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Department of History
Old Horticulture
506 E. Circle Dr
Room 256
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
Main: 517.355.7500
Fax: 517.353.5599
Email: history@msu.edu
Hours: 8:00-5:00 M-F

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International Labor & Working Class History

Organized by Lewis Siegelbaum and Lisa Fine, the Department of History has initiated a Program in International Labor and Working-Class History based on their prominence in labor history and the willingness of other historians and faculty from several other departments and Colleges throughout the University to engage in collaborative teaching and scholarship. The program was inaugurated in 2005 and includes the following:

  • a rethinking of labor and working-class history that focuses on the lived experiences of workers world wide rather than assuming they should fit easily into traditional categories
  • a new team-taught undergraduate seminar in Comparative Labor History (HST 487)
  • a new graduate field and course in International Labor and Working-Class History (HST 875)

The State of Labor History in the 21st Century

For much of the twentieth century, labor historians conventionally employed the concept of the working class as an objective description of a distinct social group with measurable characteristics and factory workers as the core element within that class.  Thanks to feminist scholarship, the linguistic turn in the social sciences and humanities, and the emergence of what is widely characterized as the post-industrial era, this convention gave way to an understanding that such terms as “class,” “work,” “industrial,” and even “factory” are linguistically constructed and culturally specific, that statistics bearing on these categories are neither self-evidently reflective of the real world nor value-neutral but rather derive from the nexus of knowledge and power, and that the same can be said of determinations of core and marginal elements. Thinking through whether class is to be understood as a sociological aggregate, a linguistic construction, an “imagined community,” or the sum total of certain cultural practices is not to bid farewell to the working class, but to enrich our sense of what a good deal of the struggles of (at least) the twentieth century were about.1 It has become something of a cliché that labor history is in a state of “crisis.” We think that this is not necessarily an inaccurate or uncharitable assessment, but consider crisis to mean heightened opportunities to pursue some old questions in new ways and ask new questions as well. Specifically, we offer an explicitly comparative approach to the teaching and study of labor and working-class history at MSU. If labor history means bringing an historical perspective to both the lives of working people and the work of all peoples, then there truly are enormous possibilities for comparison. The journal, International Labor and Working-Class History, now in its twenty-eighth year of publication, exemplifies the vibrancy of comparative labor history. Recent issues have been devoted to “wartime economies and mobilization of labor,” “workers and film as subject and audience,” and “sweating labor,” each treated across national boundaries and historical periods. A new journal, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas defines as its mission the exploration of “the situation, subjectivity, or strategy of working men and women in any era,” beginning with the U.S. experience but extending to “developments across the ‘American’ hemisphere and, indeed, to other transnational comparisons that shed light on the American experience.”2 Many institutions contain labor studies programs that include historians and many history departments offer a course or two on comparative labor history, but this one of only two such programs nationally. Return to top

Courses

HST 487: Comparative Labor History – Worlds Apart/Worlds Connected “Comparative Labor History” is an advanced undergraduate seminar (also open to graduate students) first taught in the Spring 2006 term. The subject in that semester is US and Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet labor histories in comparative perspective, but it is open to any comparative dimension of labor history. The title of the course refers to the common-sense assumption of these histories sharing little if anything in common but also the case that similarities and mutual influences abound. From Soviet adaptations of Taylorism and the technical assistance and personnel provided by the Ford Motor Company to the USSR in the 1930s, to the American fascination with economic planning and the WPA-sponsored artistic celebration of labor as represented by brawny men in overalls, influences were mutual and important. Indeed, one could argue that the post-Soviet disorganization of labor – meaning both systems of employment and the collective representation of workers – is a harbinger or a more exaggerated form of contemporary American practices, suggestive of a kind of “neo-capitalist” convergence.3

HST 875: International Labor & Working-Class History History 875 is a graduate seminar first taught in the Fall 2005 term. “International Labor and Working-Class History” is a team-taught course to provide students with a balanced and thorough education in comparative labor history. Faculty participants include specialists in North American colonial labor systems (Christine Daniels), Latin American labor (Peter Beattie), Chinese urban labor (Linda Cooke-Johnson), European labor migration (Leslie Moch), Chicano workers in the Midwest and labor migration in North America and the Caribbean (Dennis Valdes), Mexican immigrant communities in the U. S. (Juan Javier Pescador), Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet labor (Lewis Siegelbaum), twentieth-century U.S. labor (Lisa Fine), and U.S. agricultural and rural history (Thomas Summerhill). The course therefore offers graduates a rich array of parallels, comparisons, and cross-references in the field of labor and working class history, in addition to a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches. Each of these scholars has done comparative work at least implicitly, for example, comparing slave regimes over time and from one place to another, factory regimes in different political systems, and working and living conditions in places from which people emigrated with those to which they have immigrated. One of the course objectives is to make these comparisons more explicit for both faculty and graduate participants. History 875 thus serves as the anchor of the Program at the graduate level and testifies to the department’s strength in comparative labor history. Graduates can also take courses on related topics in Sociology, Anthropology, and Labor and Industrial Relations. Return to top

Research

The industrial legacy of the state of Michigan has made it a center for the study of working class and labor history. The MSU libraries house significant collections in the areas of labor, economic, and business history. Two on-campus archival resources, the MSU Libraries Special Collections and the University Archives, also have holdings in a number of related areas, including Michigan history and popular culture. The Library of Michigan, in downtown Lansing, also maintains a partnership with the MSU Libraries. A number of other important libraries and archives are within a short drive of campus. The State Archives of Michigan are located in the Michigan Historical Center, just west of the Capitol building in downtown Lansing. In the Detroit area, the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University is home to the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, while the Benson Ford Research Center in Dearborn contains the Ford archives and other significant business-related holdings. Return to top

1. See William H. Sewell, Jr., “Towards a Post-materialist Rhetoric for Labor History,” in Lenard Berlanstein (ed.), Rethinking Labor History: Essays on Discourse and Class Analysis (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 15-38; and Goeff Eley and Keith Nield, “Farewell to the Working Class?,” International Labor and Working-Class History, 57 (2000), 1-30. 2. http://www.dukeupress.edu/labor/. Accessed 9/03/04. 3. See David Kideckel, “The Unmaking of an East-Central European Working Class,” in C. M. Hann, ed., Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia (London 2002), pp. 114-32.