Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Global Labour History in the 21st Century

23 November 2000 to 25 November 2000

This conference was organized on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the IISH.

Abstracts of papers presented during the conference:

Marcel van der Linden, Global Labour History: Preliminary Thoughts
The paper will consist of three parts. First, a discussion of the Global Labour History concept as such: its substantive meaning and its methodological aspects (four levels of analysis). Second, a quick survey of work already done in this field. And third, some thoughts on what we could and should do in the coming years: (i) develop new concepts and new research tools; (ii) pose new research questions; (iii) develop new organizational research designs.

Dick Geary, Labour in Western Europe
In the first half of the 19th century a discourse of class and a self-characterisation as workers developed amongst some sections of European labour, especially in Britain, Belgium, France and parts of Germany. After 1850 in most of Europe increasing numbers of workers participated in strikes, trade unions and political parties, which claimed to speak for the 'working class' and which often subscribed to some form of socialist ideology. In the same period (1850-1950), labour historians, often with an explicitly radical political agenda, linked the rise of labour and class awareness to long-term processes of economic and social change: the rise of dependent wage labour (relatively rare before 1830 in most European societies), industrialisation, urbanisation and proletarianisation. Even when it was perceived that workers were as often as divided as united, and that 'class consciousness' was brittle, such divisions were often explained in terms of occupational and structural divisions within the labour force (as in the case of arguments about the labour aristocracy).
In the 1960s and 1970s it became increasingly clear that arguments about class identity which stemmed solely from an examination of the workplace/labour process were problematical, especially in the case of political action and organisation. As a result factors exogenous to the workplace (the role of the state, political traditions) became increasingly prominent in the historiography of labour. Subsequently the influence of postmodernism and the linguistic turn on historians writing about European labour has cast even more doubts on structural explanations and has stressed the primacy of cultural discourse in the construction of labour's identity. Many now cast doubt on any meta-narrative of class; and other narratives - of ethnicity, nationality, generation and especially gender - have become increasingly important.
In a schematic survey of labour in Western Europe since 1800 this paper acknowledges ethnic, gender and other differences but prefers to locate the identities and discourses of workers within specific historical structures and conjunctures. It also believes that class was a significant determinant of action and identity for millions of workers between 1850 and 1950, although it had to compete with other identities and although continuous labour organisation was for the most part the prerogative of skilled, male workers. Significant attention is paid to the possession of different resources and repertoires of protest on the part of different groups in the labour force, as well as to the role of the state and political parties in the formation of cross-occupational (i.e. class) identities. Arguably the structures which produced class as a significant historical force are now in the process of disintegration, with globalisation, de-industrialisation, the feminisation of the workforce (often involving casualisation), the rise of non-class agendas (environmental and women's issues) and the development of mass popular culture, home-, car- -and TV-ownership, as well as the disruption of traditional residential communities.

Andrej Sokolov/Leonid Borodkin, East Europe/Russia

Bryan D. Palmer, Labour History At Century's Start: North America
Labour history in North America is a little over a century old.. This paper will address briefly the beginnings of labour history from 1880-1960, outline the directions and contributions of the period of most pronounced production of labour history, from 1960-1985, and then detail the challenges to labour history from various theoretical directions (primarily postmodernism and the analytic investment in subjectivity) and the consequent rethinking of relations of multiple identities (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, region) as they intersect with the primary identity of an older historiography of labour, class. It will suggest new concerns and approaches including widening the boundaries of labour's history thematically as well as geographically, arguing that in order to gain an adequate appreciation of the history and historiography of workers we must build on old accomplishments to construct new interpretations. Jettisoning what has been accomplished in past work is no more helpful than refusing to address new topics and issues. Labour's history at century's start will thus be, like all historiographies, a blend of old and new in which strengths in past work complement insights derived from work that seeks to address areas little explored in previous writing.

John D. French, Labor History in Latin America and the Caribbean: New Points of Departures in the Study of the Region's Laboring and Middle-Class Peoples
This paper will offer a symptomatic assessment of the state of scholarly understanding of the history of the working peoples of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English speaking countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. It thus complements my recent interdisciplinary survey: "The Latin American Labor Studies Boom," International Review of Social History Vol. 45 (2000): 279-310. Although briefly reviewing outstanding controversies since the 1960s, its primary aim is to chart the contours of the labor historiography of a region marked by compelling similarities and starkly differentiated national peculiarities. In particular, it criticizes our continued adherence to unnecessarily restrictive definitions of our object of study-in temporal, geographical, and conceptual terms- while suggesting how we might move beyond the self-limiting nature of our chosen methods and tools. Throughout, it will comment on the absence or weakness of any compelling master narrative(s) of the history of the region's laboring people. At the same time, it will suggest how the field's current strengths might serve as the basis for defining a larger scholarly agenda for the creation of the a contemporary labor history narrative appropriate to the coming decades.

Frederick Cooper, Labor History in Africa
At first glance, Africa should be peripheral to the story of labor in capitalist societies. Africa has proved more resistant to wage labor than any other region. The large majority of Africans do their work within other systems of social relation; even in cities, non-wage labor in various forms is more dynamic than the wage labor sector. But for precisely these reasons, Africa is important to the study of capitalism, for it it through contrasting histories that one can get beyond a singular, global narrative of "proletarianization." The paper will stress not only comparison of different labor systems, but the historical connections among them and it will engage literature on the Caribbean and on colonial societies generally, as well as that on Africa. The proletarianization narrative has been a seductive one for Africanists, but I intend to develop instead the following themes:
- African labor was central to the development of an Atlantic system (African slaves, Caribbean plantations, North Atlantic manufacturing and farming) from the 16th century onward, in which the contrasting modes of economic organization were accentuated by their long-distance interaction.
- Through the 19th century, the distinction between free and unfree labor was not clear-cut in terms of labor control, but became clarified through ideological struggle; the meanings of "wage labor" and a "working class" emerged dialectically via political engagement between the antislavery movement, early workers' movements, and a British ruling class anxious to contain challenges. The working class was demarcated not just in class terms-separated from slaves-but in racial terms, from people of African descent.
- Attempts to bring wage labor to Africa in the early colonial era were not just resisted, but also deflected and in some cases appropriated, so that the labor systems that emerged do not fit a picture of emerging proletarianization.
- Scholars attempts to use the concept of "peripheral" labor systems are no more helpful than the proletarianization narrative in explaining the incidence of different labor systems across Africa. Instead, the best of African labor history charts a number of patterns of struggle, adaptation, and innovation, with results not necessarily anticipated or desired by employers or colonial administrations.
- Attempts to "rationalize" African labor systems began a couple of decades after rationalization efforts in Europe, and these efforts reflected less officials' engagement with the realities of work in Africa than a generalized conception of what labor, in the abstract, should be; the imagining of an African working class by colonial officials existed in complex relationship to changing patterns of work and of collective action on the part of African workers.
- Nevertheless, the existence of a set of expectations-for order and productivity-made it possible for labor unions to make claims, particularly for a "male breadwinner's" wage or family allowances.
- The crucial fact in late colonial Africa was not the steadily growing pervasiveness of capitalist relations of production, but the disarticulation of the economy; governments called their policy "stabilization," stressing that the working class whose reproduction it encouraged should be separated from contrasting modes of labor organization.
- This disarticulation accentuated cleavages of gender, age, and region, as recent work on anthropology, history, and gender studies has brought out.
- The generation of workers, from the late 1940s to the 1960s, that benefited from stabilization and thought it could attain education for its children and pensions for retirement learned that "modernization" was not a linear process, and they faced instead the catastrophic decline of wages and pensions after the mid-1970s.
- Whether South Africa follows such a pattern remains to be seen, although the relative importance of wage labor capitalism suggests that there may be significantly different trajectories in South African labor history from that elsewhere in the continent.

Zachary Lockman, North-Africa/Middle East
My paper will explore some of the key issues in Middle East labor and working-class history, largely by critically examining some of the theoretical and methodological approaches which have informed studies of workers and working classes in that region in recent decades. In so doing I will discuss what I see as the most important intellectual, political, cultural and social conditions and trends -- internal to the field and external to it -- which have shaped how Middle East working-class history has been conceived and written in various periods, debates within this field as it has evolved since the 1960s, its current state, and possible future directions. Since the Middle East is such a large and diverse region (in fact conceiving of it as a distinct and coherent world region is the product of a rather discredited Orientalist paradigm), since I know most about the literatures in Arabic, French, English and Hebrew, and since time for my presentation is limited, I will not attempt to cover all these topics and all countries or subregions in equal depth. Rather, my paper will focus on the development of the scholarly and popular (i.e. by veteran labor activists, etc.) literature on labor and working-class history in the countries of the Arab East (Mashriq), with particular attention to Egypt and Palestine (including perhaps a short digression on Zionist/Israeli labor history). I will however also try to say something about Iran, Turkey and North Africa, if time and space allow. In so doing I also hope to address the ways in which work on Middle East working-class history, by scholars in the region as well as elsewhere, has been influenced by or diverged from writing on workers and labor movements in other parts of the world.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, South Asian Labour History: Historiographic Review and Where do we go from here
One may identify in the discourse of South Asian labour history certain trends and characteristics which reflect ideological predispositions orienting historical thinking, as well as derivatives from the structural location of labour in the underdeveloped colonial and post-colonial economy.
These characteristics are as follows:
(1) An adversarial role was assumed by the labour historians, particularly in the first decades of the 20th century. Many of them happened to be activists in the organization and protest movements of the working classes. Not only Capital but the colonial state was also their adversary. Their constituents, sections of the labouring poor, were particularly disprivileged categories within the general context of economic underdevelopment and low per capita GNP; an awareness of these circumstances continue to cast some labour historians in an adversarial role today.
(2) In the second half of the 20th century professionalization and the entry of academic historians brought about a de-ideologization of labour history. The dissolution of the master narrative of proletarian internationalism and of the teleological perspective of the national working class struggle on a predestined historical trajectory, contributed to this process of de-ideologization in historiography.
(3) In both these early and later phases of historiography, the hegemony of European categories of thought often blocked the recognition of the specificities of the colonial economy and the persistence of pre-capitalist labour forms. A major consequence of this was to privilege the industrial working class in writing labour history. Almost the entire corpus of literature in this area is about industrial working class. While that class of urban wage workers in the factory was thus privileged -- and attributed a "historic role" -- the vaster numbers of the labouring poor in the unorganized or informal sector occupied a marginal space in labour history. Only in the last ten years or so some attention has been paid to the unorganized sector and the labouring poor outside of the capitalist Vs proletariat stereotype.
(4) There has taken place in the recent decades what may be called, for want of a better word, the fragmentation of labour history. We have congeries of localized narratives, the focus being on ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional and other identities. Labour is situated in such studies within culturally bounded territories, to the exclusion of extra-local concerns -- except when national level political phenomena, such as the anti-imperialist national movement, intersect with the local story. While this or an analogous trend may be part of the impact of the so-called linguistic turn or post-modernism etc. elsewhere in the world, in South Asia the reception of the theory may have been influenced by factors specific to South Asia. The pluralities contained at one time within the colonial state, and after decolonization within the new nation states, assert themselves in many ways. At its interface with the South Asian historiography of labour what does "global history of labour" (if the concept is not merely denotative, referring to spatial coverage) connote? The question has not yet been addressed explicitly by historians. Implicitly it has been touched upon in the history of (a) India's participation in the international labour market in the form of migration of South Asian labourers (under the indentured labour system to plantations overseas) under the auspices of metropolitan capital in the 19th century, (b) from the 1920's in South Asia, the concept of proletarian internationalism in the Marxian paradigm and its variants, (c) in recent decades the phenomenon which globalization brought about, the restructuring of labour both in developed and underdeveloped countries in the new phase of world capitalism. However, in none of these areas sufficient attention has been given to the conceptual basis of re-thinking labour history in global terms.

Lucy Taksa, Australasia
Although this abstract focuses greatest attention on labour historiography in Australia the final paper will provide greater emphasis on New Zealand and the South Pacific region.
In Australia, as elsewhere during the 1990s, some labour historians began to argue that labour history was facing imminent demise. Others opposed this view by stressing that labour historiography was not only alive and well but extending in new directions. At a time when Australian industrial activity is being relocated to other shores in the Asian region and union density is diminishing, scholarly interest in labour history has been sustained and the Australian society for the study of labour history has retained its membership. In fact, membership of regional branches has grown as have the number of new branches of the Society in Australia.
This paper will present a brief overview of how labour historiography has developed and changed since the late nineteenth century. In this regard it will highlight the new directions that have been taken by labour historians in response to the impact of globalisation and the information superhighway. The practice of labour history in the Australian region,followed closely upon developments in the United Kingdom and the USA between the 1960s and the 1990s. A labour history society was formed in Australia in the early 1960s on the English model. Most labour histories written during this period adopted institutional approaches to the extent that they focused on trade unions and the formation of labour and socialist parties. Biographies of labour leaders formed an important adjunct to this approach. Subsequently, during the late 1970s and 1980s the rise of the 'New Left' raised a challenge to the previous dominence of the 'Old Left' institutional approach. Interest in history from the bottom up, popularised in the United Kingdom by the work of E.P. Thompson and others, increased attention to hitherto marginalised groups of workers, as well as inspiring interest in migrants, indigenous Australians, the impact of the white Australia policy and racism generally, the urban experience and everyday life and culture. Additionally the work of Braverman led to a growth in the number of labour historians undertaking studies of the labour process in both Australia and New Zealand. In this regard, labour historians began to consider working class life with the aid of oral history methodology and interest in memory continuesalongside growing attention to culture and agency. Nevertheless, a large number of labour historians interested in labour in the Pacific region, notably Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu appear to have retained a more traditional orientation to the extentthat they have undertaken studies either of specific trade unions or trade unionism generally or of the role played by the labour migration of specific ethnic groups and the formation of labour markets in various South Pacific Islands, notably the Solomon and Gilbert Islands, New Claendonia, Fiji and Samoa.
More recently, as globalisation has apparently reduced distances between people and places and also cultural differences, labour historians have responded by focusing more attention on specific localities and communities. In this context they have begun to reconsider relationships between place, class and identity in ways that draw on a range of different disciplines and perspectives, including the literature on spatial processes. In Australia, interest in communities and localities has provided a foundation for considering gender relations and the boundaries between public and private spheres, production and consumption, as well as a non-institutional approach to political culture and the exercise ofcitizenship. In the South Pacific region there are a growing number of studies that have begun to consider the social organisation of ethnic communities, in ways that are beginning to revise the social boundaries and mapping of the island communities.
Such interest in locality, community and culture have not simply centred on scholarship but also conservation and representation of labour and industrial heritage. Hence we find that labour historians have increasingly begun to mobilise to promote interest inheritage and they have engaged in various struggles to change public policies and increase funding to ensure the maintenance of labour archives, industrial buildings and material culture, and thus also the retention of a collective memory of working class history.
The information superhighway has assisted such efforts by enabling labour historians 'down under' to enlist each other's support in such mobilisations. It has also enabled a bridge to be built between the labour movement and the community of labour historians. One notable example is provided by Workers Online, produced by the Labor Council of New South Wales, whose History feature is edited by the Secretary of the Australian Labour History Society. Efforts to conserve industrial and labour heritage in Australia have also increasingly drawn labour historians together with various unions in specific projects, the most prominent of which have centred on the investigation of railway workers history and the preservation of railway workshops. This is hardly suprising given the important role played by the railways in Australia's industrial history and culture. The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History has played a critical role in such activities. Hence the paper will consider the reasons for the strength of this organisation and also the relative lack of organisation among labour historians elsewhere in the region.

Shelton Stromquist , Railroad Labor History in a Global Context
Railroads provided the sinews and essential interconnections for expanding global capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Financed largely by capital from the metropolitan countries of Europe and the United States, they developed as handmaidens of colonial authority throughout much of the rest of the world. The timing of their growth, the logic of their spatial location, their recruitment of labor, and their regulation, although different from one national setting to another, were intimately related to the economic and social functions they performed for western imperialism. Indeed, some scholars have used the term "railway imperialism" to convey those interconnections.(1)
Not surprisingly railroads manifested a notable technological uniformity across the global economy. Significant changes in technology, at least during the steam era, were comparatively fewer than in other economic sectors. Growth in productivity advanced only gradually. The organization of labor and the structure of management were quite uniform.
I argue that despite its remarkable technological uniformity, the historical development of railroads followed certain distinctive patterns in three types of settings: metropolitan countries (western Europe), colonies (in Africa, Asia and some parts of Latin America), and post-colonial settler societies (United States and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some parts of Latin America.)
Several factors contributed to these patterns of variation and the comparatively different histories they produced. First, railroad employment was both segmented (operating trades, repair, track construction and maintenance, freight handling, and office) and stratified (a variety of skilled trades and forms of unskilled labor.)(2) The recruitment of labor produced racial and ethnic divisions that followed the segmented and stratified boundaries in the structure of employment, but the specific boundaries and the particular racial and ethnic groups varied considerably from one country to another.(3) In this respect, as well as others, the histories of metropolises, colonies and settler societies differed significantly.
Second, the political/economic contexts in which railroads operated produced differences in the level of political integration and/or opposition among railroad workers. Here too the politicization of railroad labor disputes varied enormously between the three settings. Whether railroad workers functioned in a colonial context, whether they were employed by state or private corporations, whether their locations were predominantly urban or rural, whether they interconnected with agricultural, extractive or manufacturing workers, whether they functioned within economies oriented primarily to export or domestic markets, may have been factors that had some bearing on the political location of railroad workers.
Third, railroad workers appear frequently at the forefront of anti-colonial, nationalist struggles. The very nature of the industry and its association with imperialist expansion seems to have engendered a particular kind of politicization in such contexts.(4) In settler societies, during certain periods railroad workers also appear to have been prominent actors in broader general strike movements that acquired a political character.(5) In metropolises, rail workers generally assumed a less militant, less political role.
A final, interesting point of comparison has to do with the occupational hierarchies and social dislocation associated of railroad work in almost all settings. In a male-dominated work force with relatively high risk of disabling injury, a masculinist culture took hold. Among the operating tradesCwhere race and ethnicity typically dictated entry--that work culture was also deeply infected by race consciousness. Railroad workers typically labored in communities whose economies were disproportionately devoted to railroad operations (division towns). Frequent migration and unique paths of social mobility within the industry further defined the peculiarity of their work culture. The highly variable work and travel schedules among the operating trades contributed to a distinctive, inward-looking work culture and sense of community that often isolated them from other segments of the working class. Their distinctive language and dress symbolized that sense of difference and compounded the problems of undertaking broader forms of collective action.(6)

Lex Heerma van Voss, Dockers as a Global Occupation
Workers who loaded and unloaded ships have formed a distinctive occupational group over the past two centuries. As trade expanded so the numbers of dock labourers increased and became concentrated in the major ports of the world. This was in several ways a global process:
- The loading of cargo in one place presupposes unloading it elsewhere. As sea-borne trade was in itself global (and/or became more so), a global need for dock work was created.
- This lead to the global spread of at least some of the technology involved. It is technically possible to have uneven technology in loading and unloading (for instance large ships which can reach a quay at one end of a trip but which have to rely on lighters at the other end, or containers which have to be unpacked onboard because the receiving port has no container facilities). Still the technologies mentioned in these examples on the whole came to be spread globally because shipping companies demanded the same facilities on both ends of trips (or were expected to do so).
- Dockers, close as they were to shipping, could maintain contacts globally. There was some recruitment of dockers from among sailors, but even without this, dockers were informed about labour conditions and labour conflicts in other ports.
The global aspects of dockers' work will be sketched and it will be attempted to explain this development from the consecutive phases of shipping and ports technology and the organisation of dock work.
The lecture will be largely based on a comparative project based at the IISH, in which data were assembled for 22 major ports worldwide. Built around an agreed framework of issues, these 'port studies' examined the type of workers who dominated dock labour, race, class and ethnicity, the working conditions of dockers and the role of government as employer and arbitrator. These studies also detail how dockers organized their labour, patterns of strike action and involvement in political organizations. This material will be published in Sam Davies e.a. (eds.) Dock Workers: International Explorations in Comparative Labour History, 1790-1970 (Ashgate, Aldershot: 2001).

Jan Lucassen, Brick Making
One of the methods to study global labour history is the comparison of one and the same economic sector in different regions. Brick making meets some important requirements for such a comparison: from its very beginnings in the neolithicum the techniques don't differ substantially between major centres like China, India, the Middle East and Europe, and everywhere it is seasonally bound. In the North brick moulding and firing was restricted to the summer half year, in the South to the dry season.
Under the influence of a large increase in demand or technical innovations in firing or moulding labour recruitment, labour organization and supervision can change substantially. These processes will be analysed and compared in continental north-west Europe in the period 1650-1900 and in northern India in the period 1800-2000. The emergence and demise of large-scale seasonal migrations will be one of the major themes of the paper, and all-male groups will be contrasted to groups dominated by wives and children. A second theme will be the way in which workers are paid: individually or as a gang, time wages or piece wages. A third theme will be how these workers organize themselves: guild-like, by cooperative subcontracting, in trade unions or hardly at all.
Historically I will concentrate on two major types of change: the one from artisanal to large-scale production by the enlargement of the firing capacity (Europe c. 1700-1850, India c 1840-1880), and the one from intermittent to permanent firing (Europe 1850-1900, also in combination with mechanical moulding, India from 1870/80 onwards).

Ratna Saptari, Localizing Global History, Globalizing Local History Reflections on Southeast Asian Domestic Workers
Ian Phimister, Comparing Coal Mining Histories
This paper takes as its historiographical base line the Second International Mining History Congress held at Bochum in 1989, and the subsequent book edited by Klaus Tenfelde, Towards a Social History of Mining in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. A conference notable for the number and range of contributions, it acknowledged the problems of writing comparative history even as it set out a research agenda for the future. Prominent amongst the suggestions made then were the importance of disaggregating notions of miners' communities, organizations and strikes; the need to explore further the role of the state, especially its repressive dimension; and the question of gender.
So far as the social history of coal mining is concerned, it is the first theme, which has received most attention, notably in the work of Church and Outram. Their Strikes and Solidarity is discussed in detail in Section I of this paper, not least the chapter devoted to international perspectives. But while some work has appeared on the role of the state and its relationship to the coal mining industry, for example Holter on France and Fine on Britain, remarkably little comparative research on gender has been published.
In part this reflects a continued propensity for research to follow national contours, and no doubt the attractions and advantages of focusing on particular collieries. Section II compares and contrasts Menghetti's fine-grained social history of Queensland [Australia]'s Blair Athol with Edgecombe's detailed exploration of Hlobane Colliery in Natal [South Africa] and Phimister=s economic and social history of Zimbabwe's only coal mine. Patterns and processes over time of state intervention, community and conflict, and class, ethnicity and gender are closely examined.
The third and last section takes up Tenfelde's observation that mining history had achieved its greatest breadth and depth at precisely the same moment that the industry itself had lost influence in Western Europe. It notes Ackers' insistence that the history of coal mining labour is far from being an 'exhausted seam', but also points to a dramatic falling away in recent years the number of publications on the coal mining histories of Canada and Australia.

Prasannan Parthasarathi State, Community and Property in the 18th Century, Comperative Perspective
The critique of individual property rights has been a main pillar of radical critiques of liberalism. (For instance, see Marx's On the Jewish Question.) Central to the theoretical, political and historical project of radicals has been the conceptualization of alternate structures of property ownership. However, as this paper will argue, these alternate conceptions have been largely drawn from the historical example of Europe (common rights, etc.). It will show that in other areas of the world, most importantly in South Asia, there existed other notions of property rights, and these were grounded in vastly different ideas of kingship, community and labor. The purpose in bringing these notions to light is to both particularize the European experience as well as to offer potentially fruitful alternatives to the present-day liberal orthodoxy.