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American labor history: a conspiracy of silence?

American labor history: a conspiracy of silence?

Within the universities, the field of labor history is flourishing as never before. First-rate scholarly books and articles issue forth regularly from the university presses--a surprising number of them winning the historical profession's top prizes. Yet, as even an unsystematic survey shows, popular presentations of labor history (especially high-quality ones) are much more difficult to find.

Probably the most pervasive way to present labor history to public audiences is to not present it at all. To a large degree, this has been the practice of American Heritage-- the Nation's leading popular history magazine--during most of its 33 years. I pick on American Heritage, not because it has an exceptionally bad record, but because it is an often excellent magazine that has followed the general tendency of the popular media to ignore America's laboring past. A check of the detailed index of the magazine's first 28 years, a period during which it published something like 2,000 articles and about 10 million words, yields the following number of references to labor leaders: Samuel Gompers, 13; John L. Lewis, 8; Bill Haywood, 8; Emma Goldman, 3; Walter Reuther, 2; William Z. Foster, 2; and Terence V. Powderly, 1. Most other labor leaders of note were not mentioned at all.

By contrast, consider the 38 references to Andrew Carnegie, the 44 references to members of the Vanderbilt family, the 37 references to members of the Astor family, the 37 references to P.T. Barnum, and the more than 300 references to Theodore Roosevelt. Similarly, the index contains almost twice as many references to Christmas as to strikes and almost 10 times as many references to Mark Twain as to the American Federation of Labor. In the last couple of years, American Heritage has become a bit more eclectic and pluralistic in its coverage of U.S. history, but labor history has received only marginally more attention.

However, American Heritage is far from the worst offender in a general conspiracy of silence about American labor history. One searches with difficulty in other arenas for the public presentation of history to find discussions of labor history, particularly if we define that field specifically to mean the history of unions, labor leaders, or strikes. Take museums, for example. Certainly, many museums, influenced by new social and labor history scholarship, have recently offered such fine exhibits about work and workers as "Workers' World: The Industrial Village and the Company Town' at the Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE, or "Perfect in Her Place: Women at Work in Dustrial America' at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Yet, it is much more difficult to think of exhibits that have focused on the development of the trade union movement or particular moments in labor history.

Even more difficult to find are museums devoted primarily to labor history. There are, of course, some excellent museums, particularly in New England, that focus on industrialization, and some of these have begun to do a fine job of incorporating the experience of the factory workers. But, so far as I know, the Botto House in New Jersey, which commemorates, in part, the Paterson strike of 1913, is the only museum in the United States that focuses on the traditional concerns of labor history. This against the dozens, if not hundreds, of historic sites, historic houses, and museums that celebrate industrialists and great triumphs in industrial and business history.

Even black history, hardly a topic that is well represented in popular history, is more fully portrayed in museums and historic sites than is labor history. One looks in vain across the museum landscape to find museums or even more than a handful of historic markers devoted to great moments in labor history. Even in prolabor State like Michigan, for example, it is only quite recently--and apparently after some struggle--that the State government decided to erect some markers commemorating the Flint sitdown strikes of 1937.

Obviously, one of the problems in creating such labor history sites and museums is that the historic locations often belong to the companies that the workers were fighting. And one might expect those companies to have little interest in preserving the memory of moments of struggle. One would hardly expect General Motors to turn Fisher Body One in Flint into a museum of 1930's labor history. But this reality only points up the larger set of power relations that keeps labor history out of the public sphere. How many Hollywood movies have depicted great labor conflicts or the stories of labor leaders? The only two recent ones that I can think of are The Molly Maguires and Norma Rae, both made by the same director, Martin Ritt.

I could chronicle this absence at some length, but let me instead move to a second problem in the public presentation of labor history--its misrepresentation. Obviously, this is a slippery question, because one person's misrepresentation is another's incisive interpretation. Still, I think there is a pervasive tendency to underplay fundamental conflicts between bosses and workers and to overemphasize the potential of consensus and compromise.

Allow me again to turn to the pages of American Heritage for an example. One of the magazine's rare forays into labor history produced a 1960 account of the Pittsburgh Homestead steel strike of 1892 that totally absolved Andrew Carnegie of any blame for the conflict. The strike was portrayed as the result of a misunderstanding between an obstinate Henry Clay Frick and an equally obstinate set of steelworkers, rather than a fundamental struggle for control of the work process. "The truth was,' according to a sidebar to the article, "that had Carnegie been on the grounds when the strike broke, trouble might never have started, for the men worshiped him.'

Although I have not done any systematic survey, I would argue that most public presentations of labor history tend to minimize the sources and depth of conflict between workers and employers. Thus, for example, in 1979, television viewers were offered a version of the infamous Triangle factory fire of 1911, in which 146 women factory workers perished, that focused on domestic melodrama and Towering Inferno theatrics and avoided issues of industrial safety and employer negligence. Again, a labor conflict appeared to be the result of a tragic accident rather than fundamentally differing interests.

In a 1979 study of 17 commonly used high school textbooks on American history, Jean Anyon found a similar pattern.1 The books she studied provided very little labor history information, only about 6 pages on average in the chapters covering the crucial period from the Civil War to World War I. Almost all of them discussed the same three strikes: the 1877 railroad strikes, the 1892 Homestead strike, and the 1894 Pullman strike. And in most cases, the texts argued on this basis that strikes "only hurt labor's cause, are costly, and result in violence.'

By contrast, the textbooks generally discussed labor legislation of the period in glowing terms, without noting that such laws were subsequently either ignored or declared unconstitutional. As Anyone concludes, "The omission of successful strikes and the implied success of political avenues for the resolution of conflict suggest a desire to avoid conflict and to facilitate consensus.'

Similar studies of social studies textbooks, ranging from the American Federation of Labor's 1923 report on social studies in public institutions to Mark Starr's 1947 study ("Labor Looks at Education') to Will Scoggin's 1966 examination of Los Angeles textbooks to Richard Fantasia's detailed 1978 consideration of texts used in Buffalo, NY, document the same pattern of neglect and bias in the treatment of labor history.2

The third and most subtle problem in the public presentation of labor history is the divorce of the past from the present. And here, the problem is much broader than labor history itself; it reflects the larger tendency of our culture to avoid making connections between our history and our current lives and policies. It is the sort of attitude that allows us to celebrate the lives of leaders of important social and political movements which allowing the gains achieved by those lives to be eroded. It is also the sort of attitude I see among my students, who are perfectly willing to sympathize with the sufferings of workers in the late 19th century while denouncing labor unions in the present.

Finally, to return once more to American Heritage, when the journal did run an article on the 1937 General Motors sitdown strike in 1982, the author painted a sympathetic portrait of the strikers. But his conclusion suggested that labor and management had achieved "parity' by the end of the 1930's, and that the labor movement therefore no longer needed tactics like the sitdowns or aggressive organizers like the radicals who had participated in the strikes. The magazine's then-editor did use the article to offer a more contemporary note about the "precious right to organize.' Ironically, his reference was to the Polish labor movement, and not to any of the important labor-management problems that remain to be addressed in the United States today.

A more general tendency to divorce the past from the present can be found in many industrial museums. It is hardly an accident, in fact, that such museums have flourished only when the industry in question has died out locally. In New England, for example, virtually every town now has a museum focusing on the taxtile industry. But nowhere can one find museums that examine work in such currently important local industries as insurance, health care, or high technology. Moreover, as Mary Blewett has argued in a recent study of textile history museums in New England, those museums often evade the current implications of their presentations, particularly for our understanding of industrial capitalism as a system.3

These impressionistic comments may present an excessively gloomy picture. After all, there are numerous bright spots in the public presentation of labor history. There have, of course, been a number of very good labor history documentary films in recent years, although since 1981, public funding for such projects has been increasingly difficult to obtain. The 20 or so State labor history societies have sponsored numerous worthwhile projects--from erecting historic markers to establishing walking tours to conducting essay contests. The Massachusetts History Workshop has been particularly energetic and innovative in sponsoring commemorations, celebrations, and reunions around important moments in local labor history. Children's history books provide some surprisingly good and progressive presentations of labor history.4 The Longshoremen's union on the West Coast recently commissioned a mural commemorating the 1934 San Francisco general strike. And the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in New York recently mounted an exhibit on the Triangle Fire. Finally, the American Social History Project at the City University of New York is producing some excellent labor history curriculum materials for high schools and colleges.

Still, when we compare the thriving state of academic labor history with the relatively dismal state of popular knowledge about, interest in, and understanding of labor history, we cannot help but conclude that this is an arena to which scholars and trade unionists (and members of the general public as well) should devote increasing attention in the coming years.

1 Jean Anyon, "Ideology and United States History Textbooks,' Harvard Educational Review, August 1979, pp. 361-86.

2 Richard Fantasia, "The Treatment of the American Labor Movement in Social Studies Textbooks: A Case Study in Clarity or Mystification,' unpublished M.S. thesis (State University of New York at Buffalo, 1978), reviews these studies.

3 Mary Blewett, "Machines, Workers, and Capitalists: The Interpretation of Workers and Industrialization at the Textile History Museums of New England,' in Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, eds., History Museums and Historic Sites in the United States: A Critical Assessment (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 1988.)

4 Joshua Brown, "Into the Minds of Babes: Children's Books and the Past,' in Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosensweig, eds., Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986), pp. 67-84.
COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rosenzweig, Roy
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1987
Words:2006
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