Workers, Cooperative Organizing, and American Capitalism

Endorsed by the BHC and LAWCHA

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Crime and Violence; Immigration and Internal Migration; Labor and Working-Class; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Politics; Race; Social and Cultural

Papers Presented

"'Fighting for Justice': Teamsters, Human Rights, and a Renewal of Working-Class Activism, 1992-2000

The 1992 formation of the Teamsters Human Rights Commission (HRC) was an important development in the history of organized labor. It represented a renewed alliance between unions and diverse civil society organizations. “Fighting for Justice” explores the activism brought about by the Teamsters HRC. I argue that the activism sponsored by the Teamsters HRC helped to expand democracy and equity, not merely at the point of production but also at a community level. It simultaneously made important attempts in organizing individuals who had historically been “underrepresented in the labor movement.” The work of the Teamsters HRC thus helps labor historians and students of American history see another side of unionism in the last few years of the twentieth century – one that shunned corporate partnerships and concessions and instead focused its attention on “effective actions for economic and social justice.” The HRC was originally conceived as an organization that would promote working-class solidarity but it quickly became an instrument for the celebration of diversity and inclusion. One major charge of the Commission was to educate members on issues involving racism, sexual harassment, or other matters that divided the membership. Simultaneously, its original mission statement called upon the HRC to advance “human rights to all union members by building coalitions with our allies in the community and labor movement.” To that end, the Commission sponsored numerous training sessions designed to educate members on subjects involving Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and potential ways the Teamsters could involve the broader community to support the rights of all working people. The training sessions conducted by the HRC manifested themselves in activism that allowed the IBT to advocate for worker rights while simultaneously joining forces with community organizations, religious leaders, physicians, women’s groups, environmentalists, and other social reformers. In this way, the Teamsters HRC played an important role in expanding democracy and enhancing workers’ ability to organize throughout the 1990s. Focusing on the Teamsters HRC allows historians to merge two important, yet underappreciated, topics within the fields of labor history and human rights. Although the literature involving the history of human rights continues to grow, there are critical groups missing from the analysis. Workers are one such group. Moreover, within the context of labor history, the Teamsters are underdeveloped. Surveying the Teamsters HRC affords historians an opportunity to examine the role that organized labor played throughout the twilight of the twentieth century when it comes to rights-based activism. This paper relies on a combination of archival material and oral histories and concludes that by bridging workplace issues with the notion of socio-political equality and fostering alliances beyond the workplace, the Teamsters HRC became an “effective voice for justice and dignity on the job, in our community, and throughout the world.”

Presented By
Ryan Scott Pettengill, Collin College

Federation Against Nationalism: Building the Cooperative League of the USA

Cooperatives have featured persistently in social movements, from New Deal labor activism to the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program, yet remain nearly non-existent in US social and economic history. While scholars such as Steven Leikin and Alexander Gourevitch have explored the roots of cooperatives in campaigns by the Knights of Labor and other trade unions in the nineteenth century, few scholars have addressed the cooperative movement’s resurgence in the twentieth century. This paper traces the formation of the Cooperative League of the USA in 1916 and its effort to build a national cooperative “federation.” I draw from books, pamphlets, how-to guides, Cooperative League publications, and correspondence between local cooperators and the newly-formed League. Challenging the class analysis dominant in historical approaches to cooperation, I position race and migration as key factors shaping the US cooperative movement. While building on earlier initiatives, this cooperative movement relied for its growth and leadership on immigrants bringing practical and cultural knowledge from better-established cooperative economies in Europe. Although cooperatives responded to the immediate needs of industrial workers in the United States, I argue the call for federation emerged from a critique of global capitalism that resisted both US nationalism and socialist appeals to the state. This paper shows how cooperative internationalism contested the racial and imperial structure of the US economy at a critical moment.

Presented By
Eve O'Connor, Harvard University

From Lockheed to Lockdown in Lynwood: Racialized Structural Unemployment and California’s Carceral State in the 1970s and 1980s

In 1970, bolstered by a federal subsidy from Nixon’s commerce department, Lockheed-California opened a small sub-assembly plant in Lynwood, California, a city adjacent to Watts in South Los Angeles. In so doing, the company claimed to be leading an effort to revitalize the disinvested area that had erupted in rebellion five years earlier. Lockheed promised to hire black and Latinx workers from the surrounding communities—members of the so-called “hard core” unemployed—and to provide an anchor for more industrial development. None of this came to be, however. While most of the workers hired by the plant did live within walking distance, and although many had never held such a high-wage job before, Lockheed remained the exception to the rule in the broader landscape of the deindustrializing city. Six thousand people applied to work in the plant during its first year, yet at its peak it only employed 300. Often that number was fewer, as the company struggled to maximize capacity during the economic crises of the 1970s and 80s. Finally, in 1988, when one of Lockheed’s large defense contracts ran out, the plant followed dozens of others in the area and closed for good. But the story did not end there. In 1994, in a bitter twist of irony, Los Angeles County opened a 1,000-bed jail complex on the very same site where the Lockheed plant once stood. The Lynwood Regional Justice Center not only boasted maximum- and medium-security lockups, it also had three courtrooms, a sheriff’s substation, and a state-of-the-art crime lab. And, unlike Lockheed, the new jail bolstered the local economy, providing 1,200 jobs when it opened—four times as many as had ever worked at Lockheed. Moreover, most of these were stable, public sector jobs, jobs that paid living wages and provided generous benefits and pensions, jobs that were not subject to the whims of the business cycle, but rather to California’s insatiable appetite for law and order. My paper explores the process through which this conversion took place. Following the work of Elizabeth Kai Hinton, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, and others, it attends to the ways in which the carceral state fed off of other areas of policy, in this case manpower policy. I begin by describing a particularly ineffective employment program, begun under the Johnson administration, that helped effect the federal government’s abdication of any meaningful role in mitigating structural unemployment, a program that Lockheed and many other companies took advantage of in order to appear to be doing something about the urban crisis that the rebellions of the 1960s and 70s had made unignorable. Then, I tell the story of Lockheed’s Lynwood plant, a plant that took on an outsized meaning in the context of the political, economic, and social crises that intensified during the 1970s and 80s. Telling this story, I argue, allows us to better understand the historical conditions that made Los Angeles a world leader in human caging.

Presented By
Michael Z. Dean, UCLA Department of History

Toward A Cooperative Commonwealth: Working-Class Parties and Transnational Impacts on US Politics

The presence of organizations and parties, from the 1870s through the 1920s, representing the interests of working farmers and laborers, demonstrates the existence of a decades-long farmer-labor bloc in U.S. political culture. Though its origins go back further, the sustained farmer-labor bloc began with the Knights of Labor, Greenback Labor Party and Grange of the 1870s. From these organizations, the farmer-labor bloc progressed through the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populist movement, the Socialist Party, the Nonpartisan League, and the Farmer-Labor conventions of the 1920s. The farmer-labor bloc was not something that flared-up now and then, punctuated by periods of hibernation, as third parties and protests movements are often incorrectly viewed. This movement was a regular feature of U.S. political culture for over five decades. Illustrating the transnational nature of contemporary radicalism, farmer-labor radicals were influenced by interactions with German Forty-Eighters, Mexican revolutionaries, Irish republicans, and Bolsheviks. This paper argues that the organized agitation of the farmer-labor bloc moved the political spectrum of U.S. political culture to the left. Though enacted into law, in watered-down versions, by Democrats and Republicans, many of the historic reforms of the Progressive and New Deal Eras originated and were tirelessly championed by individuals and organizations within the farmer-labor bloc. Indeed, without their efforts, a Progressive Era or New Deal likely never would have happened.

Presented By
Thomas Alter II, Texas State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Traci Parker, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Presenter: Thomas Alter II, Texas State University
Thomas Alter is an assistant professor of labor and Texas history at Texas State University. He is the author of Toward A Cooperative Commonwealth: The Transplanted Roots of Farmer-Labor Radicalism in Texas (University of Illinois Press, 2022).

Presenter: Michael Z. Dean, UCLA Department of History
I am a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the University of California, Los Angeles. My dissertation focuses on the history of California’s carceral state after World War II, with an emphasis on the politics of labor and work. Currently, I am the teaching fellow for the UCLA Community Scholars Program, which is run jointly through the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and the Department of African American Studies. This year, our course brings together former correctional workers and formerly incarcerated people with UCLA graduate and undergraduate students to explore the viability of a “Just Transition” framework away from mass incarceration in California. As part of this work, I also conducted a series of oral history interviews with former correctional workers, which will be archived through the California Digital Library. I can be reached at

Presenter: Eve O'Connor, Harvard University
Eve O'Connor is a PhD Candidate in American Studies at Harvard University.

Presenter: Ryan Scott Pettengill, Collin College
Ryan Pettengill teaches history at Collin College in Texas. His research interests include labor and working-class history, with a special focus on community-based activism, throughout the twentieth century. His most recent book is entitled Communists and Community: Activism in Detroit’s Labor Movement, 1941-1956.