Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 874

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 874


This is the grave of David Montgomery.

Born in 1927, Montgomery grew up pretty well off, joined the Army Corps of Engineers shortly after World War II, working on the nuclear reservation in Los Alamos, and then went to Swarthmore College, graduating in 1950 with a political science degree. He became a communist in 1951. And following communist ideology, rather than follow the traditional path of the mid-twentieth century college graduate, Montgomery instead went into the factories to work and to organize. He became a machinist and worked at a number of factories over the next decade. It was a brave act to become a communist in 1951, but he was enticed by the internationalist positions of the CP. He stayed in the Party until 1957. Most notably, he was an activist within the United Electrical Workers (UE), that communist-led and quite democratic union (compare to the Mineworkers or Steelworkers, which were dictatorships until the 1970s) that pulled his heartstrings as well as his political activism. Montgomery legitimately loved UE. He brought that perspective to the rest of his career. He also was a genuine anti-racist, marrying a Black woman named Martel Montgomery, who is buried next to him.

In 1959, Montgomery decided to leave the factories, quite reluctantly, and start graduate school in history at the University of Minnesota. The only reason he left the factories is that employers kept finding out about his communist past and blacklisted him, first in New York and then in Minneapolis. He would have rather remained a machinist for the rest of his life. But if he couldn’t do that, he was going to use his brain to serve the workers’ struggle in a different way. He dedicated his scholarship to that struggle he left behind in the factories.

Montgomery became the most important of the New Labor Historians in the United States. There were several other leaders: Alice Kessler-Harris, David Brody, Melvyn Dubofsky. But no one had a greater impact than Montgomery. His first book was Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872, published in 1967, which pushed beyond the self-satisfied liberal view of the Reconstruction Amendments to note the very limited vision the Radical Republicans had for workers, including Black workers. But what Montgomery really became known for in his career was his incredibly deep dive into the critical issue of work in the late 19th century–workers’ control over work processes. As the labor history series has explored in some depth when covering events from that era, it wasn’t wages or conditions or even hours that motivated workers the most to strike. It was the loss of autonomy on the job on a daily basis. Understanding these issues is Montgomery’s greatest legacy to the field. His 1979 book Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles was a critically important book of essays on the topic. But the real masterpiece was his 1987 book, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. In these works, Montgomery demonstrated that workers did not only want to protect their work cultures, but they actually were often the only ones who understood the work they did. It was the goal of scientific management to break down these worker cultures in order to maximize corporate profit and create a fully proletarianized working class. Fordism was effectively the end of the line for these old ways of work and ushered in the new age of industrial labor that sought to turn workers into machines, but also, ironically, created the conditions that were ripe for the mass organizing campaigns of the 1930s. Like a lot of the New Labor History, it’s not really very fun reading and some thought The Fall of the House of Labor was too dense to be understood. I’d argue that like Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, it’s a book that is so deeply engaged with the lost work cultures of the era that it is hard to easily translate this material to a popular public because we don’t have the tools to understand such a lost world.

Montgomery certainly was honest in his love for the workers’ movement. Sometimes, I think his legacy among labor historians on this front can lead to more cheerleading than cold analysis. I tend to reject the romanticism of some labor historians for all workers’ movements as outright counterproductive because critical analysis sometimes goes out the door; not surprisingly, some of them see me as a moderate neoliberal sellout. Well, whatever. I’d argue that analyzing the past and present of workers’ movement in a critical way is more valuable than just instinctively wanting to sing “Solidarity Forever.” But I guess that’s just me. In any case, for Montgomery, the point of being a labor historian was giving voice to the workers’ struggle over time. He always carried himself as just a regular guy, even though he grew up as a rich kid.

Moreover, when the rubber met the road, he would lead others in the right direction. In 2000, he happened to be president of the Organization of American Historians, one of the highest honors in the profession. As it turned out, there was a strike at the St. Mark’s Hotel in St. Louis, where the meeting was to be held. Honoring a strike can cost a relatively poor organization such as a history association a lot of money, to the point of being a ruinous. The contract breaking clauses with renters give the hotels a lot of power. But how could the OAH meet at a struck hotel? A lot of historians would have just crossed the line. Not Montgomery. Despite the damage to the organization’s finances, Montgomery was able to gain a basic consensus about holding an alternative meeting at various sites around the city. The OAH was fine and made a serious point about supporting workers’ rights. I was just about to start my PhD program at this point and was very impressed with the solidarity coming from the OAH. One thing that labor historians should always be able to agree on is the need to use our scholarship and leadership to be involved in both local labor struggles and international labor issues. I certainly think that, even if I think there are different methods by which one can do this.

Montgomery first taught at the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained actively involved in the UE, and later went on to Yale, where he directed many dissertations, becoming the single biggest influence on a whole generation of labor historians who are now in their 60s and 70s. He worked with E.P. Thompson while on sabbatical in England to establish the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. Later in life, he co-authored a book with Horace Huntley of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute titled Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham. Using oral histories of activists as its core and published in 2001, it explored the intersection between Black activists and labor unions in 20th century Alabama.

Montgomery died in 2011, the day after he turned 84.

David Montgomery is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Stamford, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents of the OAH, you can donate donate to cover the required expenses here. Michael Kammen, the cultural historian, is in Ithaca, New York and Arthur Link, the biographer of Wilson, is in Lewisville, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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