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  • The Problem of Race in American Labor History
  • Herbert Hill (bio)

Much recent labor history has been devoted to studies of black workers and to the racial practices of labor unions. With some noteworthy exceptions, however, contemporary labor historians have failed to confront the fundamental issue: the historical development of working-class identity as racial identity. Many labor historians continue to underestimate the depth of American racism. They fail to understand its deep roots in a precapitalist past in Europe and America and consequently underestimate the resistance to the elimination of racist practices and institutions in labor movements no less than in society at large. From John R. Commons and Selig Perlman in the early years of the twentieth century to the work of Philip Taft in the 1960s, what usually passed for labor history was really union history. With few exceptions, traditional labor history consisted of institutional studies of labor organizations based largely on an examination of union records. If traditional labor historians and economists such as Commons, Perlman, Taft, and others identified with the Wisconsin School mention black and other nonwhite workers at all, it is as a problem for white labor unions.

This is hardly surprising given Commons’s expressed views on what he called “race differences.” Additionally, Commons believed that labor unions were only appropriate for Caucasians, that the backward nonwhite races were lazy, could not compete, and therefore did not need unions. Selig Perlman undoubtedly represented the views of this group of labor historians when he wrote that “the most important single factor in the history of American labor” was its success in excluding what he called “Mongolian labor” from the work force and in securing the adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first racist immigration law in American history. 1 The central point about the Commons school, whose views corresponded to the racial policies and practices of the leadership of the American Federation of Labor, is that they were overtly racist and made no excuses or apologies for their position. Charles H. Wesley, Sterling D. Spero and Abram L. Harris, Herbert R. Northrup, and Philip S. Foner produced very different critical studies and stood apart from the prevailing tendency. 2

In reaction to the traditional school, a new group of labor historians began [End Page 189] to emerge in the late 1960s. Aware of the limitations of the older group and critical of their methods, Herbert Gutman and David Montgomery, among others, generated a social history based upon a revived populist Neo-Marxism. In their revolt against the “old labor history” they proposed to “study the people”: in short to do for American labor history what E. P. Thompson had done for English labor history. The contributions of this group, who were much more sophisticated in their view of social processes than their predecessors, represent a significant advance over the work of the earlier labor historians. Nonetheless, Gutman and his followers regarded the race question as a subsidiary feature of class development. Thus their approach, still largely predominant in labor studies, while generally sympathetic to black workers, treated their collective identity and their racial group interests as an interference in the formation of a unified working class and regarded the issue of race as an impediment to the class struggle. This school tends therefore to overlook or excuse the racist practices of organized labor and to mythologize aspects of labor history in order to make it conform to ideological requirements. 3

Nell Irvin Painter puts it in a nutshell when she writes that “the new labor history has a race problem.” This explains, she argues, how David Montgomery could celebrate the machinists as “the embodiment of the fine American republican tradition, without mentioning that they were ardent lily-whites whose union’s constitution prohibited black memberships until 1948.” Describing Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic, a representative work of the new labor history, as a “flawed study,” Painter points out that

Wilentz makes a hero of a labor leader who is a racist and anti-Semite . . . . Wilentz fails to embed race in his analysis, which given the central place that racism occupies in American culture, is necessary in labor history as in...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 189-208
Launched on MUSE
1996-06-01
Open Access
No
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