Labor and Working Class History Association
Origins and Development of the Labor and Working Class History Association
From: Bob Zieger
Origins and Development of the Labor and Working Class History Association
The idea behind the Labor and Working Class History Association emerged in the mid-1990s in discussions among scholars attending various regional and sectoral meetings and among participants in the H-Labor listserve. Folks interested in labor history, while appreciative of such established regional organizations as the Southern Labor Studies Conference, the Pacific Northwest Labor History meeting, the Southwestern Labor History Conference, and the North American Labor History Conference, deemed the time appropriate to create a formal nationwide association among those interested in labor's past. Motivation for this step derived from both institutional and substantive concerns that the existing bodies associated with the serious study of labor history could not, by
their very nature, provide the focus, continuity, and initiative needed for the furtherance of labor history as a field.
Institutional concerns were important. Early LAWCHA activists believed that while the field had developed a rich body of scholarship and thick networks of collaboration and communication,the time had come for a permanent nationwide organization. Existing conferences, journals such as _Labor History_ and _International Labor and Working-Class History_, and the spirited listserve H-
Labor gave clear evidence of the field's vigor and importance but none of these was equipped to provide the continuity and visibility needed for an ambitious agenda of field development and expansion. Thus, in part LAWCHA would provide a stable integrating focus for the hitherto scattered organizations and initiatives that served practitioners.
More important than these institutional concerns, however, was the belief that the time had come to stress emerging developments in scholarship and public outreach. Thus, the founders of LAWCHA believed that the new organization must have a clear and visible international dimension. It must both promote in its scholarly activities and practice in its internal life a strong commitment to
diversity, both in terms of ethnicity and gender and in terms of scholarly methodologies and interpretive perspectives. LAWCHA organizers also sought to create a body that would develop organic ties to unions and working-class communities. Efforts were needed as well, believed the founding members, to promote labor history in the schools and to work with labor organizations and historical societies to expand historic preservation efforts with respect to
working-class life. LAWCHA founders believed that those interested in the future of labor history needed to find a way to link the recent scholarship in labor and social history that featured themes such as race, ethnicity, gender, community, and international connection to more traditional, but increasingly sophisticated, themes of unionism, political action, legal context, and economic
After a period of wide-ranging discussion, LAWCHA's institutional character began to take concrete shape at the October, 1997 North American Labor History Conference in Detroit. Participants created an organizing committee, headed by Elizabeth Faue and Julie Greene, who began creating a temporary institutional presence and launched an active program committee to make tangible the new organization's vision. Meanwhile, a committee headed by John Bukowczyk and Roger
Horowitz drafted a constitution and by-laws. These were debated by the organizing committee and then, at the 1998 North American Labor History Conference, were overwhelmingly approved. This event marks the official founding of LAWCHA. Through all this preliminary work, LAWCHA founders relied heavily on the advice and encouragement of members of SHGAPE, whose organization provided a valuable model for LAWCHA.
Soon after, the organizing committee appointed interim officers to facilitate the new organization's inauguration. Julie Greene and Sheldon Stromquist served as co-chairs, while Roger Horowitz became treasurer and Heather Thompson secretary. The organizing committee's attention then shifted to membership recruitment and the election of officers. In February, 1999, LAWCHA began recruiting members and by the spring of that year over 100 persons had joined. Over the summer, as membership grew, a nominating committee headed by David
Roediger recruited a slate of officers, to be headed by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall as LAWCHA's first president and Joe Trotter as vice-president. Meanwhile under the guidance of Tom Klug of Marygrove College the early draft constitution and by-laws were revised to provide a more formal structure and to meet State of Michigan and IRS requirements for public registration and tax exempt status.
At the 1999 North American Labor History Conference in October, LAWCHA members publically articulated the new organization's goals and purposes. At a plenary meeting, members pointed to three key themes: collaboration with existing labor history societies and labor education programs; building a strong international component; and maintaining a vigilant commitment to race, gender, sectoral, and
occupational diversity. Meeting shortly after, the newly elected board of directors endorsed the above-mentioned constitutional and by-law revisions, which were later approved by the membership in a mail ballot. Meanwhile, committees established at the October board meeting were working to implement LAWCHA's goals.
Even as it was achieving formal establishment, LAWCHA had begun to advance its agenda. Thus, for example, the organizing committee hosted a luncheon at the April, 1999, OAH meeting in Toronto, featuring a talk by Canadian historian Joy Parr. At the 1999 North American Labor History Conference in Detroit, the Program Committee, chaired by Patricia Cooper, sponsored five panels, along with a plenary talk by newly elected secretary Vicki Ruiz. Since LAWCHA's
formal establishment, the organization has sponsored labor history tours as well, notably a tour of Pullman organized by Sheldon Stromquist in conjunction with the January, 2000, meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, and a labor history tour of St. Louis conducted by Rosemary Feurer as part of LAWCHA's contribution to the OAH meeting in that city in April. Also at the St. Louis meeting, LAWCHA sponsored a luncheon talk by Neil Foley,
titled "Partly Colored or Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problem with the Color Line." LAWCHA also sponsored sessions this past May at the Southwest Labor Studies Association conference in San Francisco and at the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association meeting last spring.
LAWCHA programmers planned several special events for the North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State, October 19-21. Panels on globalization, international labor migration, slavery, and casino workers give evidence the themes that LAWCHA members have been stressing. There will be a screening of the new film _One Day Longer: The Story of the Frontier Strike_, which will be followed by a panel involving the film maker and casino organizers and strikers.
The highlight of LAWCHA's contribution to the NALHC is a talk by Robin Kelley, "Without a Song: The Musicians' Strike of 1935-36 and the Problem of the Labor Artist.'" LAWCHA is also sponsoring sessions at the upcoming Social Science History Association and Oral History Association meetings. At present, LAWCHA has over 250 members. It is now institutionally based at Carnegie-Mellon
University and maintins a website through the College of William and Mary. The URL is
where a membership form can be found, along with a variety of other information, including Professor Foley's paper and an audio recording of David Montgomery's presidential speech. Julie Greene, current chair of the program committee (greenej@spot.Colorado.EDU ) would like to hear from other organizations interested in joint sponsorship of conference sessions.
Robert H. Zieger