Monday, February 21, 2011

thats not labor history

I've been thinking about the situation in Wisconsin and in various other states where similar conflicts are ongoing, if with less dramatics.  I've been thinking about the historical implications of the current struggles and wondering at both my competence and credibility in speaking on the subject.  I'm a world historian, not an Americanist.  Granted, the world is an awfully big place and, as a world historian, there are bits of it I know much better than others, but having engaged with and taught world history for some years, I feel at least somewhat qualified to speak on a fairly wide range of topics within that field.  World History (with capitals) being not the history of the whole world, but the history of those parts of the world that aren't covered by the rubric of Western History, or to be more specific, by European History and American History.  We world historians don't like admitting that, of course (no one wants to define their area of interest by a negative) but the reality is that what I do professionally is non-Western history.  The history of labor movements and public protest in the U.S. is most definitely Western, and in particular, American History.  (With capitals.)  Not my area of expertise. 

And yet, the current situation is full of moments of not-history.  Non-expert that I am, I am acutely aware of the gaping disconnect between the attitudes of many of the participants in discussions of these events and the reality of the historical American experiences with unionism, with anti-worker politics, with the often-theoretical right to protest, with suppression of public voices.  I watch the Tea Partiers, many of whom are suffering from the current economic problems, with unemployment, with inadequate benefits, and wonder how they can imagine that their interests in this fight lie with the corporations and the politicians they fund.  Don't they understand where their rights to unemployment compensation, to medicare, to disability payments came from?  Don't they know that government spending creates jobs?  That tax cuts to the rich don't trickle down?  That they have representation in government? Obviously they don't.  Obviously, no one ever told them about the bad old days when grandma had to stand on a bread line.  Obviously, they didn't do projects in high school on the politics of the Great Depression.  Obviously, they don't know their own country's history.  This makes me sad.  And it makes my blogging fingers restless.

It's a situation that cries out for the voice of the historian.  The qualified historian who can explain how labor movements are as American as capitalism, and how public protest is the epitome of those liberties the constitution promises, and why union-busting is anti-worker, anti-employment, and against the interests of the American people.  Because most of the arguments being made by the right about the situation that's erupted in Wisconsin just now, and that's developing in at least half a dozen other states, are not history.  That's my blog, my mantra, my mission.  It's not history, that makes it mine, mine, mine!

(Takes a deep breath)  No, it's not mine.  I'd love to tell it, but I wouldn't do it justice.  So I'll just point you to a place, on the Progressive Historians website where almost a year ago midtowng explained how in 1930 unions demanded that their government do its job.  Because I couldn't have said it anywhere near as well, and it's a far more timely post now, and more worthy of attention and consideration in the current context, than it was when it was posted.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the old bumper sticker: "Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend"

    FYI, the founder of PH is now blogging on his own, and some of the gang is back under the dKos umbrella here (not me, I'm not a dKos kind of blogger).