History of LAWCHA

By Shel Stromquist and Cecelia Bucki (with assistance from Tom Klug), March 2015.

LAWCHA grew out of conversations among labor historians over the course of a couple of years between 1996 and 1998 about the importance of giving labor history greater visibility nationally in both academic circles and public arenas.

An ad hoc committee (including Roger Horowitz and Cecelia Bucki) drafted a constitution and bylaws, which were approved at a meeting of the organizing group at the North American Labor History Conference (NALHC) in October 1998. That committee also appointed interim co-chairs, Julie Greene and Shelton Stromquist, and other interim officers: Heather Thompson, Secretary; Roger Horowitz, Treasurer, and committee chairs: Program (Patricia Cooper), Outreach (Kim Phillips, Carolyn Brown), and Incorporation (Tom Klug). The organizing committee appointed a nominating committee chaired by David Roediger and asked them to develop a slate of officers for the first election to be held in 1999.

A letter to prospective members in June 1999 described the rationale for the new organization. “We all felt the need for an organization that would make labor history more visible and create a presence in public debates that affect us as academic workers or as members of the broader labor community. We also wanted to strengthen ties between academics, public historians and trade union activists, and to make working-class history integral to public school curricula and to public history projects.”

Two founders of the new labor history endorsed the effort. “Bravo!,” wrote Alice Kessler Harris: “LAWCHA is a long overdue initiative. I welcome the prospect of a national association that will bring together academics and activists who share a concern for the past and the future of the labor movement as well as the lives of working people.” David Montgomery concurred. “These are exciting times for labor history—new areas of interest, fruitful debates over methods, lively regional labor history societies, and renewed interest in history within the labor movement.,” he said. “People involved in these activities need to lend each other support. That is what LAWCHA is all about.”

At the Toronto OAH Annual Meeting on April 24, 1999, LAWCHA sponsored a luncheon, which 61 people attended. At a meeting of Interim Organizing Committee, the co-chairs reported 91 paid-up members, a website had been launched (by Cindy Hahamovich and hosted by College of William and Mary), and the committee heard reports on program, outreach, and nominations. The nominations committee recommended a slate for the first officers and board that included Jacquelyn Hall, President; Joe W. Trotter, Vice President; Vicki Ruiz, Secretary; Tom Klug, Treasurer. New committee chairs included: Liaisons (Jim Gregory & Rosemary Feurer); Nominations (Betsy Jameson); Membership (Vicki Ruiz & James Green).

LAWCHA held its first annual meeting at NALHC in October 1999. New officers (elected by mail ballot) began service with Jacquelyn Hall as president. A few months later,in conjunction with the AHA Convention in Chicago, LAWCHA sponsored a tour of the Pullman Historic District; more than 50 participated. During the 1999-2000 academic year, LAWCHA co-sponsored panels at NALHC, SSHA, OAH (St. Louis), Southwest Labor Studies Association, Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, and the Oral History Association. During LAWCHA’s first years, Wayne State University, its history department chair, Marc Kruman, and NALHC coordinator Liz Faue provided crucial financial and organizational support.

In 2004, to better represent the regional diversity of the organization, LAWCHA decided to begin holding its annual meeting in conjunction with meetings of other labor history associations, and in some years with the OAH. At that point, with the assistance of President Joe Trotter, the organizational home of LAWCHA moved to Carnegie Mellon University, with financial support (including a graduate assistant) from the Center for Africanamerican Urban Studies and the Economy.

Also in 2004, LAWCHA cooperated with Leon Fink and his editorial board to launch publication of a LAWCHA-affiliated journal, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, under the editorship of Fink and housed at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The journal is published by Duke University Press and is a benefit of membership in LAWCHA. LAWCHA subsequently in 2006 moved its national office to Duke University, with support from the Sanford School of Public Policy (Bob Korstad) and the Duke History Department (including a graduate executive assistant.)

LAWCHA sponsors three national prizes in labor history: the Herbert G. Gutman Dissertation Prize for the best dissertation in the field during the previous year (since 2008), the Philip Taft Prize for the best book in labor history (with Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, co-presented since 2008) and the David Montgomery Book Award for the best book in labor and working-class history (co-presented with the OAH since 2014). The growing numbers of submissions for these prizes reflects the vitality of the field, which has been replenished since the economic crisis of 2008 by surging interest in the history of capitalism. To encourage the new generation of scholars, the organization also provides competitive travel grants for history graduate students to participate in LAWCHA, NALHC, and OAH conferences. LAWCHA has periodically also given awards for Distinguished Service to Labor and Working-Class History. These included: David Montgomery (2007), David Brody (2008), Addie Wyatt (2009), Staughton Lynd (2010), Joe Trotter and Alice Kessler Harris (2012), Esther Cooper Jackson (2013), Jacqueline Hall (2015).

In 2015, LAWCHA recognized Tom Klug for service. Tom has been LAWCHA’s Treasurer since its inception, and it is with regret that the organization has accepted his decision to step down. We offer him special thanks for his outstanding service to the organization.

Over the years, LAWCHA has been involved in a variety of programmatic initiatives, often with other partners. They have included:

  • Marking historic sites and holding commemorative events, including the fight to save and restore the Ludlow Massacre site and the commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire;
  • Developing labor history resources for public schools, including Rosemary Feurer’s “Labor History Links” and Teaching Blog on the LAWCHA website;
  • Teachers and public sector workers initiative, launched by the board in 2013 and now with new resources on teacher unionism on the “Teaching Resources” page of the website, which are being widely used by teacher activists and union staff;
  • A Global Affairs initiative, including joint sponsorship of a recent conference in Sydney on Australia-US Comparative and Transnational Labor History and a Global Affairs Committee portal on the website with announcements and news;
  • LaborOnline, a lively blog for debate and discussion of contemporary and historical issues relating to labor’s past and present (hosted on the LAWCHA website);
  • A bibliography of LAWCHA members’ scholarly and op-ed writings on the website;
  • Financial support for regional labor history graduate student conferences, such as the Midwest Labor and Working-Class History Conference (MLWCH);
  • A published newsletter, since 2005, edited successively by Rick Halpern and Dan Letwin, Joe McCartin and Bob Bussell, and Rosemary Feurer;
  • The website (lawcha.org), under the stewardship of Ryan Poe publishes news and notices of meetings, awards and prizes, action alerts regarding current labor issues, and up-to-date information about the organization and membership.

Annual Meetings

In addition to co-sponsoring conferences with regional labor history organizations, sometimes holds self-standing national conferences (as in New York City in 2013), and partners with kindred non-history organizations (as in Chicago in 2009, with the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies and in Washington, D.C. in 2015, with the Working-Class Studies Association. These conferences are the sites for the organization’s board and annual meetings. Under an agreement with the OAH (2014), in alternate even years LAWCHA will hold its board and annual meetings in conjunction with the OAH annual meeting.

  • 1999-2006 with North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State University
  • 2004 with OAH in Boston (Board meeting.)
  • 2005 with Southwest Labor Studies Association at UC, Santa Barbara (Board mtg.)
  • 2006 with North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State (Board mtg.)
  • 2007 with Southern Labor Studies Association at Duke University
  • 2008 with Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, Vancouver
  • 2009 with Chicago Center for Working Class Studies at Roosevelt University
  • 2010 with OAH in Washington, DC
  • 2011 with Southern Labor Studies Association, Atlanta
  • 2012 with OAH in Milwaukee
  • 2013 self-standing LAWCHA Conference at the Center for Worker Education, Brooklyn College and City University of New York
  • 2014 with OAH in Atlanta
  • 2015 with Working Class Studies Association, Washington, DC
  • 2016 with OAH in Providence

Membership (End of Year)

  • 2005 – 462
  • 2006 – 422
  • 2007 – 510
  • 2008 – 552
  • 2009 – 570
  • 2010 – 529
  • 2011 – 506
  • 2012 – 487
  • 2013 – 702
  • 2014 – 490