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tThe President's Corner | Labor History Panel | From Below the Citgo Sign
October 1999
Volume I, Number 1

By President Eugene Genovese

00000The 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.
00000Self-congratulation 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.
00000To 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.
00000Procedures 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.
00000A 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.
00000Those 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 less—but better!"
00000Second, 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.
00000And 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 you.
00000We 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.

Eugene Genovese is president of The Historical Society.

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by Richard Schneirov

00000One 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.
00000There 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.
00000After 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.
00000The 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.
00000As 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.
00000At 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.
00000By 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."
00000At 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.
00000Meanwhile, 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.
00000If 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.
00000The 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?
00000Sklar 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.
00000Last 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.
00000Let 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 group.
00000Melvyn 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 America.
00000Our 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.
00000Our 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.
00000Our 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 The 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 Press.

Richard Schneirov is a professor of history at Indiana State University at Terra Haute.

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By Jeffrey Vanke, Assistant National Director, 1998-1999

00000The 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 office.
00000One 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 start-up grants.
00000During 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.
00000In 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.
00000Other 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.
00000The 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.
00000We 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.
00000Perhaps 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.
00000Another 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.
00000As 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.
00000Another 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 to begin.
00000On 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.
00000At 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.
00000A 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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