Labor history (discipline)

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search

Labor history (or labour history) is a broad field of study concerned with the development of the labor movement and the working class. The central concerns of labor historians include the development of labor unions, strikes, lockouts and protest movements, industrial relations, and the progress of working class and socialist political parties, as well as the social and cultural development of working people. Labor historians may also concern themselves with issues of gender, race, ethnicity and other factors besides class.

Working-class movement

Labor history developed in tandem with the growth of a self-conscious working-class political movement in many Western countries in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Whilst early labor historians were drawn to protest movements such as Luddism and Chartism, the focus of labor history was often on institutions: chiefly the labor unions and political parties. Exponents of this institutional approach included Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The work of the Webbs, and other pioneers of the discipline, was marked by optimism about the capacity of the labor movement to effect fundamental social change and a tendency to see its development as a process of steady, inevitable and unstoppable progress. As two contemporary labor historians have noted, early work in the field was "designed to service and celebrate the Labour movement."[1]

Thompson and Hobsbawm

In the 1950s and 1960s, labor history was redefined and expanded in focus by a number of historians, amongst whom the most prominent and influential figures were E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Thompson and Hobsbawm were both Marxists and were critical of the existing labor movement. They were concerned to approach history "from below" and to explore the agency and activity of working people at the workplace, in protest movements and in social and cultural activities. Thompson's seminal study The Making of the English Working Class[2] was particularly influential in setting a new agenda for labor historians and locating the importance of the study of labor for social history in general. Also in the 1950s and 1960s, historians began to give serious attention to groups who had previously been largely neglected, such as women and non-caucasian ethnic groups. Some historians situated their studies of gender and race within a class analysis: for example, C. L. R. James, a Marxist who wrote about the struggles of blacks in the Haitian Revolution. Others questioned whether class was a more important social category than gender or race and pointed to racism, patriarchy and other examples of division and oppression within the working class.

Labor history remains centered on two fundamental sets of interest: institutional histories of workers' organizations, and the "history from below" approach of the Marxist historians.

Despite the influence of the Marxists, many labor historians rejected the revolutionary implications implicit in the work of Thompson, Hobsbawm et al. In the 1980s, the importance of class itself, as an historical social relationship and explanatory concept, began to be widely challenged. Some notable labor historians turned from Marxism to embrace a postmodernist approach, emphasizing the importance of language and questioning whether classes could be so considered if they did not use a "language of class". Other historians emphasized the weaknesses and moderation of the historic labor movement, arguing that social development had been characterized more by accommodation, acceptance of the social order and cross-class collaboration than by conflict and dramatic change.

United States

Labor history in the United States is primarily based in history departments, with occasional representation inside labor unions. The scholarship deals with the institutional history of labor unions and the social history of workers. In recent years there's been special attention to historically marginal groups, especially blacks, women, Hispanics and Asians.[3] The Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History was established: 1971 and has a membership of 1000. It publishes International Labor and Working-Class History.[4] H-LABOR is a daily email-based discussion group formed in 1993 that reaches over a thousand scholars and advanced students.[5] the Labor and Working-Class History Association formed in 1988 and publishes Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

Prominent scholars include John R. Commons (1862–1945),[6] David Brody (b. 1930),[7] Melvyn Dubofsky,[8] and David Montgomery (1927-2011).[9]


Kirk (2010) surveys labor historiography in Britain since the formation of the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1960. He reports that labor history has been mostly pragmatic, eclectic and empirical; it has played an important role in historiographical debates, such as those revolving around history from below, institutionalism versus the social history of labor, class, populism, gender, language, postmodernism and the turn to politics. Kirk rejects suggestions that the field is declining, and stresses its innovation, modification and renewal. Kirk also detects a move into conservative insularity and academicism. He recommends a more extensive and critical engagement with the kinds of comparative, transnational and global concerns increasingly popular among labor historians elsewhere, and calls for a revival of public and political interest in the topics.[10] Meanwhile Navickas, (2011) examines recent scholarship including the histories of collective action, environment and human ecology, and gender issues, with a focus on work by James Epstein, Malcolm Chase, and Peter Jones.[11] Addison (2005) notes that in Britain by the 1990s, labour history was," in sharp decline," because:

there was no longer much interest in history of the white, male working-class. Instead the 'cultural turn' encouraged historians to explore wartime constructions of gender, race, citizenship and national identity.[12]

See also


  1. Mike Savage and Andrew Miles, The Remaking of the British Working Class, 1840-1940, Routledge, 1994, p. 1. ISBN 0-415-07320-0
  2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963. ISBN 0-14-013603-7
  3. Daniel J. Walkowitz and Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, eds. Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, 1756-2009 (2010)
  4. See Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History
  5. See H-LABOR website
  6. John Rogers Commons, Myself (1934), his autobiography.
  7. David Brody, "The old labor history and the new: In search of an American working class." Labor History(1979) 20#1 pp: 111-126.
  8. Melvyn Dubofsky (b. 1934), Hard Work: The Making of Labor History (2000) excerpt
  9. David Montgomery, Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (1980) excerpt
  10. Neville Kirk, "Challenge, Crisis, and Renewal? Themes in the Labour History of Britain, 1960–2010," Labour History Review, Aug 2010, Vol. 75 Issue 2, pp 162-180
  11. Katrina Navickas, "What happened to class? New histories of labour and collective action in Britain," Social History, May 2011, Vol. 36 Issue 2, pp 192-204
  12. Paul Addison and Harriet Jones, eds. A Companion to Contemporary Britain: 1939-2000 (2005) p 4

Further reading

  • Allen, Joan, Alan Campbell, Eric Hobsbawm and John McIlroy. Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives (2010)
  • Arnesen, Eric. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (3 Vol 2006)
  • Kirk, Neville. "Challenge, Crisis, and Renewal? Themes in the Labour History of Britain, 1960–2010," Labour History Review, Aug 2010, Vol. 75 Issue 2, pp 162–180
  • Linden, Marcel van der. Transnational Labour History: Explorations (2003)
  • Navickas, Katrina. "What happened to class? New histories of labour and collective action in Britain," Social History, May 2011, Vol. 36 Issue 2, pp 192–204
  • Price, Richard. "Histories of Labour and Labour History," Labour History Review, Dec 2010, Vol. 75 Issue 3, pp 263–270, on Britain
  • Robert, Jean-Louis, Antoine Prost and Chris Wrigley, eds. The Emergence of European Trade Unionism (2004)
  • van Voss, Lex Heerma, and Marcel van der Linden, eds. Class and Other Identities: Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Writing of European Labor History (Berghahn Books, 2002)
  • Walkowitz, Daniel J., and Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, eds. Rethinking U.S. Labor History: Essays on the Working-Class Experience, 1756-2009 (2010)