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Published by EH.NET (June 2001)

Melvyn Dubofsky, Hard Work: The Making of Labor History. Urbana:

University of Illinois Press, 2000. ix + 249 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN:

0-252-06868-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert Whaples, Department of Economics, Wake Forest

University.

Melvyn Dubofsky is one of the leading labor historians in the United States.

His works include numerous articles and well-known books such as We Shall

Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969) and

John L. Lewis: A Biography (with Warren Van Tine, 1977), but he is

probably most well known for his textbooks including multiple editions of

Labor in America and Industrialism and the American Worker,

1865-1920. This volume opens with an autobiographical account in which

Dubofsky fits his career into the emergence of labor history as a recognized

historical field, the rise of the discipline to prominence in the late 1960s

and 1970s, and the recent stagnation and declining influence of the field. The

rest of the volume comprises nine historical essays, most previously

published, written between 1966 and 1992. They begin with Dubofsky’s research

into western working-class radicalism, the Industrial Workers of the World,

and IWW leader William Haywood. Next are three essays exploring the

interaction of unions, politicians and the federal government. One focuses on

the Wilson administration, another on the 1930s, the last runs from the FDR to

Ronald Reagan. The last set of essays attempt to situate American workers in

the wider “world system” of capitalism and come out of Dubofsky’s long

association with the Braudel Center at Binghamton University, SUNY.

Readers of labor history have always been struck by Dubofsky’s immense

knowledge, his dedication to scholarship and his belief that “only good

history has the power to save losers and the forgotten from condescension” (p.

3). The essays are pervaded with Dubofsky’s view that the “one inescapable

reality of American labor history” is “the neverending struggle between

workers and bosses for power” (p. 183) and his sense that the conflict between

“capital” and “labor” has been central to American history. In addition, the

essays tend to equate the successes of workers and the successes of unions —

as does much of labor history. Labor history flourished when many Americans

shared this outlook. Today, fewer and fewer share these attitudes (see, for

example, Sanford Jacoby’s Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New

Deal, 1997) and employee relations are clearly not centered on conflict.

Thus, people will wonder if Dubofsky’s conflict-ridden portrait is an accurate

or complete depiction of the past. Few readers will accept Dubofsky’s somewhat

simplistic, one-sided early essays — in which the boss is a “son of a

bitch,” corporate executives are bent on “polarizing” society, and labor

organizers, especially the radicals, are never rent seekers but, instead, are

an almost Messianic force seeking to build a better world. Dubofksy’s essays

are always informative, but must be read with an informed eye — such as when

he asserts that President Reagan used “coercion” to break the 1981 air traffic

controllers’ strike. The most encouraging essay may be the last one, in which

Dubofsky calls on his colleagues to be sensitive to the workers that Dubofsky

himself largely ignores in these essays, those that got along with their

employers and those “who proved more loyal to their churches or religious

faiths than to their unions or class” (p. 231).

Robert Whaples is Associate Director of EH.NET and EH.NET’s book review

editor.