Scales of Struggle: Historians of labor, working class to convene at UW

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Issues of social justice, incarceration and the politics of race and gender — past and present — will be the focus as hundreds of scholars, teachers, labor activists and artists gather at the University of Washington June 22-25 for the annual conference of the Labor and Working-Class History Association.

Faculty and graduate students from the UW departments of history, political science and English as well as UW Bothell and UW Tacoma will participate. The four-day conference is titled “Scales of Struggle: Communities, Movements and Global Connections,” and will be held in Mary Gates Hall on the UW’s Seattle campus.

Talking with conference participant, Pulitzer Prize recipient Heather Ann Thompson:

Heather Ann Thompson is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of the book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for history. She will lead a plenary session the evening of June 22 titled “Mass Incarceration and the Working Class.” Thompson answered a few questions about the conference and her work.

Why is this a time of “deepening crisis” historically for labor and popular movements?

H.T.: There have been many historical moments during which movements for greater economic and social justice have under assault and this one is perhaps one of the most alarming. Also like other moments of crisis for ordinary people, however, it is clear that there is a new energy and commitment to standing together and resisting this ugliness on the part of working people and people who are completely shut out of the labor market alike. I think we are on the cusp of some serious activism in this country and it is unlikely to go away.

 What might this conference achieve?

H.T.: It is so crucial to learn about our past — to learn about the other times of political ugliness in our country and in others, and to learn about how regular people stood together to challenge those assaults on their communities. This conference is a place to learn about the past and to organize for a better today and tomorrow.

The New York Times called your book a “superb work of history” methodically built from interviews, police reports and other documents covering 35 years. Could you suggest some other books for readers interested in learning more about issues of this conference? 

H.T.:City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965,” by Kelly Lytle Hernandez.

The Labor and Working-Class History Association, called LAWCHA for short, brings together historians, labor educators and activists to promote awareness of working-class history through” research, writing and organizing,” according to its website.

James Gregory, UW professor of history, president of the association and a main organizer for the event, said the conference will include 300 to 400 scholars, teachers and activists from around the country as well as many UW faculty and students, and members of the community.

Conference notes describe the purpose and context of this year’s event: “We gather at a time of deepening crisis for labor and popular movements in the U.S. and around the world. The Scales of Struggle conference provides an opportunity to consider the new challenges we face and historical contexts that help illuminate ways forward.

The event will include more than 100 panels, roundtables and workshops featuring new research and perspectives on issues such as immigration, labor rights, racism, gender discrimination and the environment. Session topics include mass incarceration, organizing service-sector workers, farmworkers’ and borderland struggles and the intersections of labor and civil rights.

Five new labor documentary films also will be screened, including “Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights,” by Matthew Barr and introduced by UW Tacoma history professor Michael Honey. Honey will also take part in a “performative presentation” about the music of Woody Guthrie and John Handcox from 1936 to 1941. There also will be discussion and an early look at a documentary about the 9 to 5 movement that gave rise to such unions as Seattle’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925.

UW faculty will chair or moderate several discussion sessions. See the full conference schedule online.

  • Gregory will chair a session titled “Authors Meet Critics,” discussing two books about World War I.
  • Erasmo Gamboa, UW associate professor of history, will chair two sessions: “Struggling with the State: Farmworker Activism and the Promises and Perils of Government Policy” and “Labor, Politics, and Social Movements: Chicanx Histories in the Northern Borderlands”
  • Michael McCann, professor of political science and director of the UW-based Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, will moderate “The $15 Minimum Wage Movement in Sea-Tac and Seattle: Origins and Impact.” Also on this panel and others is Conor Casey, labor archivist with UW Libraries
  • Moon Ho-Jung, associate professor of history, will chair a session titled “Race, ‘Free Labor,’ and Working-Class Politics in the Nineteenth Century”
  • Susan Glenn, professor of history, will chair a session on “Religious Leaders, Grassroots Responses, and Political Change”
  • Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, associate professor of history, will chair a session titled “Navigating the Mazes of Modernization in Puerto Rico: Organized Labor, Techno-Politics, and Welfare Activism”
  • Dan Berger, assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at UW Bothell, will chair a session titled” Rethinking Carceral Labor Struggles: Unions, Job Training, and Parole for Incarcerated Workers in the Twentieth Century United States.” Berger is author of the 2014 book “Captive Nation” Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.”
  • Dan Jacoby, associate professor of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at UW Bothell, will chair a session titled “The Significance of the September 2012 and April 1, 2016 Chicago Teacher’s Union Strikes.”

The opening session, “Mass Incarceration and the Working Class,” will feature Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history at the University of Michigan and recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for history for her book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”

Other UW faculty and staff conference participants include Beverly Naidus and Luther Adams, UW Tacoma associate professors of interdisciplinary arts and sciences; Charles Williams, UW Tacoma associate professor of political science and labor history; Polly Myers, lecturer in history; Andrew Hedden, Harry Bridges Center associate director, and extension lecturer Richard Moore. Graduate students Michael Reagan, Josue Estrada, Jiwoon Yu-lee, Roneva Keel, Tyler Babbie, Megan Brown and Michael D. Aguirre also will participate, as well as alumnus Oscar Castañeda.

The conference has received support from the College of Arts & Sciences, Social Science Division; and the Harry Bridges Center.

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For more information contact Gregory at 206-543-7792 or gregoryj@uw.edu or visit the conference website.

  • Related event at the Henry Art Gallery: The Henry will host Seattle-based collaborative If You Don’t They Will presenting “no. NOT EVER,” June 24 – Oct. 21. In the Henry Test Site, the group will present video interviews with community organizers from Oregon, Washington and Idaho that celebrate and recognize the breadth and diversity of their efforts to counter white nationalism. Learn more.
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