September 30, 2010

Rutgers Professor Honors Alice Cook, Discusses Labor Advances

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Thursday evening, Prof. Dorothy Sue Cobble, labor studies and employment relations, Rutgers University, discussed her experiences in labor relations as the keynote speaker at the sixth annual Distinguished Lecture in Honor of Alice Hanson Cook. Cook was among one of the first women hired by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations in the 1950s and subsequently worked at Cornell for 50 years. She is well regarded for her activism in teaching students, trade union workers and her research in gender.

ILR Alice Cook Professor of Women and Work, Rosemary Batt, said a few words about Cook before introducing Cobble.

“Cook was a real pioneer for taking on controversial issues before they were out in public … She was really loved for her activism because she took her research and turned it into something that could be used by activists and policy makers,” Batt said.

In honor of Cook, Cobble spoke about the work of labor feminists responsible for creating the International Federation of Working Women in 1919. Their distinct agenda and the difficulties they encountered made a lasting impact.

Batt praised Cobble’s commitment to Cook’s ideals.

“Sue Cobble exemplifies Alice’s commitment to gender and social activism … She has made a point of writing work that is very accessible and she has really brought working class feminism to life,” she said.

Cobble studies the ever changing nature of work, social policy and social movements domestically and abroad.

“I have always written about women in work.  [Now,] my work has increasingly looked at gender in the larger global context,” Cobble said. “This talk is about a moment in which there was a sense that people could come together and make a difference. A moment in which politics was in flux and some of the international organizations that are still with us were founded.”

In her analysis of the International Federation of Working Women and their impact on the workplace yesterday evening, Cobble emphasized the Federation’s importance in being one of the first global and international networks of trade union women

Prompted by earlier, informal networks, the International Federation of Working Women was formed at the International Congress of Working Women in 1919.  Two hundred labor women from around the world, including delegations from the United States, England and Western Europe attended and formulated the first set of international labor rights and standards by women.  In this formulation, the women, who were excluded from voting in the first ILO conference held in 1919, sought to transform capitalism.

“They believed that human beings were not commodities and that their rights could not be subordinated to the market.  Individual bargaining was not a recipe for freedom but one for exploitations.  They wanted corporation to be democratized, as well as the state,” Cobble said.

Cobble emphasized that though the federation lasted only five years, the lifelong bonds that the women formed with each other would inspire and inform their deliberations as trade union leaders, political activists and government policy makers.

“Though the formal organization ended, the informal did not and the bonds forged persisted across international boundaries, time and space,” she said.  “A transnational force of internationally inclined labor women survived, laying the groundwork for policy achievements of generations to come.”

In the decades after World War II, a new group of transnational labor feminists came to the forefront and continued the international projects of 1919.

Cobble called attention to the ways in which these progressive era reformers are relevant to today’s current movement.

“We are in the midst of a second gilded age in which economic inequality is not only extreme, but it is viewed as legitimate,” she said. “There is a hyper individualism.  This is the era progressive reformers existed in as well and they set out to change ideas and institutions and they succeeded.  It was their intellectual tradition that made the later permanent work of the New Deal possible.”

In discussing these women and their accomplishments, Cobble hoped to spread light on today’s opportunities.  “My goal is to expand our sense of who we have been as a people and a nation in order to help expand our sense of what is possible for us now, politically and economically.”

Cobble hopes that her work on labor unions and gender helps low wage women organize and enforce labor laws.  “One of the things that comes out of my own work is that in many ways, the focus should be on trying to think of ways to create capacities among low wage women and to help them to organize to solve their own problems.”

Cobble has received numerous awards for her work including the 2010 Sol Stetin Award from The Sidney Hillman Foundation and the 2005 Philip Taft Book Prize for the best book in American labor history.

Original Author: Michelle Honor