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Culture, Gender, Race, and U.S. Labor History.

The eleven studies contained in this volume are typical of current American labor history, demonstrating "both a regard for the 'old' school of labor history, with its focus on working-class institutions, as well as . . . the 'new' tendencies of labor history that have reflected since the 1960s diverse concerns about culture, race, ethnicity, gender, community, and rank-and-file empowerment and experience". "What unifies the essays . . . is their recollection of dissident historical moments, when individuals and collectives attempted to change perceived reality, to confront injustices in the general polity, and to seek alternative paths to a shared future".

Many of the essays are informative and interesting, but collectively they have two disappointing shortcomings. First, many of the essays lack ambition. They deal with peripheral topics (e.g., the tiny Proletarian Party or the Union Women's Alliance to Gain Equality, whose membership never reached one thousand) but fail to expand adequately upon their subject's broader significance.

More importantly the essays are parochial. There is great potential for labor historians to inform economic historians, labor economists, and economists in general, but most of the labor historians in this volume are content to talk among themselves, ignoring the works of economic historians, and avoiding the basic tools of economic analysis and quantification.

This parochialism is perhaps best exemplified in the "selected bibliography" of suggested readings which contains about 225 sources. I could count only five sources written by scholars with training in economics. For example, the work of Claudia Goldin is missing from the "gender" list. This is sad. Labor history can only thrive if it is interdisciplinary. Economic historians who study labor markets now routinely read and learn from labor historians. The best of the new labor historians, such as Walter Licht, are reading economic history and applying the tools of microeconomics. Rank-and-file labor historians, including those showcased here, must adopt this method. Unless ideas flow in both directions, labor history threatens to become a stagnant backwater.

The chapter that may worst exemplify these traits is Horst Ihde's essay on Richard Henry Dana's novel Two Years before the Mast [1]. Ihde argues that the success of the American merchant marine in the 1830s and 1840s "could be achieved only by intensified exploitation of the workers at sea". This analysis is fundamentally flawed. Like many other labor historians, Ihde makes the erroneous conclusion that the existence of what we consider to be "abysmal working conditions" proves that workers were being "exploited." Ihde implicitly assumes that these workers were at the mercy of a coercive monopolist employer. Fortunately, for the sailors, this market had all the markings of a competitive one, with many employers hiring labor in each major port. Dana thought twice about depicting sailors as exploited. In his original manuscript he wrote that sailors were "living harder, faring harder, and being paid worse than any men on earth." On reflection he removed this passage, since it was simply not true [1, 19]. Data from the period show that Dana's shipmates were paid somewhat above the going wage for manual labor.

Dana documents coercion used aboard ship, but he also documents worker mobility and information. Ihde recounts a case of unjust whipping on board Dana's ship, but fails to explain how rare this was, and that the whipping was a failure, as it was followed by decreased productivity from a disgruntled crew, a desertion, the necessity of offering replacement workers twenty-five percent higher wages, and the reassignment of the captain. Finally, in building his case, Ihde quotes Dana out of context: "On board the U.S. merchant ships there existed relations of domination and cruelty." Dana underscores this situation by quoting a shipmate who lamented the years of manhood thrown away, "that there, in the forecastle, at the foot of the steps--a chest of old clothes--was the result of twenty-two years of hard labor and exposure--worked like a horse, and treated like a dog" [1, 170-71]. The quote is genuine, but the reason for the sailor's predicament is grossly misrepresented. Preceding the quote Dana explains: "Twenty years of vice! Every sin that a sailor knows, he had gone to the bottom of. Several times . . . he had been promoted to the office of chief mate, and as often, his conduct when in port, especially his drunkenness . . . put him back into the forecastle" [1, 194].

Another example of the collection's shortcomings is Elizabeth Ann Sharpe's "The History and Legacy of Mississippi Plantation Labor." Her general thesis, that freedmen would have been much better off if given land upon emancipation, seems irrefutable. However, her understanding of the formation of the postbellum plantation labor market would have gained much, and she could have told a much more historically accurate story, if she knew more about the work of Joseph Reid, Stephen DeCanio, Robert Higgs, Gavin Wright, Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch. She would know, for example, that postbellum black workers were not "tied to the land" but had high turnover rates among employers. Income, wealth, and debt statistics from Robert Higgs, Robert Margo, or Price Fishback which document the steady economic progress among blacks after the Civil War would cause her to rethink, or at least qualify, her statement that black workers were "often poorer after a year's labor than they were at the beginning".

Two of the most interesting chapters serve as cautionary tales. The Socialist Party gained its greatest popularity in our nation's history in the early decades of the twentieth century, as it campaigned for broad governmental control over the economy. Ironically, as John Sherman recounts in his chapter on the crusade to win amnesty for socialist leader Eugene Debs, it was the actions of the nationalized postal system that crippled socialist and radical movements in the period around World War I. Likewise, Nathan Godfried shows that governmentally imposed barriers to entry made it nearly impossible for socialists of establish a successful radio voice during the 1920s and 30s. Unfortunately, Godfried ignores the demand side in his analysis. Thus, this chapter too cries out for better economic reasoning.


1. Dana, Richard Henry, edited by John Kembell. Two Years Before the Mast. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1964.

Robert Whaples Wake Forest University
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Author:Whaples, Robert
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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