By Hannah Buoye
There were no picket signs, megaphones or marching at the second inaugural lecture for the Center for Labor Studies. Instead, a comely professor from Yale stood at the podium and educated audience members about the struggling unions and the plight of underpaid campus workers.
David Montgomery, a Farnam Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, spoke passionately about the future labor movements in an address titled: “American Labor and Imperialism: Friends or Foes? The Twentieth-Century Experience.”
History often repeats itself — as the clichÃ© goes — but Montgomery’s speech tried to provide some historical context to current labor issues by offering information and examples in hopes of captivating a diverse audience.
Amy Newell, a member of the University Professional and Technical Employee (UPTE) union at UC Santa Cruz, found Montgomery engaging. “I am a fan of labor history and it was extremely interesting to see the roots of the American Labor movement, and the strong imperial sentiment that they first opposed then â€¦ become sort of a junior partner to imperialism,” she said.
Paul Ortiz, co-founder of the Center for Labor Studies and an associate professor of community studies at UCSC, felt that Montgomery was informative. “Professor Montgomery’s talk gave us vital clues about how we might build international solidarity between working people from different countries,” he said.
Montgomery based his talk around the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He explained how the organization transformed its attitude about unions and union organization in the context of imperialism.
At the outset, the AFL took a firm stance against war and imperialism, but the organization has since changed its tune. With Samuel Gompers in the lead, they began to march in a different ideological direction. Under the mantra “Wherever American business goes, so will we,” Gompers brought American labor unions and organizations to Canada, Mexico and other havens of American business.
Ortiz commented on Montgomery’s discussion of the links between labor, migration and demographic shifts as well as the connections between the labor force and its influence on wars and peace treaties.
“The United States is once again involved in a major war that has benefited corporations at the expense of working people, and the debates over immigration are raging as never before,” Ortiz said. “Professor Montgomery reminds us that we share a rich history of cooperation â€¦ that contains ethics far superior than the unbridled competition and the war of all-against-all that our economic leaders encourage us to engage in.”
Ortiz was surprised at the number of off-campus community members who attended the event and stressed the importance and success of the talk.
“Many students and members of the community have told me that this was one of the best talks they’ve ever heard at UCSC,” Ortiz said. “I felt that it was very important for us to be able to host such a distinguished speaker with such a strong grasp of labor history.”
Montgomery’s talk is just the beginning of the Center’s efforts to combine scholastic research and community support. Dana Frank, co-founder of the Center for Labor Studies, talked about the center’s mission.
She said, “It is dedicated to the study of working peoples, labor movements and the challenge of broader global economy as it impacts local workers and beyond.”
The Center’s next two major events will be held in February. They will host a conference on International Labor Issues early in the month, and a talk by the distinguished University of Wisconsin historian William Jones on the topic of race and class in the labor movement on Thursday, Feb. 15.