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Historical Encyclopedia of American Labor

Author(s):Weir, Robert E.
Hanlan, James P.
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (November 2004)


Robert E. Weir and James P. Hanlan, editors, Historical Encyclopedia of American Labor, two volumes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004. xxii + 733 pp. $175 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-313-32864-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The development of scholarly disciplines built around the specialized narrative creates an ongoing need for new ways to bring new scholarship to the public. In history, this is often done through textbooks and in synthetic histories. For a long time, economic historians relied on the works of Louis Hacker and Thomas Corcoran, and have used textbooks by Harry Scheiber, Hugh Rockoff, Jonathan Hughes and Louis Cain, and Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, among others. For nearly a century, labor historians have relied on the four-volume History of Labour in the United States put out by John R. Commons and his associates. In the last thirty years these have been supplemented by syntheses written by Irving Bernstein, David Montgomery and Herbert Gutman and his associates. Recently, several historical encyclopedias have been published to provide quick, short summaries of major findings in the scholarly literature. Gary Fink prepared two, one for American labor unions and one for labor leaders; and recently, Joel Mokyr and Robert Whaples, have edited such encyclopedias for economic history. There is an encyclopedia of strikes being prepared by Aaron Brenner. And, now, we have a new encyclopedia of American labor history prepared by two of the more prominent younger labor historians.

With a large number of relatively short entries, the real measure of an encyclopedia is its breadth of coverage rather than the depth of the individual entries. The Weir and Hanlan Encyclopedia, for example, has 396 entries, averaging under two pages each. The Encyclopedia does well with its choice of topics, providing a nice blending of the institutional concerns of the older labor history and the social movement focus of the no-longer-so-new labor history. Harking back to Commons and the old institutional labor history, there are 117 entries on labor unions, including many of the most important unions, such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the United Mine Workers, and the Service Employees International Union. The Encyclopedia also picks up some of the less famous unions that are of particular interest because they highlight aspects of the American labor experience. These include an entry on a strong and conservative railroad craft union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, as well as an article on the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union of black railroad service workers, and one on the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, a radical industrial union prominent in the early part of the twentieth century.

The range of topics covered reflects an editorial choice common among labor historians. Sympathetic with the political left and a confrontational view of labor relations, the Encyclopedia tilts its coverage towards the more radical unions and topics. Among the topics that can be identified politically, 204 pages (nearly 40% of the entire Encyclopedia) can be associated with leftist topics, including syndicalist and communist unions. Less space is devoted to individuals and unions arguably more representative of America’s relatively conservative labor movement. Only 72 pages (13%) address centrist topics, and even less, only 41 pages, deal with conservative ones associated with Samuel Gompers and the old AFL. Mainstream but conservative ideas like “Voluntarism” and “Pure and simple unionism” are handled in short half-page and one-page entries; more space is devoted to “Bellamyite Nationalism” (one page) and “Utopianism” (two pages). Most major unions and labor organizations are covered, but there is disproportionate coverage towards radical and strike-prone organizations. The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, for example, was a short-lived and self-avowed militant organization of black autoworkers. It receives 2.5 pages, and the International Workers of the World gets three pages. By contrast, some of the largest and most important unions receive relatively little attention. The Teamsters and the Machinists are covered in one page each, and conservative unions in the railroad or construction trades, such as the Railway Clerks or the Plumbers, are neglected completely. Nearly half the pages devoted to unions are for organizations that can be identified with the syndicalist or communist left compared with 35% for the relatively moderate socialist center and only 18% on the right. Strikes and other instances of labor unrest also receive heavy coverage, including 127 pages or 24% of the Encyclopedia. A left tilt extends to the choice of biographical entries. Sixty-six biographies fill 105 pages (20%) of the Encyclopedia. Of these, 63% are associated with the left, compared with 18% with the center and only 18% with labor’s right. It is interesting that political sympathies did not lead the editors to over-represent women or minorities among their biographical subjects. White men comprise only 85% of the biographical pages compared with only 4% for blacks and 12% for women, a proportion that may even overstate the white male share of labor union leaders or members throughout American history.

The leftist tilt of the Encyclopedia reflects the feelings of most in the discipline of labor history where the central question continues to be “why is there no socialism in the United States?” or else “what can we do to move the United States to the left?” The Encyclopedia also reflects the profession’s disposition in defining labor history as the actions of workers and organized labor with relatively little regard for context or the actions of the other social actors. The Encyclopedia‘s editors deserve praise for including such employer topics as “Paternalism” and “Welfare Capitalism” along with “Scab” and “Boulwarism.” But the strategies and direct actions of employers still merit only 69 pages, or 13% of the Encyclopedia. More attention is given to economic history than to business history. Generously defined, economic history comprises over 100 pages. But these discussions leave out mention of economic growth, productivity, macroeconomic policy, unemployment, labor market discrimination, or trends in the level or distribution of wages.

The Encyclopedia is largely written by younger scholars. The editors themselves wrote or co-authored over 40% of the pages. (Weir signed 28% of the pages by himself and 8% with others; Hanlan did 8%.) Other authors include some of the best of the younger scholars, including Kevin Boyle, writing on the CIO and on “George Meany,” and Joseph McCartin, writing on the PATCO strike of 1981. Perhaps reflecting the role of younger scholars, the Encyclopedia extends further into the twentieth century than has most labor history. The last entry, on the case of Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products dates from 2000! Nearly 15% of the Encyclopedia concerns events and people since 1966. The focus remains, however, in the classic years of American labor history. Fully a third of the pages date from the 1880-1914 period and another 13% date from the Great Depression years, 1930-46.

The Encyclopedia entries are almost all well-written and clear, and I identified surprisingly few mistakes for a work of this scale. The entries also contain bibliographic information which readers can use to pursue more detail on the topic. In many cases, I would have liked some more bibliographic references but the editors to some extent correct for this failing by including an excellent bibliography including a listing of useful web sites. The editors also include very extensive documentation in 55 appendices including excerpts from legislation, such as the Wagner Act of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, contemporary descriptions of working conditions and strikes, and excerpts from biographies of prominent labor activists.

Comprising over 130 pages, the Appendices contain much valuable material; they are a real bonus when added to a valuable reference tool. The editors say that the Encyclopedia is directed at high school students. It would be valuable for them, but it also would be a useful resource for college students and libraries. Many graduate students would benefit from dipping into its resources. So would some faculty. I enjoyed reading it; and I learned from it. I guess that merits The Encyclopedia of American Labor History a strong recommendation.


Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History: From Colonial Times to 1940, second edition. New York: Norton, 1994.

Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

John R. Commons, David J. Saposs, Helen L. Sumner, E. B. Mittelman, H. E. Hoagland, John B. Andrews, and Selig Perlman, History of Labour in the United States. New York. Macmillan Company, 1935-36.

Gary Fink, editor, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974

Gary Fink, editor, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984

Louis M. Hacker, The Triumph of American Capitalism: The Development of Forces in American History to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

Jonathan Hughes and Louis P. Cain, American Economic History, fifth edition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998.

Bruce Levine et al, Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society. New York: Pantheon Books, c1989-c1992.

Joel Mokyr, editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987

Harry N. Scheiber, Harold G. Vatter, and Harold Underwood Faulkner, American Economic History. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Gary M. Walton and Hugh Rockoff, History of the American Economy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Robert Whaples, editor, EH.Net Encyclopedia.

Gerald Friedman, the co-editor of the journal Labor History, is working on a book-length collective biography of several early American economists: Richard Ely, John Bates Clark, Wesley Clair Mitchell, and John Maurice Clark, plus another book, Can the Forward March of Labor be Restarted? — a study of trade union decline in advanced capitalist economies and the possibilities for labor renewal.


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII