Melvyn Dubofsky, author of various labor and American history related texts, presented a history of American labor unions in a lecture yesterday in Ives Hall. The lecture, entitled Solidarity and Fragmentation In U.S. Working Class History addressed historical tensions influencing the successes and failures of labor unions in the U.S. between 1870 and 1930. Speaking to a packed room of approximately 50 industrial and labor relations (ILR) undergraduates, graduates and faculty members, Dubofsky discussed what he considers to be a crucial distinction between a powerful labor union unified by solidarity, and a weak one fragmented mainly by ethnic and racial diversity and other personal differences.
As he delivered his lecture without notes, Dubofsky stressed the heterogeneous nature of the American labor force following the influx of immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century. He also argued that the American union was most influential when members achieved solidarity and a common identity despite racial and ethnic diversity.
Comparing employer-employee relationships of the past to, “master-servant relationships,” Dubofsky said that, “Solidarity was the key to emancipation [from this servile relationship],” and that to achieve solidarity in the past, “all workers shared a common identity.”
Recalling late 19th century union successes via upheavals, boycotts and strikes, he noted that, “through organization and solidarity, workers could shape their own destiny.”
Dubofsky addressed the subsequent decline of the American labor force and attributed it to the lost sense of solidarity resulting in a fragmented union body that lost its common, definitive vision.
“I think it was a very insightful and thought-provoking lecture,” said Patrizia Sione, archivist at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management, Documentation & Archives, who introduced Dubofsky.
Commenting on the complexity of the issues Dubofsky discussed, she added, “It challenged us all to think about the forces that united and divided unions.”
Howard Gutman ’05, an ILR student, said, “It was interesting listening to this professor because as ILR students we all read his books … [His subject matter] is a core part of the new labor curriculum.”
Another ILR student, Melissa Rasmussen ’05, commented that, “It was really interesting listening to another take on what we are learning.”
Many of Dubofsky’s colleagues attended the lecture and were impressed by his delivery.
“It was breathtaking in the range … To be able to go from the 19th century to the present without a note in his hand,” said Sarah Elbert ’64, a colleague of Dubofsky’s, and a professor of American and cultural studies and women’s studies at Binghamton University.
“He sustained this basic theme of the tension between fragmentation and solidarity throughout the talk.”
Dubofsky, a Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology at Binghamton University, is the co-author of Labor in America: A History and The Making of Labor History. The recipient of several academic awards, Dubofsky has also held many prestigious academic and administrative posts in the past including the Fullbright Senior Lectureship at Tel Aviv University and the Fullbright Distinguished Senior Lectureship at the University of Salzburg.
Archived article by Ellen Miller