American Labor History: A Conspiracy of Silence?

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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. …