperative
that you make plans now to attend our next meeting and request support
from your department. For all we know, attendance will be twice as large
as last time. Then again, it may be half. We have no interest in the numbers
game. If a couple of hundred people hold a meeting that can help orient
our colleagues across the country, we shall have achieved our primary purpose.
But since we expect to make the meeting an intellectually challenging and
organizationally valuable experience, we do hope that it will be well attended.
of you who are prepared to take an active part in the planning of the regional
and local meetings will write your own ticket. If you request Lou Ferleger’s,
Kirse May’s, or my advice, we will give it, but otherwise you will make
your own decisions. I hope, however, that I may offer three thoughts for
your consideration. First, worry more about the content of your meetings
than about the size. Each region and locality is different and has its
own problems and possibilities. Certain kinds of local meetings might not
attract more than a dozen people, but if such meetings engage and encourage
colleagues who feel isolated and in need of criticism for their work-in-progress
or have the desire to discuss an important book with interested colleagues,
they shall, taken together, contribute to the essential work of the society
and the profession. Whether you think Comrade Lenin a hero or a monster,
he was anything but a fool. So do recall his excellent dictum: "Better
my own primary worry is that, with the best of intentions and with all
good will, we will lazily let good people slip through the cracks and thereby
replicate the miserable record of our predecessors. Every Region and locality
has people who take history seriously but are outside the academic loop.
We may begin with public historians and community college professors, who
are more often than not treated as stepchildren or worse. Then there are
secondary school teachers, who may never publish a line but who care about
history and know much more than they are given credit for. Apart from other
considerations, college professors are forever complaining, with justice,
about the weak preparation of their freshmen. To correct that problem,
college professors and secondary school teachers will have to start talking
to each other. Finally, we have a swelling group of "independent scholars’—a
category that ranges from those who prefer not to teach, to those who want
to teach but cannot find jobs to those whose family obligations make it
impossible for them to take full-time or even part-time jobs. They constitute
an invaluable resource, and some, despite great difficulties, are publishing
excellent books and articles.
third, we should treat our students, undergraduate as well as graduate,
well. (Please note that graduate students made up 12 percent of our convention
attendance.) They should be consulted directly and encouraged to participate
in all of our national, regional, and local meetings. Our excellent Committee
on Student Affairs, which is accumulating experience and is ready to assist
announced at the beginning that "We have come to stay." We can feel good
about what we have accomplished in a short time, but we have a great deal
of work to do if we are to consolidate our base, expand our membership,
and, most importantly, bring our profession back to life. We need "activists"—people
who, despite heavy professional and other burdens, are willing to assist
if only by putting in a few hours. Please offer your services to the appropriate
regional coordinator. We need your ideas we well as your commitment, to
help realize those ideas.
Genovese is president of The Historical Society.
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FROM THE 1999 NATIONAL CONVENTION
of the most engaging and exciting sessions of the National Conference was
entitled "American Labor History: Past, Present, and Future." Participating
on the panel were Sean Wilentz of Princeton University; Grace Palladino
of the Samuel Gompers Papers Project, University of Maryland; Melvin Dubofsky
of State University of New York at Binghamton; and Michael Kazin of American
University. Reprinted here are the introductory remarks of the session’s
moderator, Richard Schneirov of Indiana State University at Terra Haute.
was a time when we could speak of the old labor history and the new labor
history:, the former, an institutional history of unions and industrial
relations written by labor economists notably John R. Commons and Selig
Perlman; the latter, a social and cultural history embracing all American
workers, focusing on conflict and resistance and written by social historians,
notably Herbert Gutman, David Brody, David Montgomery, and Melvyn Dubofsky.
The initial aim of the new labor history—an aim usually considered too
grandiose to be admitted openly- was nothing less than to write a history
of the self-creation or making of the American working class after the
fashion of E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class.
That aim was closely connected with the desire of labor history practitioners
to recover a usable past, a thread of historical development buried under
presumed historical condescension, that might legitimate the radical and
insurgent politics of the 1960s Left and provide an intellectual heritage
to guide and inspire a like-minded labor activism.
a number of less than successful starts in locating a class-conscious working
class, the field began to fragment. In the 1980s younger scholars began
to write about women, black, and immigrant workers. Meanwhile, they continued
to broaden their field of focus beyond unionized workers to contexts in
everyday life: the workplace, communities and neighborhoods, families,
and more recently consumption, migration patterns, and sexuality. With
new subject matter, the category of class, at least as it had been defined
up to then, began to appear limiting to some. Labor historians began employing
a host of new cultural concepts to deepen and supplement the older class
narrative, including gender, race, whiteness, ethnicity, family, and more
recently theories of cultural symbolism and meaning creation through discourse.
large contingent of those studying race and gender, many of them employing
poststructuralist themes and understandings, are among the most visible
practitioners in the field at this moment. But other labor historians,
a group which includes those on our panel today, have returned to—but with
new perspectives, questions, and tools—the study of unions and the relation
of workers to party politics, especially socialism and radicalism. In the
past decade, labor historians have also begun to study anew labor's relation
to the law and the American state.
early as 1984, in the hope of synthesizing this burgeoning body of scholarship,
a large group of labor and social historians gathered at Northern Illinois
University in De Kalb in an attempt to recover a central focus in the field.
The conference was inspired by a flurry of criticism of the new social
history beginning with Eugene Genovese's 1976 article in the Journal
of Social History. Herb Gutman in a widely quoted 1981 article in The
Nation, noted that the new social history, when added up, had not had
much influence on the standard accounts of US history. But to have the
kind of influence that the Commons-Perlman school had had, required some
sort of synthesis of the new scholarship, and none really existed; thus
the conference, two problems immediately became apparent: first, there
was minimal agreement on what such a synthesis, should there be one, would
entail and second, those whose scholarship and politics centered on race
and gender argued that the attempt at synthesis was nothing less than a
hegemonic attempt to marginalize and depreciate the study of those workers
outside the white, male, organized core. In different words, the question
was: would the prime focus be to think vertically, that is, about
class relations of power, politics, and political economy or would it be
to think horizontally, that is, about the culturally conditioned
interrelations of race, gender, ethnicity, and class? Perhaps more to the
point, if the answer were both, then how would these two angles of vision
be reconciled? There wasn't anything close to a consensus, and most participants
left the conference frustrated and disappointed. It was after De Kalb that
it became clear that the field had lost any sense that its practitioners
were part of a scholarly subcommunity engaged in a common project.
the end of the decade, one of the deans of the field, David Montgomery,
observed that we could no longer assume that labor historians "shared a
common understanding of how history should be written and what it is about.
On the contrary, we bring sharply divergent and often mutually exclusive
conceptions of society to bear on the study of the workers' past."
the same time that fragmentation hit the field so did a new mood of pessimism
about its future, deriving from disappointed political expectations that
Leon Fink first noted in a 1988 Journal of American History article.
By then, the prospects of a rebellious rank-and-file movement aimed at
workers’ control that seemed at hand in the 1970s had dimmed, and the American
labor movement was in full retreat following its defeat at the hands of
Ronald Reagan in the air traffic controllers strike.
the scholarly project of constructing a compelling narrative of a working
class "making" itself was dead in the water. The still beguiling concept
of agency—common people making their own history—found more plausible and
inspiring subjects among women, blacks, and immigrants. With regard to
the working class, younger scholars have, since the late 1980s, been more
drawn to the narrative of declension rather than making. They have perceived
American Left history to be one working-class failure, whether it be failure
to challenge racism and gender inequities; failure to unite across ethnic,
racial and gender lines; or failure to sustain a labor or socialist party.
The ironic title of a recent book about the Knights of Labor, The Making
of American Exceptionalism, speaks volumes about the new belief that
the American working class was and is a class in decline. Another book
published in 1996, this one on the 1930s entitled, We Are All Leaders:
The Alternative Unionism of the 1930s, viewed the rise of the CIO as
a pyrrhic victory, equivalent to the triumph of bureaucracy over a more
democratic community unionism. A 1997 thread on the on-line discussion
network, H-Labor entitled "the future of labor history," elicited comments
from labor historians filled with doubt, self-criticism, and dissatisfaction
about the prospects for their field. Several commented that they were considering
leaving it entirely. Today's labor historians are inclined to describe
the proverbial half-filled glass as half empty.
I may briefly interject my own views here: as I have argued in my recent
book, Labor and Urban Politics, the quite sudden and curious inversion
of values among labor historians—one in which the major sin today is triumphalism—lies
in their initial tendency to seek a kind of countercultural alternative
to a purportedly corrupted and corrupting liberal American culture. Rather
than study workers and their movements in the context of the periodic transformations
of America's dynamic political economy and liberal polity, labor historians
have too often sought to find historical validation for non-liberal or
anti-liberal alternatives, whether that be in the shape of heroic strikes;
labor’s or producers' republican ideology; movement cultures; ethnic, gender,
or workplace subcultures; or labor and socialist third parties. The defeat
of organizations like the Knights of Labor, key strikes like Pullman, and
third parties like that of the Populists and numerous local labor parties
in the 1880s and 1890s and again in the 1930s have made the twentieth century
look like one long, unrelenting tragedy to many labor historians, and greatly
contributed to the present mood.
easy move from optimism to pessimism may stem from labor history' s rootedness
in 1960s political commitments. At the 1994 Pullman Strike Centennial Conference
held at Indiana State, Martin Sklar and Nick Salvatore both expressed concerns
about the integrity of scholarship written self-consciously in the service
of political ends. No questions at the conference aroused more raucous
debate and touched more sensitive nerves than these: Can we or should we
try to keep advocacy and our practice of history at arm's length? And,
does our search for a usable past in the service of radical politics and
a moral imperative inevitably distort our history?
argued that historians need to periodize their scholarship more self-consciously
and rigorously, that is, systematically relate it to a larger paradigm
shared by a community of scholars who seek to explain the central characteristics
and tendencies of the larger society of which workers are a part. Rather
than getting our hypotheses directly from our present-day politics, he
argues that we should get them from our ongoing engagement with these scholarly
paradigms. Of course we can never be, nor should we aspire to be, value-neutral.
But only if we keep our politics and our scholarship relatively separate
can we create a dialogue between them and thereby enrich both our politics
and our history. Sklar prompts us to return to an older, now perhaps novel,
goal of deriving our politics from our history rather than vice versa.
year, Nick Salvatore published a revised version of his Pullman Conference
address in the International Journal of Politics, also criticizing
the politicization of scholarship. Salvatore believes that many labor historians
exaggerate the agency of the workers they study because of an inattention
to social context and a thin scholarly apparatus, a tendency originating
with Herbert Gutman. At this point, I only want to raise that question
along with other problems for the consideration of our audience.
us now turn to the views of our panel. Our panel this morning makes no
pretense of being representative of all tendencies in the field of labor
history. We do, however, have a group of historians who have made important
contributions to the field and who continue to think deeply about its future.
Let me begin by introducing our first panelist, the senior member of our
Dubofsky is a distinguished professor of history and sociology at Binghamton
University. Professor Dubofksy has been an influential force in the writing
of labor history since 1969 when he published We Shall Be All, a
history of the IWW. Since then he has published a history of labor in Progressive
Era New York, an acclaimed coauthored biography of John L. Lewis and, most
notably, several books that have all become staples in the field, including
the standard text Labor in America, which he has revised twice since it
was originally written in 1949 by Rhea Foster Dulles; Industrialism
and the American Worker, 1865-1920, a popular survey in the American
history series published by Harlan Davidson; and most recently, perhaps
his most impressive work, the influential The State and Labor in Modern
next presenter is Sean Wilentz, a member of the faculty at Princeton University
where he is also director of the program in American Studies. Wilentz's
major book Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American
Working Class, 1788-1850, published in 1984, helped bring politics
back to the center of labor history. More recently he has coauthored with
Michael Merrill, The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings
of William Manning, 1747-1814, and, with Paul Johnson, The Kingdom
of Matthias. He is currently at work on a book on the rise of American
democracy from 1787 to 1860.
next presenter, Grace Palladino, is co-director of the Samuel Gompers Papers
project, which is sponsored by the University of Maryland. The project
so far has issued six volumes published by the University of Illinois Press.
Professor Palladino herself has written Another Civil War: Labor, Capital
and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840-1868
and Dreams of Dignity; Workers of Vision: A History of the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Her most recent book is Teenagers:
An American History.
final speaker is Michael Kazin. Professor Kazin is currently a fellow at
the Woodrow Wilson Center. In the fall he will start teaching history at
Georgetown University. He is the author of two influential books: Barons
of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades in the Progressive Era,
an important rethinking of the thesis that the AFL was antipolitical, and
Populist Persuasion: An American History, which argues for the importance
of Populism as a transhistorical language in the twentieth century. He
is also coauthor with Maurice Isserman of America Divided: The Civil
War of the 1960s, which will be published in the fall by Oxford University
Schneirov is a professor of history at Indiana State University at Terra
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BELOW THE CITGO SIGN
THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY FROM THE CENTRAL OFFICE
Jeffrey Vanke, Assistant National Director, 1998-1999
Historical Society was founded in April 1998, after a core group of senior
scholars had determined its leadership and had expanded to include a critical
mass in numbers, diverse academic specialties, and a range of political
ideologies. But already by this time, when the intellectual impetus behind
THS had gathered its initial forces, the organization was developing the
logistical infrastructure required to support its operations and projects.
This article describes the development of THS’s operations and central
office from the early stages based in the personal offices of successive
organizers, to the recent introduction of full-time operations in our Boston
of our early intellectual leaders, Marc Trachtenberg of the University
of Pennsylvania, took on the tasks of registering the organization in mid-1996
and applying for official nonprofit status from the IRS at the end of 1997
in Pennsylvania. Trachtenberg completed those two tasks even before the
nascent THS was prepared to launch itself publicly. At the same time he
was coordinating internal communications and the registration of charter
members. Furthermore, he and others helped obtain and administer important
the 1997/98 academic year, Trachtenberg gradually eased himself out of
active leadership, as the organization established itself in the Boston
area. Most importantly, Trachtenberg drew on the society’s new funds to
engage his recent student, Francis Gavin (PhD 1997), to take over most
logistical operations on a part-time basis and to advise THS projects.
Gavin held this position while undertaking a post-doctoral fellowship at
Harvard University’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. He transferred
both the mailing address and its bank account from Philadelphia to Cambridge.
He oversaw development of a membership database, as membership increased
steadily after the press conference in April 1998. Gavin helped plan organizational
meetings and coordinated a surge in internal communications, all while
establishing the organization’s roots in the Boston area. In the early
summer of 1998, THS officers concluded an association agreement with Boston
University that would permanently establish the organization in Boston.
June 1998, Gavin accepted a full-time position at the University of Virginia’s
Miller Center of Public Affairs Presidential Papers Project, and THS hired
Jeffrey Vanke, this article’s author, to replace him starting in late August.
At the time, I was completing a dissertation in history at Harvard University,
and the newly entitled job of assistant national director increased my
time commitment to twenty to thirty hours per week. Like my predecessor,
I initially worked out of my own office. But during the next two months,
one of my main tasks was to equip the office recently leased from Boston
University. I could not transfer my work to our Kenmore Square office until
three minimum requirements were fulfilled: the acquisition of the minimum
desk, chair, computer, printer, and basic office supplies; the installation
of phone lines; and the installation of ethernet connections to the university’s
server (in lieu of a modem connection). A fourth immediate task was the
establishment of a separate e-mail address, because I very much wanted,
and professional standards mandated, that the growing volume of correspondence
shift away from my personal address.
office acquisitions would follow, and still do. I acquired more furniture,
like the initial set all obtained gratis from Boston University’s surplus
storage. A fax machine and a photocopier followed, requiring an unpleasant
negotiating experience. The open office space was then divided by panels,
available at sharply discounted used prices from the University, into separate
workstations and a conference room, with the reception and kitchen areas
remaining in the open space. During the next winter and spring 1999, we
acquired two additional computers.
additional equipment was necessary because we were gradually employing
a small group of very helpful undergraduate and graduate students from
Boston Unversity and Harvard, most of them on a work-study basis. The extraordinary
skill and responsibility of these part-time student workers allowed THS
to expand its operations with a minimum of complications.
frequently had recourse to the very valuable advice of our neighbors at
the Archaeological Institute of America. The AIA is one of several other
academic associations like ours that have similar association agreements
with Boston University. Director Mark Meister and his staff have been very
generous with their time and friendly in helping us settle into our new
office. For example, since our first academic year in operation did not
include full-time staffing, we were often absent for mail and other deliveries;
the AIA gave us a mailbox in their space for approximately six months until
we had a mail slot installed in our own space.
the most complex office task was the administration of the membership database
and related data processing. To ensure flexibility, Francis Gavin had adopted
very advanced database software with a very steep learning curve. The effort
has paid off in a variety of ways, not least in allowing us to generate
a myriad of mailing labels and e-mail lists for specific subgroups of our
membership. This flexibility will be particularly helpful once our journal
subscriptions start this year.
skilled task, this one carried out almost exclusively by our student assistants,
is bulk mailing. As in other cases, our nonprofit status had to be confirmed
with a separate application and a copy of the letter from the IRS with
our nonprofit authorization. Then we had to negotiate our way through a
maze of zip code groups (not all in numerical order), special stamps, various
labels, more forms, and the proper delivery at the proper location. One
of the first items we mailed in this way was the brochure printed in October
1998. For the design and printing of the brochure, we were able to rely
on the University’s resources. Comparison shopping revealed that the Boston
University Office of Publications Production would both move more quickly
on the project and complete it at a lower cost than outside printing firms.
winter turned to spring, more and more of the central office’s work was
increasingly devoted to preparing for the first national convention, which
took place in Boston at the end of May. As early as the previous autumn,
THS had engaged in contracts for conference spaces, housing, and air transportation.
The conference spaces, meals, and student housing were all available from
Boston University, at lower university rates where applicable. Particularly
important was on-campus housing, which served well over one hundred of
our participants, at extremely low rates by Boston standards. Block reservations
at two hotels allowed us to secure reduced rates there as well.
key aspect of the convention involved facilitating the exchange of papers
and other information between panelists. While we did not do this as a
matter of course for all panels, we often provided contact information
or related messages, as requested. In a few cases, where presenters were
unable to attend, I helped identify replacements, or at least readers for
papers. Closer to the date of the meeting, we in the central office prepared
registration packets, informed participants of changes in the program,
and provided a list of area restaurants. I collected information to organize
informal lunches for groups in similar academic specialties. Long hours
and some fifteen thousand photocopies later, the convention was prepared
site we required more labor than we ordinarily employed during the academic
year, and we recruited among our friends until we had enough people for
the long weekend. The peak periods were the setting up and breaking down,
which also coincided with the greatest demand on our registration and information
tables. Although a few minor problems arose during the conference, the
event proceeded very smoothly, allowing participants to focus their energies
on sessions, meetings, and more informal exchanges. During the two weeks
after the conference, the central office staff concentrated especially
on pulling together all of the loose ends from the conference. These tasks
included processing registration forms, returning books to publishers,
and reviewing and paying the bills for the event.
the same time, we had to prepare for another transition of logistical leadership.
Having accepted a faculty position at Guilford College (Greensboro, North
Carolina), I was scheduled to conclude my duties toward the end of June.
In the meantime, Louis Ferleger had been appointed executive director (and
professor at Boston University), and Kirse May (PhD 1999, University of
Utah) as associate director. As treasurer, and a Boston-area resident,
Ferleger had previous involvement in the office’s operations. He was assisted
in the summer transition by two student employees who were very skilled
in the technical aspects of the organization; with their help, Ferleger
and May have assumed full-time leadership responsibilities in THS and its
office. We thus begin our second full academic year.
final word on finance is appropriate. While membership dues have covered
some of our operational costs, foundational supporters have funded most
expenses. Establishing and maintaining an office of even moderate size
is an expensive affair, as is the administration of a large conference.
This report thus concludes with an expression of gratitude for the support
we have received from Boston University, the Earhart Foundation, the Gilder-Lehrman
Foundation, the Olin Foundation, Mrs. Anne Peretz and Dr. Martin Peretz,
and the Smith-Richardson Foundation.
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