History has been busy lately. It’s been watching, judging, and waiting. It has been evoked and weaponized, and is under daily attack. Of course, history does nothing without historians, and it is we who play the roles in this extraordinarily complicated act of time’s play—and whose profession is on trial yet again.
Labor historians have a particularly deep understanding of how history is busy. Labor history, the focus of this edition of The American Historian, remains an essential and rich field of study, and one that demands a greater influence in the broader landscape of public discourse and political behavior. On that landscape, understandings of labor and capitalism, of class in general, lack the nuance and complexity of especially recent scholarship. This lack of intellectual transference, of bridging, of both labor and economic history can find real-time utility in, say, contextualizing the horrific conditions in U.S. poultry plants in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Knowing the labor practices, infrastructure, organizational, capital/wealth, distribution, et al of the world’s largest group of chicken producers (in 2020 over $9 billion raised, equally nearly $60 billion in revenue), deepens the importance of the lives and deaths of the overwhelmingly immigrant workforce in packing plants.
Understanding the deep and complicated historical connection between colleges and universities and labor can also help us make sense of the recent surge in labor movements among graduate students and faculty. As Cristina Viviana Groeger tells us in her article in this issue, over “140 new faculty, postdoc, graduate and/or undergrad student worker bargaining units have won recognition in the United States, including over eighty at private institutions.” While some may view the recent uptick in university-level labor movements as a natural consequence of a recent anti-labor turn at the university level (the “businessification” of the university model), Groeger shows us that universities have long been centers of anti-labor sentiment. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, universities, especially those on the east coast, were active participants as strike-breakers, often sending students to cross picket lines. Moreover, as a college education became more and more essential for entrance into the business world, centers of business, often banks, became more and more entrenched with those who had received an anti-labor education. The idea that universities have always been “liberal bastions” and champions for labor took hold in the 1960s and 1970s, as colleges and universities became more democratic and diverse in their enrollment. In reality, the current anti-labor streak seen at many universities is more in line with historical precedence.
Historians working in public realms often query whose hands built this place, made this object, toiled in these fields and factories in social history-infused work. We continue to use the tools of our trade to create with organizers such as undocumented youth activists to record literally with oral history projects, and actively in real time with related material collecting at the intersection of labor and political activism. The projects known best to me are the National Museum of American History’s Undocumented Organizing Collective Initiative, and Hostile Terrain ‘94: The Undocumented Migration Project, a powerful current exhibition at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles. And across the land lie historic sites of labor leaders, from Frances Perkins to Cesar Chavez, factories, mill towns, and powerfully plantation sites whose interpretation and representation grow with a broad range of efforts from the Slave Dwelling Project to the National Park Service’s renewed commitment to share the many stories of workers, organizers and their places.
Women’s labor, the focus of one of the articles in this volume, remains essential to both society and to historians’ world view and scholarship. Aimee Loiselle’s article focuses not only on the physical labor of women, but also tells the story of how working-class women struggled to have their stories accurately portrayed by the media. When working-class women attempted to work with members of the media—whether they were movie producers or scholarly academics—the media often distorted or commodified working-women’s stories for profit. In this sense, working-class women had to fight two battles. One was the more well-known struggle for labor rights as working-women, but another was the ability to be active and equal partners in media representations of their labor struggles.
This provocative take on media representation and the struggle working-class women, in particular women of color, faced in procuring an equal voice in how their stories were represented adds to an already rich scholarship of women’s labor. Vicki Ruiz’s breakthrough Cannery Lives, Cannery Women: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950 (1987) importantly challenged stereotypical roles and reclaimed the activism of Mexican women and Chicanas in the “new labor history” efforts of her mentor David Brody, along with David Montgomery, Nelson Lichtenstein, et al. Historians now strive at rich syntheses of fuller labor history that moves squarely away from the “bottom up” and “top down” polarity such as Matt Garcia’s Eli and the Octopus: The CEO Who Tried to Reform One of the World’s Most Notorious Corporations (2023).
Veering into another definition of labor here, albeit too briefly, it remains essential to think about women’s work and labor under the long, dark shadow of the patriarchy. Forced, coerced, voluntary, unpaid, paid—women have been subjugated and struggled throughout time for recognition and fairness for their work. Thinking in particular of how women’s labor takes biological expressions in childbirth, and in post-Roe era attacks on reproductive freedom and healthcare, historians provide essential contextualization and righting of hurtful, incorrect interpretations of the past. In September 2021, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association submitted an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court presenting the relevant history to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case—and over twenty-five organizations signed on in solidarity. Sites of public history also can provide forums for conversations on reproductive health, as did the recent talk-back cards in the Girlhood (it’s complicated) exhibition. Tens of thousands took the time to respond to the prompt, “Has someone else ever made a decision that affected your body?” as detailed poignantly in this blog post.
Our work is certainly cut out for us, making organizations Such the OAH ever-more essential. I remain deeply honored to serve as president in these times, with my fellow officers and board members and colleagues in OAH volunteer and executive leadership helmed by Beth English. As we counter attacks on academic and intellectual freedom, confront recharged national culture wars, a tsunami of educational gag orders and book bans, remember our powers as historians. We are tellers of stories, seekers of truths, embracers of nuance, ambassadors of empathy, and defenders of unalienable rights. That history is a prime tool of justice only continues to grow more resolute in my mind, as I hope it does in all of yours.
Below are a few links that can be used in the classroom when discussing labor history that were mentioned throughout the article.
“There are only a handful of moments in our nation’s history where people without citizenship or voting rights have changed government policy…To chronicle this significant moment in U.S. history, the Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative is collaborating with undocumented organizers to reflect the size and scope of this powerful movement.”
“This installation tells their stories and experiences to raise awareness about the dangers and deaths happening almost daily since 1994 as a direct result of the immigration enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence” (PTD), a policy designed to discourage people from crossing borders near urban ports-of-entry.”
“The Slave Dwelling Project envisions a future in which the hearts and minds of Americans acknowledge a more truthful and inclusive narrative of the history of the nation that honors the contributions of all our people, is embedded and preserved in the buildings and artifacts of people of African heritage, and inspires all Americans to acknowledge their Ancestors.”
A site dedicated to the highlighting physical locations of significant labor-related events.
The recent OAH statement on the Dobbs v Jackson decision.
A post summarizing over 15,000 “talk-back” cards completed in the National Museum of American History’s Girlhood (it’s complicated) exhibition, answering the prompt: “Has someone else ever made a decision that affected your body?”