Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Remembering David Montgomery (1927-2011)

This is the second in a series of posts honoring the memory of David Montgomery, a distinguished labor historian who served as the lead judge for the Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award.

David Montgomery deserved to be the first winner of the Sol Stetin Award because he was the preeminent labor historian of his generation. No one had as big an impact on what became known as the New Labor History. This was first of all because he brought to it a distinctive shop-floor perspective, derived I think from the decade he spent as a machinist and Communist organizer before he entered academics. Once he found his footing–his dissertation on the labor movement during the Civil War era, while impressive, was more conventionally conceived–Montgomery never deviated from the view that the central subject of labor history should be, as he wrote in an influential collection of essays, “the battle for control of the workplace,” that the battle should always be seen by labor historians from the perspective of the workers themselves, and be understood as essentially political and transformative in nature. Hence the reservations he held about the New Deal, which, he wrote in a prescient essay, “was simultaneously liberating and co-optive for workers,” at once rescuing them from the heavy hand of managerial control while opening “a new avenue through which the rank and file could in time be tamed and the newly powerful unions be subjected to tight legal and political control.” A challenging perspective like this one is the essential ingredient in energizing a field of study.

History is, of course, a joint enterprise, and others with different ideas, pioneers like Herbert Gutman, are also to be credited for the New Labor History. No new subject can be the product of one person. But more than anyone else, it was Montgomery’s scholarship, always passionately argued, that infused a subject that had been a backwater of labor economics into an innovative, core subject of study in American history. No one, moreover, excelled Montgomery as a graduate trainer, and especially in his years at Pittsburgh, he salted the field with a grand cadre of labor historians, many of them now occupying senior positions in the profession. They will no doubt be testifying in the coming days to what studying under Montgomery meant to them. But for a contemporary of David’s like myself, what I most admire is that he entered an essentially dead field and made a live subject of it. And it is for this, that at his death, I celebrate David Montgomery’s life.

David Brody is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Califoria, Davis and an affiliated faculty member at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkely. He received the Stetin Award in 2008.

Flash Conference: "From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond--The Future of Networked Democracy"

What do Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have in common? Find out at Tech President’s flash conference, “From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond–The Future of Networked Democracy,” on December 12:

Monday night December 12, from 6:00-8:30pm at NYU, Personal Democracy Media will present a flash conference titled, “From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond: The Future of Networked Democracy” with Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider; Beka Economopolous, organizer, Occupy Wall Street; Marianne Manilov, co-founder, The Engage Network; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder, Tea Party Patriots; Mark Meckler, co-founder, Tea Party Patriots; Clay Shirky, NYU, author, Here Comes Everybody; and Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina.

The Hillman Foundation is an official conference media sponsor. Please join us for an evening of stimulating conversation. Tickets are $5. Space is limited, so register today.

Monday December 12, 6:00-8:30pm
NYU Kimmel Center for University Life
Richard L. Rosenthal Pavilion - 10th Floor
60 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012

Hashtag: #PDMteaows

[Photo credit: _PaulS_, Creative Commons.]

Labor Historian David Montgomery (1927-2011)

David Montgomery, the first winner of the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award for Labor History and subsequently the award’s lead judge, died on December 2 at age 84.

Montgomery was the nation’s leading labor historian. His many articles and books, especially Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872; Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles; and The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925, profoundly reshaped our understanding of the history of American workers.

More than other historians, Montgomery took his readers into the workplace, into the iron mills and railroad shops and munitions plants and electrical equipment factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which he saw as central to shaping workers’ consciousness and political struggles. The key to working-class organization and advance, for Montgomery, lay in the militant minority, in the shop stewards, radicals, ethnic leaders, and itinerant organizers who populated the landscape of industrial America. Clear-eyed about labor’s defeats as well as its victories, Montgomery had a firm faith in the power and ingenuity of working people in fighting for better lives and a better society.

David’s intense interest in the details of work life – workers’ tasks and routines, their efforts to control the pace of work, and their complex relationships to machinery, supervisors, and one another – reflected his own decade as a machinist and union activist in New York and Minnesota. As a young member of the United Electrical Workers (and of the Communist Party until 1957), he once arranged for W.E.B. DuBois to address his fellow workers during Negro History Week, typical of David’s lifelong commitment to anti-racism and his respect for the intellect and vision of his fellow workers. Only after FBI harassment got him fired from one job after another did Montgomery finally leave the machine shop for the groves of the academy.

After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, Montgomery spent fourteen years at the University of Pittsburgh before being appointed the Farnam Professor of History at Yale University. He shaped labor history as much through his teaching as his writing. Thousands of students had the startling experience of hearing David speak for the first time; his normally shy demeanor changed at the podium, as he held forth about history with passion and in cadences more associated with the Petrograd Soviet than with the snoozy atmosphere of an academic conference or a university classroom. Montgomery trained several generations of graduate students who today hold senior positions in history departments all across the United States and who have pushed labor history forward in myriad directions. A dedicated internationalist, Montgomery co-founded and long edited International Labor and Working-Class History, which has promoted an ever more global and comparative view of the history of workers.

David never abandoned his core belief in solidarity even after he ascended to highest ranks of academia (including serving as president of the Organization of American Historians). Many New Haven workers remember him as the professor who, without fail, would show up at their picket lines, not the usual passtime for senior Yale faculty. In the machine shop, the library, the classroom, and on the picket line, David Montgomery spent a long fruitful lifetime fighting for workers’ advancement, equal rights, and social justice.

Joshua B. Freeman is Professor of History at the City University of New York and a Stetin Award judge. He has written extensively about the history of labor, modern America, and New York City.

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

  • A woman in Afghanistan was pardoned for adultery after she satisfied a judge she’d been raped, but her pardon came with some major strings attached. She’s expected to mary her rapist. Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times reports on Afghan women’s struggle for equality before the law.
  • Accidents continue to plague Louisiana’s oil refineries, Sue Sturgis reports for Facing South.
  • Talk about pay-to-play: Wisconsin governor Scott Walker wants to charge protesters for the privilege of demonstrating inside their own State Capitol, Jason Stein reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. [HT: Andy Kroll of Mother Jones.]
  •  Mike Elk of Working In These Times on this week’s big news at the National Labor Relations Board.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Koch Brothers Run Misleading Pro-Walker Ads Ahead of Recall Vote

The right wing kingmakers at Koch Industries have launched an ad campaign championing the record of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is currently facing a recall vote. The Kochs are longstanding Walker allies. Their PAC donated tens of thousands of dollars to his gubernatorial bid.

Sidney Award-winner Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy debunks several misleading claims from the campaign. The ads tout Walker’s record of cutting spending and taxes. However, spending will rise by nearly 8 percent in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Moreover, while Wisconsin corporations got big tax cuts, many working families will see their state taxes go up because Walker slashed the Earned Income Tax Credit program.

Bottari notes that the campaign recycles assertions made on Walker’s own taxpayer-funded website, “Reforms and Results,” which sparked an ethics complaint for alleged campaigning at taxpayer expense.

[Photo credit: Sue Peacock, Creative Commons.]


A Unemployed Seattleite's Journey to Occupy Wall Street

In this week’s New Yorker, George Packer tells the story of Ray Kachel, a 53-year-old Seattle man who crossed the country to occupy Zuccotti Park.

Kachel’s arc of downward social mobility will sound depressingly familiar to 99% of readers. It could happen to anyone who works for a living in a country with a minimal social safety net. Kachel eked out a living as a self-taught tech worker. Like most Americans, he had few assets and modest savings. After he got laid off, he went freelance. Then, his main client died and gigs dried up. His savings ran out. Over the summer, he was forced to sell off his possessions, even the digital tools he needed to work again.

Like a lot of people, Kachel found out about Occupy Wall Street on twitter: 

Kachel had four hundred and fifty dollars from the sale of his copy of Final Cut Pro. For two hundred and fifty, you could travel to New York City on a Greyhound bus. He had never been farther east than Dallas, but New York City was so dense and diverse, and so full of ideas and ways to make money, that if he could learn to exist there he could surely find a place to exist. On the last night of September, he went to bed telling himself, “Oh, this is just absolutely nuts, you can’t do that.” He woke up in the morning with a clear thought: This is exactly what I’m going to do.

Kachel’s journey is an effective foil for Packer to talk about the intellectual and social scene in Zuccotti, the tensions between “ordinary” occupiers and more sophisticated “activists,” and the galvanizing frame of “the 99%.” Highly recommended reading.

[Photo credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons.]

My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable: White House Moves To Digitize Records

Good news for proponents of transparency and open government, from Richard Wolf of USA Today; the White House has a plan to digitize the Republic’s filing cabinets:

President Obama is ordering that government records be modernized, with an increased emphasis on digital documents.

The White House claims it’s the most significant step to improve the management of public records since the Truman administration 60 years ago.

“The current federal records management system is based on an outdated approach involving paper and filing cabinets,” Obama said in a statement. “Today’s action will move the process into the digital age so the American public can have access to clear and accurate information about the decisions and actions of the federal government.

The White House predicts that the switch will also save money.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons.]

Catch-22: Airport Workers Forced to Work For Tips, Forbidden to Mention Tipping

Attendants who escort disabled passengers at O’Hare International Airport often earn less than minimum wage based on mangement’s extremely dubious assumption that the passengers will make up the difference in tips, Dave Jamieson reports for the Huffington Post:

CHICAGO, Ill. – Every day she goes to work at O’Hare International Airport, Elda Burke faces the same dilemma.

Burke, 30, works as a passenger attendant at the airport, escorting the elderly and disabled to and from their gates by wheelchair. Even though the airlines describe this as a free service, Burke’s employer has her working partly for tips, which is why her base pay is a low $6.50 an hour, somewhat like a restaurant server’s, rather than the typical Illinois minimum wage of $8.25.

But unlike diners at a restaurant, many of the passengers Burke will be escorting on their holiday travels this week won’t realize she’s working for tips – and by federal law, she won’t be allowed to tell them.

“We cannot say anything,” Burke says. “If we do that, they can fire us.”

Did you know that tipping airport attendants is customary? I didn’t. Maybe we don’t know because the attendants are forbidden to tell anyone that they work for tips. Talk about a Catch-22.

[Photo credit: Dan Shouse, Creative Commons.]

Pepper Spray, Police Brutality, and the Press

Pepper spray has been in the news since police officers were caught on tape spraying non-violent UC Davis protesters at point blank range, Friday, as the students huddled on their own quad to protest tuition hikes: 

  • Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly tried to downplay the incident by claiming that pepper spray is “a food product, essentially.”
  • In fact “pepper spray” is a deceptively benign-sounding nickname for an excruciating and potentially lethal weapon, according to Pulitzer prize winning-science writer Deborah Blum, who reviews the medical research on the product properly known as Oleoresin Capsicum- or OC Spray.

In other law enforcement/media news:

  • Organizations representing journalists in New York have formed a watchdog group to monitor relations between the NYPD and the press. The Coalition for the First Amendment was founded in response to last week’s media blackout and police violence against journalists during the raid that evicted Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park.

[Image credit: JoeinSouthCA, Creative Commons.]

Newt Gingrich Says Child Labor Laws Are "Truly Stupid"

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has a modest proposal: Put poor children to work cleaning their own schools and fire the unionized janitors who currently clean them.

“This is something that no liberal wants to deal with,” Gingrich said. “Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid.

“You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model,” he said. “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.” [POLITICO]

On Friday, Gingrich described child labor laws as “truly stupid,” which seems to imply that he wants to change them. Yet he later told Amy Gardner of the Washington Post that he doesn’t want to repeal child labor laws, he just wants to put poor kids to work as cut-rate janitors for 20 hours a week. There’s no indication that Gardner challenged Gingrich on this apparent reversal.

Newt also wants to abolish food stamps and public housing. His solution for changing the “culture of poverty” is to enlist poor kids as scullery maids while their more prosperous classmates enjoy free time. Newt predicts that enforced servitude will make the poor kids proud of themselves and their schools.

Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post describes Gingrich’s idea to replace janitors with poor kids as “unconventional,” which is an awfully generous way of putting it. She notes that, while other Republicans have flirted with relaxing wage and hour laws for teenagers, “Gingrich’s suggestion that children start working as early as age nine goes far beyond what most other Republicans are proposing.” Indeed.

Newt Gingrich is not a serious candidate. He is a buffoon and a meanspirited crank. He currently commands a bare plurality of support in the crowded race for the GOP nomination. He’s not the first fringe candidate to hog the spotlight while the Republicans work through their issues and crown Mitt Romney.

If Newt’s medieval policy proposals weren’t enough to discredit him, his checkered ethics record should count him out. His entire campaign staff already quit once. He’s just clawing his way back into the public eye to capitalize briefly on Hermain Cain’s slide in the polls.

As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow famously explained, Gingrich has been flirting with running for president for decades. His “presidential ambitions” are just a marketing ploy to keep him relevant in the eyes of his lobbying clients and direct mail donors. After all, Newt can’t dine out on being the disgraced former Speaker of the House forever.

Why do the media insist on treating Gingrich’s campaign more seriously than he does?

[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.]