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Labor Day Q&A

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It’s only a month until A History of America in Ten Strikes is released and so it is going to be all publicity all time. Oh boy! Anyway, I did an author Q&A for The New Press for your Labor Day weekend. Here’s a chunk of it.

What is the role of race and gender in American labor history?

EL: Race and gender are absolutely central to American labor history. We can’t understand our labor history without placing these categories at the center of our analysis. The hope of slaves for equality after the Civil War crashed against the rocky shores of a white supremacy very much embraced by most white workers.

The first major piece of national legislation passed that had originated in the labor movement was the Chinese Exclusion Act. The same white workers who organized the big industrial plants of the North in the 1930s and 1940s often drew the line at racial equality and, in most unionized workplaces, black workers had the hardest and most dangerous jobs for decades while also unable to rise to positions of leadership within the unions. Moreover, unions knew that unless they organized the South, companies would move their unionized factories to those non-union states. But the attempts to do that foundered when white southern workers feared that unions would practice racial integration. These campaigns mostly failed. In fact, companies moved their union factories to the non-union south, where unions continue to struggle to organize today.

The only path toward emancipating workers is placing the fight against racism at the center of our struggles, changing the minds of whites who prioritize their white identity over their class identity. Gender is also critically important, in part because our view of workers’ history is inherently sexist. Too often, we have focused on factories and other all- or mostly male worksites in our labor history. But women have always worked too: as unpaid labor in the home, as low-paid factory labor, as sex workers. These are all forms of labor. Then, when women did enter the male-dominated workplace, men relegated women to low pay and sexually harassed them on the job, while unions remained dominated by men. The myth of the single-family income, which inherently meant a man working and a wife staying at home, has great power in our society and has blinded even labor activists to the sexism of this American ideal. The new organizing is led mostly by women and people of color. Race and gender will be absolutely central to a reinvigorated labor movement and we need to reconsider our history to focus on women and people of color as well.

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