In the last few decades historians have opened wide the field of labor history, pushing into issues and terrains that had previously been segregated or ignored. The result has been an impressive cross fertilization of subfields and an important crop of new arguments and insights. Today's labor history no longer fits neatly into a couple of distinct chapters and no longer focuses so tightly on strikes and radicals.
Arguments about western labor exceptionalism have not disappeared, but they have become more complicated as labor historians have argued that issues of work, class development, and industrial relations lie near the heart of western historical change and regional identity. Western history and labor history had a curious and awkward relationship through most of the twentieth century.
Professional historians paid little attention to workers, unions, or class until the s. But outside of the history departments, a rich literature of labor history began to develop early in the 20th century, actually two literatures, one produced by left-wing novelists and journalists, the other by economists. Academic labor history was largely a project associated with labor economists.
The study of industrial relations had emerged in the progressive era under the guidance of the University of Wisconsin economists John R. Commons and Selig Perlman. Moving, they claimed, away from the morality-based or revolutionary arguments about unions and class, the labor economists tried to understand what they thought to be the natural progress of an industrializing democracy towards a collective bargaining system of labor relations. History became important to their discipline because it enabled them to show the evolutionary trajectory and pick out the conditions that advanced or retarded the construction of what they regarded as a rational and efficient set of relations between workers, unions, and employers.
Their students took an early interest in the West, particularly in San Francisco which by the early twentieth century had established a reputation as the most tightly unionized major city in America. The labor economists set out to understand why, tracing in careful detail the history of unions, strikes, and labor radicalism from the gold rush on, focusing much attention on the way that labor shortages gave unions early advantages in the West.
Some of those early studies remain impressive today, especially Ira Cross's A History of the Labor Movement in California which displays the labor economists' trade mark methodology: deep historical empiricism. There is nothing shoddy about the research nor abstract about the conceptualization. The labor economists treated history with a reverence that even the most archive bound historian would admire. Another subject also drew interest. In the decades that followed labor economists would branch out to study all of the basic industries of the West and most of the cities where labor movements had flourished.
These books were notable for their focus on institutional dynamics, on how unions were built and how they functioned. But the legacy of the labor economists is much bigger than any specific list of books. In hundreds of dissertations and masters theses that poured out of the economics departments and industrial relations institutes they laid down a carpet of descriptive studies of industries, unions, strikes, bargaining, and politics of labor.
The labor economists also built the archives that today preserve invaluable collections of union and business records. At a time when western history libraries like the Huntington and Bancroft were rejecting such materials, much of the region's industrial and labor history was being preserved as well as written by members of another discipline. Besides the strong institutional focus some other features of this labor-economics literature are notable. One is that it paid little attention to concepts of regionalism or the frontier development issues that occupied western historians, relying more on the specificity of industry than a specificity of place.
As a result much of this labor history was not explicitly western. It was set in the West but the regional effect was not much explored. Another characteristic that particularly catches the eye of today's historians was the economists' inattention to solidarities and fragmentations based race, ethnicity, gender, or even class. The tight institutional focus on unions left little room for social analysis.
A third characteristic might also be mentioned: these works tended to underplay conflict and violence. It was partly a matter of tone--the clinical style of expression--and partly because the economists theorized violent industrial relations as a passing historical phase and often moved their studies through such episodes to reach the stable systems of negotiation and controlled conflict that they saw as modern and inevitable. This last tendency stands in sharp contrast with the other labor history project that shadowed the work of the economists through the first two thirds of the 20th century.
Its modes of expression were novels and journalistic histories and its tone was strident and sensationalist. Out of this stream of literature would come some of the most enduring understandings of western work and labor, especially the understanding that the West claimed a uniquely violent and uniquely radical heritage. The founders of this tradition were socialist writers who at the turn of the century tried to publicize the struggles underway in the mining camps, wheat fields, and seaports of the West.
Images of industrial violence had figured in the fiction of late 19 th century regional colorists like Mary Hallock Foote whose novel Coeur d'Alene had told the story of the Idaho mining wars from the viewpoint of the owners and managers, making dynamite throwing strikers into one more of the dangers that heroic westerners must face on the road to civilization.
The radical writers flipped the perspective while building up the image of the West as a zone of class violence. The early classics include Frank Norris's The Octopus , a haunting portrait of farmers taking up arms against the Southern Pacific Railroad; Jack London's Martin Eden and Valley of the Moon , semi-autobiographical tales of young people wandering through a western workscape filled with brutality and terror; Upton Sinclair's King Coal , the nightmarish story of the Colorado Ludlow massacre, and Oil! In these works the West was gaining a labor noir literary tradition that would blossom further in the s both in fiction and journalism.
Violence by the privileged against the poor was key to this regional counternarrative. Using and turning the west's mythic associations with opportunity and violence, the labor noirists preached that the region's dreams had become nightmares.
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The labor noir historians worked with similar themes. Louis Adamic was first. Notable for its provocative primary thesis that class violence caused by ruthless industrial conditions was endemic to American history, it also seemed to argue a secondary theme that the West was the location for the worst expressions of that violence. Moreover the book resurrected and romanticized the IWW, lavishing a good portion of its energy on stories of violence by and especially against Wobblies, many of whom in were still languishing in prison. Adamic had spent a number of years associating with Wobblies when he lived in Los Angeles.
They become the forlorn heroes of his book and in a move that other journalists would follow, he regionalized them, turning them into westerners. He celebrates the basic principles of the organization, especially its plan for One Big Union as "a typically Western idea--big: the sky was the limit. Events in the s added to the growing interest in labor's past and the market for such books.
The explosion of strikes and organizing that attended the early New Deal found some of their most dramatic expression on the West Coast where the longshoreman's walkout led to a four-day-long general strike in San Francisco and sympathy strikes in ports up and down the coast.
The passage of the National Industrial Relations Act in set off the greatest era of labor activism in American history as two union federations the older American Federation of Labor and the new Congress of Industrial organizations competed to organize millions of workers into unions. For the next twenty years labor would be big news and labor history enjoyed its greatest era of public interest. Professional historians still paid little attention, but journalists and publishers now realized that there was a market for books on the subject.
Many of the popular histories of western places and other regional color journalism of the middle decades of the century emphasized labor issues and labor history, their authors typically following Adamic's lead and focusing on episodes of conflict and violence. An implicit thesis of western labor exceptionalism had been running through the noirist literature all along, but apart from casually reasoned assertions about western traditions of individualism and violence, there was no theory to support it.
McWilliams produced one. Spelled out in his book, California: The Great Exception , it formally argues the uniqueness of California's labor history but easily extends to most of the rest of the West. Describing what he calls the "total engagement" of labor and capital in an unending no-holds barred cycle of industrial conflict, McWilliams' explanation starts with Ira Cross's insight that tight labor markets gave an early and fairly continual advantage to western workers.
europeschool.com.ua/profiles/fodocuwut/denej-mujer-busca.php But the heart of his thesis is a blend of Frederick Jackson Turner's history and Robert Park's sociology. McWilliams argues that class tensions in the West were continually exacerbated by the pace of population growth and the "absence of well-established forms of social organization.
It made capitalists just as aggressive and ready to use "strong arm tactics. It was not until the historical profession started into its social historical turn in the mid s that labor history became part of academic history. The journal Labor History was founded in and soon began to publish the work of a group of historians who had veered from the institutional focus established by the labor economists.
Thompson's magisterial, The Making of the English Working Class became the touchstone for the "New Labor Historians" who followed its lead in using social history to probe beyond unions into work and social life, class formation, and the traditions of radical politics.
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Two regional labor history organizations were founded in the late s and early s: The Southwest Labor Studies Association based in California and the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association which holds its annual meetings in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Bringing together academic historians, trade unionists, and non professionals interested in the subject, the two organizations have provided the principle institutional support for western labor history over the past twenty-five years.
The labor historians' biggest accomplishment has been to explore in expanding detail the world of work, overturning singular images of "the worker" and replacing it with "working people" of great diversity and multiple contexts. From rural school teachers to hard-rock miners, from oilworkers in southern California to cannery workers in Alaska, from Native American hop pickers to African American ship stewards, up and down the social structure and across the broad geography of the West the labor historians of recent decades have mapped, counted, and richly described who worked, at what sort of jobs, under what sort of conditions.
Several challenging new understandings about the Gilded Age and Progressive Era western working class have emerged from all of this social history. One focuses on its industrial composition, the other on its ethnic configurations. Carlos Schwantes is responsible for the most ambitious argument about the complexity of the western workscape.
He argues that the western economy was distinct from other regions because of the high proportion of wageworkers and wageworkers of a particular kind. Much of the wage work in the West took place outside the cities, in the region's mining towns, lumber camps, cattle ranches, canneries, fishing villages, and in the mobile encampments of railroad workers who laid and repaired the tracks, farm workers who followed the crops, and on board the thousands of steam ships, lumber schooners, and fishing boats which plied the coastal and inland waters of the west coast.
Seasonal and economically unstable, these western industries depended upon a highly mobile work force comprised largely of young men who often moved from one kind of work to another and who also moved seasonally through the western cities, working on the docks, filling up the skidrows, getting through the winters.