Labor History and Culture in Chicago: LAWCHA 2009

Historians in the News

[Carl A. Zimring is Assistant Professor of Social Science in the Professional and Liberal Studies Department at Roosevelt University.  Rutgers University Press will publish a paperback edition of his book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America this fall.  He would like to thank Erik S. Gellman, Michael K. Honey, and Lisa Phillips for assistance with this article.]

At a time when American labor has new hopes (with the possibility of the Employee Free Choice Act becoming law) and fears (with the threat of more job losses with the bankruptcies in the automobile industry and other economic troubles), historical perspectives on labor and working-class experiences remain as relevant as ever.  The end of May brought the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA) to downtown Chicago for a conference at Roosevelt University's Auditorium Building.  Over four days, the conference (see the website at http://chi-lawcha09.indstate.edu for a full schedule) represented a broad array of topics on working-class and labor-related scholarship and activism, using the organizing theme of Race, Labor, and the City.  Panels included working-class community structures, including housing and education, environmental quality and justice, migration and settlement patterns, the changing structure of organized labor in the 21st century, and the myriad ways in which race, class, and gender interact in society.

A special dimension of the conference was the co-sponsorship by the Labor Fund for History and Culture whose members' focus on Laborlore celebrated working-class culture through art forms like song.  In both the plenary session and a Friday night performance, LAWCHA president Michael Honey played guitar behind Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singer Bettie Mae Fikes's gospel vocals on a series of labor and freedom songs. 

Friday night also brought a performance by folksinger/musicologist Bucky Halker and a series of guests including Janet Bean of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day, and Jon Langford of the Mekons and Waco Brothers.  (Between performances, one of the picketers walking the line at the Congress Hotel -- a hotel one block south of the conference that has been the subject of a labor action for the past six years -- spoke about the hotel's refusal to recognize its workers' right to organize and invited conference participants to picket over the weekend.)  Other music presentations discussed the significance of country, folk, jazz, and blues music to working class society.  One highlight that bridged performance and presented scholarship was the paper sung by country music scholar Bill Malone that weaved more than eighty years of country and blues songs through changes in the economic history of the United States in a fifteen-minute a cappella recital.

The conference included workshops on activism, oral history, and writing labor history for a broad audience and several papers to opened up new lines of inquiry for working class scholars. During the opening plenary, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Joe W. Trotter Jr., the Newberry Library's James Grossman, and incoming University of North Carolina professor Zaragosa Vargas raised central questions about race, labor, agency, and deunionization.  A Saturday luncheon honored the Reverend Addie Wyatt of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union with the LAWCHA Distinguished Service to Labor and Working Class History Award; elsewhere, a panel discussed the significance of Laurie Green's work, Battling the Plantation Mentality, which won the 2008 Taft Award.

Absent from the conference were luminaries who passed away after the initial schedule was posted, including Laborlore founder Archie Green, surrealist poet Franklin Rosemont, and oral history legend Studs Terkel.  Participants remembered and celebrated their lives and accomplishments in several panels, and the phrase "don't mourn, organize" was repeated often in their memory.  The conference concluded with a dinner and discussion of the theme of Labor in the 21st Century with James Thindwa (Jobs with Justice), Jorge Ramirez (Chicago Federation of Labor) and Tom Balanoff (SEIU Local 1) providing remarks and a Sunday morning bus tour that took advantage of Chicago's rich legacy of working-class history by highlighting sites featured on the Chicago Labor Trail map (www.labortrail.org/) on the city's South Side.  Participants left with an impression that labor history in the 21st century is a vibrant and diverse field, boding well for future meetings of LAWCHA, and for further explorations of class and culture past and present.

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