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The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): State and Regional Studies

By David Cullen

State and Regional Studies

As the number of state and regional studies of the working class increased over the last two decades it became clear that region, as much as race or ethnicity, characterized the diversity of the American workforce. As a result, the working people of the West have received more attention in recent decades than in the past. In the process, labor historians have demonstrated the diversity of the Western workforce, ranging from Native Americans working in the fields of Washington, to Mexican and Filipino migrant farm workers in California, African American dock workers, and Chinese railroad laborers. The best examples of these new histories are Gunter Peck’s aforementioned Reinventing Free Labor; Katherine Benton-Cohen’s Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands; Steven Lopez’s Reorganizing the Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement; Rosemary Feurer’s Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900–1950; David Berman’s Radicalism in the Mountain West, 1890–1920: Socialists, Populists, Miners, and Wobblies; Erik Loomis’s Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests; and Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland. These works demonstrate that the issues of worker diversity, class conflict, and industrial relations better explain the evolution of historical change and the identity of the region than a simple political history of Westward expansion.

Another region that received renewed attention form labor scholars is Appalachia, particularly the coal miners’ struggle in West Virginia. William C. Blizzard’s When Miners March is both a scholarly account of the 1920s labor wars and a personal story, as the author’s father led the “Red Neck Army.” In addition to Blizzard’s work, Frederick Barkey’s Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898–1920 and James Green’s The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom provide updated information on this struggle for economic justice; Green’s work was even turned into a well-received PBS documentary. Jessica Wilkerson’s To Live Here, You Have to Fight, mentioned earlier, highlights the important role women played in organizing rural communities in the 1960s and 1970s to make President Johnson’s war on poverty a reality. John Coggeshall’s Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community tells the history of the often-overlooked Black residents of Appalachia. These histories are reminders of the harsh working conditions that coal miners face, their economic exploitation by mine owners, and their heroic struggle not merely to gain a living wage but to maintain a unique community threatened by the forces of modernization.

Unlike the West, the South had a two-tiered labor market. Using this segmentation as an entry point for analysis, Brian Kelly’s Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–21 examines the racial dimensions of organizing in and around Birmingham, emphasizing the importance of the Black middle class. Delving into the contributions of both Black and white Americans to the American Communist Party (CPUSA), Mary Stanton’s Red, Black, White: The Alabama Communist Party, 1930–1950 is an excellent companion to Robin Kelley’s 1990 work Hammer and Hoe, which focuses only on the CPUSA through 1941. Stanton extends the study of the CPUSA’s influential organizing efforts through the 1950s.

William Powell Jones’s The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South discusses one industry often overlooked by labor historians of the South: the timber industry. Taking three sawmill communities in three separate southern states as case studies, Powell examines how Black lumber workers challenged racial discrimination and political disenfranchisement. Robert Korstad’s Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South focuses on members of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO. These workers confronted a system of racial capitalism that kept wages low not only for African Americans but also for the white employees of Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Michael Honey’s Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition and Matt Hild’s Arkansas’s Gilded Age: The Rise, Decline, and Legacy of Populism and Working-Class Protest remind readers of the link between southern rural communities and radical protest movements in the region. Kyle Wilkison reaffirms this connection in Yeomen, Sharecroppers, and Socialists: Plain Folk Protest in Texas, 1870–1914, insisting that religion and a sense of community—a moral obligation to assist one’s neighbors—is one of the more important factors that explained the appeal of radical thought to the working poor of Texas. Another important work centered on Texas workers is Michael R. Botson’s Labor, Civil Rights, and the Hughes Tool Company. Botson provides background to the National Labor Relations Board’s 1964 decision to decertify the racially segregated Independent Metal Workers Union at Houston’s Hughes Tool Company. The decision marked the first time the Labor Board ruled that racial discrimination by a union violated the National Labor Relations Act and was therefore illegal. Unlike the rest of the former Confederacy, Texas was home to more than one oppressed minority, as Max Krochmal’s Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era demonstrates. The uniting of three working-class groups—Black, brown, and white Americans—created an influential political bloc that Lone Star politicians could not ignore. For an excellent introduction to this working-class history of Texas, readers should peruse Bruce Glasrud and James C. Maroney’s Texas Labor History. An updated exploration of the regional distinctiveness of the southern working class appears in the collection Life and Labor in the New South, edited by Robert H. Zeiger, and in Matt Hild and Keri Leigh Merritt’s Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power.

Finally, in The Southern Key: Class, Race, and Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Michael Goldfield explores the region’s importance for understanding the possibilities and failure of post–WW II organizing throughout the nation. In his thoughtful, well-researched monograph, Goldfield explains that individual worker identity does not outweigh the importance of the structure of the historic economy under consideration. That is, the structure and operations of capitalism and the money interests of the elites better explain the challenges facing those workers who fought for economic justice rather than their racial, ethnic, or sexual identities. The author persuasively argues that the failure to organize southern labor led to the demise of the Democratic Party in the South, the emergence of reactionary Republican rule, and the emasculation of the labor movement nationwide. He contends that a hypothetical post–WW II coalition of labor and civil rights activists would have created a more equitable society for all working-class Americans. This latter point is also emphasized in William P. Jones’s The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.

Works Cited