Is interest in labor history waning?

WHA conference logoLabor historians from Canada and the United States grappled with the question of labor history’s allegedly diminishing role in the study of western history when they joined a panel at the 55th conference of the Western History Association in Portland on Oct. 24, 2015.

The discussion ranged from a review of the status of labor history in Canada to its place in Asian and Mexican-American labor history. Some panelists agreed that the study of capitalism seemed in bigger demand among university students than the study of labor history. Others saw the insertion of labor history into such courses as potentially enhancing those studies.

PNLHA member Jim Gregory’s positive assessment of progress in the U.S. was welcomed. Gregory, president-elect of the Labor and Working-Class History Association, noted that the panel was co-sponsored by LAWCHA.

The five panelists and moderator Matthew Basso from the University of Utah reached no agreement on the question, but audience participation move the discussion to strategies for restoring any lost interest in labor history.

Oregon PNLHA vice-president Ron Verzuh suggested that part of the strategy could include reaching out beyond the classroom to a public audience that would benefit from learning more about local labor history.

Later in the conference, PNLHA member Laurie Mercier delivered her paper on left-led unions and their role in the struggle to achieve women’s equality.

Unions are key to reducing inequality

“Unions are one of the keys to reversing the rise of income inequality,” noted a brief issued by the Oregon Center for Public Policy on Sept. 2, 2015. President Obama described the issue as the “defining challenge of our time.”

“Historically, organized labor has led efforts to create an economy that works for everyone,” the brief states. “Unions represent the fundamental right of workers to stick together and demand better pay and working conditions.

“Union efforts have resulted in worker protections such as child labor laws, safer working conditions, overtime compensation and the 40-hour work week. Following World War II, a vibrant U.S. labor movement helped support the development of a broad middle class by setting standards for wages and benefits.

“By the late 1970s, at about the time union membership began to decline nationally and in Oregon, income inequality began to widen. Income gains began bypassing most Oregonians, flowing instead to those at the top of the income scale. The decline in union representation is an important part of the story of the rise of income disparities in Oregon, and of disparities among Oregon men in particular.

“By bargaining together for better pay,” the brief concludes, “workers can reduce inequality and create an economy that works for everyone….Increased unionization would ease inequality and help low- and middle-income Oregonians prosper

For more go to or download the brief: Unions Are Key to Reducing Inequality .

Thanks to PNLHA trustee Jim Strassmeier for sending the brief to Oregon Update.

LAWCHA conference CFP deadline extended

Labor cover 2President Nancy McLean at the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) has extended the deadline for proposals for their May 28-31, 2015, conference at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. You can still submit until October 15.

The conference, sponsored jointly with the Working-Class Studies Association, will focus on economic inequality. The CFP notes that “Fighting Inequality will bring together scholars, activists, and artists to explore some core questions about economic inequality and strategies for resistance, both historically and in the current moment.”

More information here: