Monday, March 7, 2011

Labor Battles and Exploring the Past Online

Randall Stephens

Nelson Lichtenstein writes about "The Long History of Labor Bashing" in the March 6 Chronicle. What are the antecedents of the current struggles over benefits and bargaining? What light does history shine on all this? asks Lichtenstein.

This right-wing critique of trade unionism has often been contradictory and inconsistent. At the turn of the 20th century, many establishment figures in the news media and politics saw the unionism of their era as but a manifestation of immigrant radicalism, often violent and subversive. After World War I, the business offensive against the unions went by the name of "The American Plan," with the American Legion and other patriotic groups often serving as the antilabor militants who broke picket lines and physically manhandled union activists.

At the very same moment, a quite contradictory discourse, which portrayed the unions as retrograde rather than radical, was emergent. Progressives, as well as conservatives, often denounced unions as self-serving job trusts, corrupt and parasitic enterprises linked to ethnic politicians and underworld figures.>>>

After reading that I went over to the Library of Congress's Chronicling America website, an excellent, free historical newspapers resource. My search for the exact words "labor," "anarchists," and "immigrant" brought back 8 results for 1890-1900. Here's a fairly typical article from the Chicago Eagle, June 15, 1895. Notice that the author acknowledges that the Haymarket Riot at least drew the public and the experts to acknowledge the labor troubles of the day.

A little over nine years ago Chicago's Haymarket tragedy occurred. On the night of May 4, 1880, a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police, who had gone to disperse an anarchist meeting. One policeman was killed outright, six were mortally wounded, and sixty more or loss injured. The number of the crowd killed or hurt was never known. Chicago never witnessed excitement so intense, and she at once achieved the reputation of being the center of anarchism for the whole world. No one event ever brought labor troubles and agitation to the notice of so many people, and probably no other influence has done so much to cause a widespread study of social economy. Four men wore hanged for the Haymarket crime, and one killed himself in jail by blowing his head to pieces with a dynamite cartridge exploded in his mouth. It was never discovered who threw the bomb. When it exploded it blew Chicago anarchy to pieces and answered the directly opposite purpose its thrower evidently intended.

A similar search on Google Books (from 1890-1900) for "anarchy," "labor," "unions," "immigrants," and "radical" returned 21 results. Of course, word searches like this cannot pick up on the subtleties of meaning and the distances between the words on the page. But they still represent a huge leap in the way we do or can do our research. Journalists, too, must be taking advantage of these relatively new ways to access the past. (One could spend hours and hours searching and browsing through countless other databases to harvest similar sources.)

(In the coming days I'll be posting here a video interview I did with Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Library. I ask Darnton about what is being called the Digital Public Library of America, the range of digital resources on the web, and the ways historians are using these new materials.)

Thirty years ago a historian who knew little about labor history, but wanted to learn more about how the present compared to the past, might have had to spend hours in the library, browsing indexes, thumbing through moldy card catalogs, or roaming the stacks. Not any more. Though, I still love to browse the stacks!

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