Class Formation, the Strike, and the Public Sphere in the First Gilded Age

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 09:00
Location: Hörsaal 16 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Larry ISAAC, Vanderbilt University, USA
The conventional narrative of the long-term trajectory of the strike in the U.S. emphasizes a periodization with the following qualitative characterization: (a) early within-workplace struggles over the wage relation and union recognition; (b) the New Deal turn to institutionalization of collective bargaining and strike regulation by the state extending from the 1930s to the 1970s; and (c) the weakening of the strike and the decline of the house of labor over the past several decades.  During this decline, scholars and labor activists alike have discovered the role of civil society/public sphere appealing to public opinion and community campaigns in labor’s desperate struggles with capital, the state, and mass media.

There is much that is true in this conventional story.  However, the image of civil society/public sphere’s unique importance in the current period but not before, should be questioned.  In an effort to rethink the role of the strike in recent years, I turn to the first Gilded Age—the highly contentious period of struggle between capital and labor during America’s industrial take-off.

My focus is on labor’s attempt to speak with the strike in class formative struggles emphasizing most heavily the interplay of three arenas that help us understand the class-specific structuring of the public sphere and strike during this formative period: (a) reporting the strike; (b) policing the strike; and (c) lethal violence in the strike.  All three of these processes operated in/through, were constrained by, and constituted, in part, the public sphere thus playing a large role in shaping the fortunes of the labor movement.

I draw implications for understanding (a) class formation and strike activity during the early formative period, and for (b) the broader trajectory of labor’s use of the strike, including the contemporary appeal to the wider public sphere.