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  • Toil, Trouble, Transformation:Workers and Unions in Modern Kentucky
  • John Hennen (bio)

Organized labor played a significant role in the construction of the American middle class. For the post–World War II generation, the power of unions was arguably the most important factor in the trend toward economic security, the democratization of the political system, expanded access to higher education for the children of workers, and the civic life of American communities. Yet today, students, the general public, our political class, and even those few American workers who are members of labor unions often have little knowledge of the significance of the American labor movement to the historical influence of labor—and of industrial conflict—on the nation’s political economy. This essay encourages readers and researchers to reexamine the rich history of organized workers in Kentucky. Its key premise is that in order to evaluate the economic crisis facing contemporary Americans, including the long-term erosion of wages, salaries, benefits, job control, purchasing power, and economic security for workers, it is necessary to understand the institutional history, and post-1970s decline, of organized labor. Essentially, this is a call to bring organized labor more fully into the history of Kentucky and the nation. It is also a call to bring more awareness of the important legacies of workers’ institutions to civic life. Most of the topics referred to in these pages have been underrepresented in the larger [End Page 233] narrative of Kentucky history and present numerous opportunities for new studies.

Influenced by the cultural and social dynamism of the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and antiwar movements, the study of working-class life has been transformed in the past half century. Pioneering labor historians, led by the “big three” of John R. Commons, Selig Perlman, and Philip Taft of the “Wisconsin School” of labor history, concentrated on the framework of bureaucratic unionism, embodied by the unions of the American Federation of Labor and later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, to create the field of labor history between 1900 and 1960.1 With the democratization of higher education in the United States after World War II, academics who themselves came from working-class backgrounds, encouraged to pursue university degrees with GI Bill benefits, revised the institutional emphasis of labor history.2 This refocusing marginalized the old institutional model in favor of more inclusive cultural, community-based studies of workers and working families, creating a “new labor history.” Historical sociologist Sally Maggard noted in 1987 that traditional labor history’s “singular attention to an individual’s relationship to the wage economy,” in studies geared toward male wage earners, had created “an artificial separation between the realms of work and family.” Maggard insisted that “we need to look inside family situations to understand how women will react to union organizing drives, strike activities, and political action in general.”3

A revised look at workers’ institutional history, then, should be integrated with, not detached from, “other aspects of social identity—race, gender, sexuality, religious faith”—which overshadowed [End Page 234] historical studies of workers’ shop-floor organization by the 1970s.4 Writing in 2001, historian Brian Kelly praised the “new labor history” as a necessary corrective to the traditional descriptions of high-level bargaining between the “lieutenants of labor and their counterparts in the boardrooms of organized capital.” The new studies “moved out from the point of production” to appreciate not only union labor (which has never represented more than one-third of private-sector workers, and then for only a brief period after World War II), but “unorganized workers; slaves, wage earners and their families; black, white, and immigrant workers; men, women, and children.” But the new history, arguably, had the unintended consequence of rendering organized workers and their unions less relevant, casting them as narrow interest groups devoid of a meaningful role in the ongoing struggles for social and economic justice in the late twentieth century.5

Kelly notes that within a decade of the emergence of the new labor history, “even scholars who were exhilarated by the expansion of their field” voiced reservations that the retreat from shop-floor studies, or “conflict at the point of production...


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