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The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): Urban Studies

By David Cullen

Urban Studies

Among the current generation of labor historians, those interested in the urban worker have taken the approach of the long Civil Rights Movement, namely that the struggle for racial justice began long before Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and involved persons and groups overshadowed by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. 

Three works dealing with the history of workers in Detroit are prime examples of this new approach. In The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, Beth Tomkins Bates examines the role of Black workers hired by Henry Ford (in part to counter white workers’ attempt to create a union) and how their presence shaped future organizing efforts. She emphasizes the role of the National Negro Congress in raising the consciousness of workers who were part of the Great Migration. Heather Ann Thompson links the struggles for economic and racial justice through the stories of rank-and-file employees in Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, highlighting the often-forgotten Revolutionary Union Movement and the failure of post-WW II liberalism to solve the problems of the working poor. Daniel J. Clark’s Disruption in Detroit: Autoworkers and the Elusive Postwar Boom challenges the assumption that autoworkers in the Motor City made great economic gains because of the work of the United Auto Workers. Instead, he points out the precarity of assembly-line workers’ positions, speedups that exhausted and sometimes injured workers, seasonal factory shutdowns, and retirees who found that much-promised pension benefits did not pay the bills.

Two works about St. Louis follow the same pattern as those about Detroit. Clarence Lang’s Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. louis, 1936–75 examines Black, working-class resistance from the 1930s through the mid-1970s. The author demonstrates how African Americans’ local concerns in St. Louis reflected the nationalist issues of the Black Power movement and how the economic stagflation of the 1970s, combined with the Republican Party’s law and order campaigns, set back the work of city reformers. Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States uses the concept of racial capitalism to study the city, analyzing how racial bigotry is an integral part of the formula for sustaining economic gains. Johnson argues that the story of St. Louis is a microcosm of the nation’s story, one of capitalism, imperialism, racism, and the struggles of the oppressed to expose the false narrative of the nation, that all men are created equal, and then to demand that the country live up to its ideals

Other texts focusing on the Midwest include Sam Mitrani’s The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850–1994, a timely reminder that growing police presence in urban centers has paralleled increasing labor discontent and corporate leaders’ need to control their workers. Additionally, John F. Lyons’s Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929–1970 and Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker helpfully rekindle the history of contemporary struggles by public workers in troubled economic times. Moving to the country’s most populous city, Joshua Freeman’s Working-Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II and Lissa Phillips’s A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism examine labor organizing in New York.

Two other works deserve attention from those interested in the history of urban labor. James Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America is an excellent introduction for those non-historians interested in one of the most dramatic moments in labor history: the 1886 bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and its aftermath. Peter Cole’s Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area provides a valuable comparative history of two very different places where interracial unionism saw class identity triumph over racial identity. Cole provides a model for examining the international labor solidarity of working-class cultures and, like Green, he works as a scholar but writes for the public, reaching an audience that would otherwise be unaware of a notable history that helps explain the present.