Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Coffee Enemas, Aromatherapy, and Intercessory Prayer: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Why is the federal government spending millions on research into coffee enemas, aromatherapy, and intercessory prayer? Hint: It’s not our exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Trine Tsouderos of the Chicago Tribune has a scathing report on The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an ideologically motivated side project within the National Institutes of Health which has received over $1.4 billion in grants to study scientifically dubious alternative remedies:

Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn’t do a lot for our ability to heal a wound. With $666,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone’s intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.

NCCAM also has invested in studies of various forms of energy healing, including one based on the ideas of a self-described “healer, clairvoyant and medicine woman” who says her children inspired her to learn to read auras. The cost for that was $104,000.

The Tribune reviewed 12 years’ worth of NCCAM documents to write this story.

Tsouderos succinctly explains why the public should be outraged. NCCAM is wasting money investigating hypotheses that have little or no prior probability of being true–some of them claim mechanisms of action that are medically impossible. In real science, extreme longshot research proposals are less likely to get funded than proposals with a serious chance of getting results. Most of NCCAM research proposals couldn’t compete with real medical research for regular NIH funding. At the same time, competition for medical research dollars is fierce, and the NIH’s overall budget is projected to plateau and eventually shrink.

As regular readers may know, I’ve been active in the skeptics movement for many years. Tsouderos interviewed my old Skeptics Toolbox colleague and friend Dr. Wallace Sampson, who was characteristically acerbic in his assessment of NCCAM’s research portfolio:

“Some of these treatments were just distinctly made up out of people’s imaginations,” said Dr. Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University. “We don’t take public money and invest it in projects that are just made up out of people’s imaginations.”

As Tsouderos notes, complementary and alternative therapies are a $34 billion industry and 40% of U.S. adults report using some kind of alternative remedy in the last year. Wouldn’t it make sense to study these remedies, given that they’re being used so widely? For all we know, some of them are dangerous. Besides, even debunking useless claims would be a service to consumers. The problem is that NCCAM exists to validate alternative medicine, not to assess it critically.

NCCAM is a political oasis for research that could not compete in mainstream science. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the fathers of NCCAM, gave the game away when he lamented during a 2009 senate hearing that the center was disproving too many alternative therapies. “One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short,” Harkin said. If Harkin were interested in applying science to CAM, as opposed to confirming his bias towards complementary remedies, he would be happy that useless treatments were found to be useless.

[Photo credit: opacity, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Black Women Hit Hard By Public Sector Layoffs

Public sector job cuts are taking a disproportionate toll on women in general, and black women in particular, Amy Lieberman reports for Women’s eNews:

Women, meanwhile, have suffered a disproportionate majority–nearly 66 percent–of the public sector job losses. For black women–who have higher overall levels of unemployment and rely on public sector jobs as their second-biggest source of employment–outsourcing is particularly harmful, according to Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at University of California, Berkeley.

From 2008 through 2010, a black woman was 22 percent more likely to be employed in the public sector than a non-black woman, Pitts found in an April 2011 research brief on black workers and the public sector.

Pitts says questions of race and gender haven’t factored into the national dialogue of public sector cuts and who they are most likely to affect.

Women’s unemployment in the U.S. declined last month to 7.8 percent, but African American women’s unemployment rate in November remains well above that at 12.9 percent, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

New York City cut laid of 642 support staff workers in October, most of them women of color. One such worker is Cliftonia Johnson, pictured above, a 13-year veteran of the New York City school system. She and her colleagues saw their jobs farmed out to private contractors. The jobs were cut in the name of austerity, but Lieberman raises doubts that the cuts are saving money. Johnson’s union, District Council 37 (DC 37) plans to sue the city for cutting jobs in bad faith.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried to veto legislation that would require the city to prove that privatization projects save money, but the City Council overrode his veto.

[Photo credit: Amy Lieberman, Women’s eNews.]

Derek Boogaard: The Battered Brain of a Hockey Enforcer

Derek Boogaard, once the most feared enforcer in the NHL, was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and prescription pain killers at the age of 28 earlier in May. If you’re not a hockey fan, chances are you’ve never heard of Boogaard, or enforcers, for that matter. “Enforcer” is the polite term for a hockey goon.

Lots of hockey players fight, but goons are fighting specialists. In theory, a goon’s job is to protect his more agile, goal-scoring teammates from cheapshots by other players who would like to take the star out of the game. As Scott Lemieux notes, some teams have goons that do little but fight each other for the spectacle. Most hockey leagues ban fighting, but the NHL exalts fighting as a tradition. A fight can bring an entire stadium to its feet. Replica jerseys of popular enforcers fly off the shelves.

John Branch of New York Times spent six months piecing together the the life and death of Derek Boogaard, from his hockey-crazed childhood in Melfort, Saskatchewan, to his glory days in the NHL, through his agonizing physical and mental disintegration and lonely death. The multimedia package “Punched Out” transcends sports reporting. This series is an investigative triumph, a compelling piece of science writing, and above all, a the tragic story of a guy who sold his soul to play in the NHL.

Part I: A Boy Learns to Brawl

Boogaard grew up in small town Saskatchewan, the son of a Mountie. Boogaard was a gentle kid who would have preferred scoring goals to busting heads, but his immense size and lackluster skills marked him as a goon in the making. “Like so many Canadian boys, Boogaard wanted to reach the National Hockey League on the glory of goals. That dream ended early, as it usually does, and no one had to tell him,” Branch writes.

Boogaard’s big break came at the age of 15 when he lost his temper as he was being hauled off the ice for an earlier penalty. He pushed off the referee and dove into the opposing team’s bench, swinging. His dad, the cop, was appalled, but a scout was very impressed. That rampage was Derek’s ticket to the big leagues.

Part IIBlood on the Ice

In the second installment, Branch elaborates on the role of the enforcer in the NHL:

Imagine in football, if a linebacker hit a quarterback with what the quarterback’s team believed was too much force. The equivalent to hockey’s peculiar brand of justice would be if those teams each sent a player from the sideline — someone hardly valued for his skill as a player, perhaps rarely used — and had them interrupt the game to fight while teammates and officials stood back and watched. In football, as in most sports, such conduct would end in ejections, fines and suspensions. In hockey, it usually means five minutes in the penalty box and a spot in the postgame highlights.

Branch describes the physical and psychological toll of the enforcer’s job. Boogaard once hit another player so hard that his cheekbone had to be surgically reconstructed. Despite years of boxing lessons, Boogaard was lax about defense. Teammates recall that he’d take several punches for the opportunity to land one good blow. Boogaard was still a young man, but his hands were so mangled from years of bare knuckle brawling that his family wondered how he’d be able to hold a pen when he got old. By his late twenties, he had bulging disks in his back, a shoulder that hadn’t been right since his teens, and a repeatedly broken nose that was excruciating to reset.

Like many NHL players, he became dependent on painkillers to mask the damage he was inflicting on his body and sleeping pills to cope with the gruelling travel schedule. Less dramatically, but more ominously, Boogaard was racking up concussions and hiding them.

Part III: A Brain ‘Going Bad’

Boogaard staggered through the 2009-2010 season in a haze. “His demeanor, his personality, it just left him,” John Scott, a Wild teammate is quoted as saying. “He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of — a blank face.” He lost the will to fight on the ice and took some bad hits because he wouldn’t return a punch. The team gave him time time off. He drank, swallowed pills by the handfull, racked up huge credit card bills, rented expensive sports cars, and logged more time in drug rehab. On the night of his death, he was just hours out of drug treatment.

Boogaard’s family donated his brain to a team of researchers in Boston who study concussions in sports. He was the fourth dead NHL player to have his brain examined by the research team, and the fourth to be posthumously diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease similar to Alzheimer’s caused by repeated blows to the head. The researchers have found CTE in the brains of over twenty dead NFL players so far. CTE may explain why the formerly goodnatured and conscientious Boogaard behaved so erratically during the last months of his life. The researchers were shocked at the extent of brain degeneration in a relatively young man.

Learning the extent of his son’s brain damage changed Len Boogaard’s perspective on his son’s death. As hard as it was to lose a 28-year-old to an accidental overdose, the brown shadows spreading over Derek’s brain foretold a future that might have been even worse:

The Boogaards learned of the surprising severity of the brain damage. And they heard about the prospects of middle-age dementia.

It was then that Len Boogaard stopped listening. Something occurred to him that he did not expect.

For months, he could not bear the thought of his son’s death. Suddenly, he was forced to imagine the life his son might have been left to live.

The NHL remains officially skeptical about the link between CTE and Boogaard’s career as an enforcer. The league has no plans to change the rules for fighting.

As one CTE researcher observes, it’s hard to know whether Boogaard’s drug abuse accelerated his brain degeneration or vice versa. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. By the time we’re invited to consider this chicken and egg problem, Branch has skillfully established that fighting, orthopedic injuries, pain killers, addiction, and CTE were inextricably linked in Boogaard’s demise. Towards the end, Boogaard liked to hide his pills in colorful plastic Easter eggs and stash them around his apartment. Branch has an eye for these kinds of telling details.

Maybe the drugs made Boogaard’s brain damage worse, but his fights injured him so badly that he needed powerful painkillers to play, and no doubt the brain damage sapped his impulse control in the face of constant access to drugs and booze. It’s a chicken and egg problem, but the NHL is watching this hen house.

To learn more about CTE and contact sports, check out Offensive Play, Malcolm Gladwell’s classic 2009 New Yorker essay about brain damage in the National Football League. Boogaard’s brain is in the same brain bank that Gladwell describes.

Canadians like to think of themselves as more civilized than neighbors to the south. We’ve become accustomed to the idea that professional football players and boxers are damaging their brains in pursuit of athletic glory, but it’s a shock to think of hockey in the same category. Punched Out has prompted a lot of soul searching amongst fans. The series raises questions about what players like Derek Boogaard are asked to endure for our entertainment.

[Photo credit: MattBritt00, Derek Boogaard vs. Steve MacIntyre.]

Occupy Wall Street Meets the Tea Party: A Little of the Human Touch

By Tom Watson

For all the splashy immersion in code, data, platforms, and techniques that generally soaks the discussions and analysis of the democracy and civil rights movements among the digerati, it was striking how little technology asserted itself last night at Personal Democracy Media’s “instant” conference on Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party organizing at New York University.

While the network itself was at the center of the rangy panel discussion, there was little on Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and video platforms from those on the stage, and not much from the audience either. This was surprising in some ways, because from where I sat, the 10th floor of the Kimmel Center was basically Geek Central, East Coast Chapter, convened by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.

Yet the web seemed almost a side player, a stipulated tool in the hands of craftspeople making something shinier and more valuable. To some, it was the network itself, with a perfect circle of actor/activists signaling the highest purpose of our digital connections. This is a standard point of view among those convinced that social networks and the digital ties that bind necessarily offer a brighter future for democracy and the public commons.

But there was another factor in last night’s discussion of how Occupy and the Tea Party captured hearts and minds and moving feet that clearly rivaled the network and its much-studied effect: human empathy.

To my ear, speaker after speaker stressed the appeal of an empathetic connection within organizing groups to challenge the powers that be.

Communities and networks are becoming communities of care–we care for each other space,” said grassroots organizer Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of The Engage Network. She said much of the success of Occupy’s core group of organizers came from their collective realization that in today’s society, “there’s no one coming for us.” Pulling together into “small circles of trust “ isn’t a technique – it’s a necessity, she said. “People are coming together and they’re re-knitting the broken fabric of our broken communities by standing together.”

Jessica Shearer, executive director of SEIU ‘s Healthcare Education Project and a veteran political organizer, talked with disarming directness about organized labor’s lack of the human touch. She told of fleeing the scene of domestic violence as a child, and how her mother had called the union for help. “No response. Not a single word. Not ever. In desperation she turned to the evangelical church. By nightfall we had a place to stay and a turkey stew.”

Shearer said that big unions like SEIU struggle to reach people in real ways, and really empower their members. “Everywhere unions stagnate, we shrink. Unions fall victim to our own scale and sophistication. We know that Occupy is important but we’re still learning our lesson.”

She contrasted organized labor’s response to the Tea Party and said that while unions were altogether smarter and more sophisticated with their “large professional call centers and mass mailings,” the truth was that “the Tea Party, you” – turning to California Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler, who sat next to her on the dais – “kicked our butts.”

Shearer talked about the October 5 march in New York, when organized labor first endorsed Occupy Wall Street and swelled its numbers to more than 12,000 marchers (including me). A month later on November 17, the crowd grew to more than 30,000 people including major union leaders. But she pointed out that those numbers, while large for the Occupy movement, are tiny compared to the millions of potential boots on the ground. What’s lacking still, Shearer asserted, is the visceral connection to people, to members, to workers who might want to organize: “Labor is on the edge of a cliff. What we lack – what we feel we can no longer afford – is human scale outreach.”

The crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo just might have the opposite problem, according to social analyst Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, who has spent time with the networked revolutionaries and written about freedom movements on her technosociology blog. The Egyptian freedom activists gravitated toward the rewarding and now-familiar human interaction at Tahrir, missing their moment in the recent elections. Tufekci scratched a bit at the sacred hide of “the network” during her talk, worrying aloud that small groups of organizers can fall in love, in essence, with organizing itself and their own perfectly-formed (and basically closed) circles, while ignoring models like the U.S. civil rights movement which, led by goal-oriented visionaries, plunged ruthlessly on in pursuit of legal and societal change – and succeeded. Yet she couldn’t help but tell the wonderful tale of the Twitter-powered creation of ad hoc field hospitals in Cairo to treat the hundreds of casualties from the clashes with authorities.

But the three organizers who ran the field hospital creation network weren’t faceless drones in a network in which each member is an exact equal. They were leaders – just as there are leaders of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, whether they accept those monikers or not. Some of it is indeed based on hubs of information and sharing data. Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky remarked (correctly in my view) that “the person who collates information often becomes the go-to person.” And despite being the only self-identified Tea Party member in the room, Mark Meckler elicited a sea of nodding liberal heads when he said that these movements “are not leaderless, they’re ‘leaderfull.’”

Meckler painted a different painting of Tea Party organizing than is generally accepted by progressive critics – one that reflects both a sharing ethic among organizers and a lack of support from the big institutions (the national GOP, Fox News, and the Koch Brothers made their appearances in discussion and on the Twitter feed for the event). His description closely aligned with the vision of Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider – the concept of “emergence” and the bubbling up of movements from “starfish” organizations that regenerate their myriad parts and adapt. In a digitally networked world, asserted Brafman, “this is going to be the platform for activism going forward.” In Brafman’s “small circles of trust” the technology drops away.

Occupy organizer Beka Economopolous brought the broad sociological concepts down from 30,000 feet to the pavement in Zuccotti Park. “What’s great about OWS is that it gets people out of their houses and off their computers,” she said. Occupy has a strong sense of its own dramatic presence to the left – “we stage defiance and sacrifice and that captures people’s imaginations.” And at some level, it’s about “touching people’s hearts and fulfilling peoples needs.”

Shirky had the take-away question in my view: at what point, if ever, does Occupy “go all the way” in altering our relationship with government? Or better stated, in a democratic republic, when does it change government – since we have no relationship in theory.

The answer’s unclear, of course. Yet it was heartening to me to hear Shearer’s account on the burgeoning impact of Occupy on organized labor. It’s not quite that the Occupiers are standing over an operating room gurney, charging a couple of electronic paddles, and yelling “clear!” Maybe it’s closer to an ice cold Gatorade to a long distance runner. But I had to agree with her conclusion:

Occupy Wall Street is not an alternative to real organizing – it is real organizing.”

[Image credit: Brian Sims, Creative Commons.]

Sara Ganim Wins December Sidney Award for Coverage of Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal

Ever since she broke the news in March that former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was under grand jury investigation for the alleged sexual abuse of a high school boy, 24-year-old Sara Ganim of the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa has covered the unfolding scandal with unrelenting determination.

Sandusky was indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse and the University of Penn Board of Regents sacked legendary head football coach Joe Paterno and university president. Such a dramatic gesture might have deflected public outrage against the university, if Ganim hadn’t revealed in November that that authorities missed opportunities to investigate Sandusky, starting in 1995 with concerns about Sandusky’s treatment of a boy he later adopted.

A janitor told his supervisor that he saw Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower at Penn State in 2000. The campus police investigated Sandusky for a similar shower incident in 1998, but no charges were laid. A member of the coaching staff said he told his superiors that he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the shower in 2002. Nothing was done to stop Sandusky, besides requesting that he not shower with boys at Penn State anymore.

The complaint that sparked the grand jury probe wasn’t lodged until 2008. The mother of a high school football player whose team Sandusky was coaching began to suspect something was wrong when her son started asking questions about databases of “sex weirdos” and Sandusky demanded to discipline the boy. The boy eventually told his mother that Sandusky had been abusing him.

The Penn State sex abuse scandal has been called the biggest story in the history of college sports, but Ganim inists it is a crime story, not a football story. The sexual abuse of children by authority figures within powerful institutions is not unique to Penn State. Read my interview with Ganim in The Backstory.

[Photo credit: PSUPix. Caption: “Penn State football coach Joe Paterno accepts a crystal football from Athletic Director Tim Curley in a post-game celebration of Paterno’s 400th win.”]

David Montgomery (1927-2011): Internationally Renowned Historian Struck Fear In Hearts of UK Auto Execs

This is the third in a series of posts honoring the memory of distinguished labor historian and Sol Stetin Award judge David Montgomery. (Part I, Part II)

Ever since late on the afternoon of December 2 when I received initial word of David Montgomery’s death, I have puzzled about what I might say that others have not said better and more fluently. There is little that I can add to Josh Freeman’s and David Brody’s encomia in this space or Jon Wiener’s on the Nation’s webpage. I can only second what others have said about Montgomery’s remarkable scholarship, and, in fact, I did so in print many years ago beginning with my review of his first book, Beyond Equality, and those that followed. Yet Brody perhaps was even more illuminating in suggesting that Montgomery’s greatest impact was on the graduate students that he trained at Pittsburgh first and then Yale, who became among their generation’s leading historians. In fact, I had direct experience of that impact when in the winter of 1973, the members of my graduate seminar in labor history at Binghamton met for a weekend in Pittsburgh with Montgomery’s students. That relatively small group of students included Shelton Stromquist, Ronald Schatz, Peter Rachleff, Peter Gottlieb, Peter Friedlander, and Bryan Palmer, all of whom have since made an enormous impact for the better on labor history in particular and history in general. For such accomplishments, Montgomery deserved to be the first recipient of the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award.

Instead of repeating what others have written, let me reflect on a few moments of a personal relationship that lasted over half a century and began in the summer of 1961 when Montgomery came down from Minneapolis to teach summer session at Northern Illinois University, my first academic home. We were candidates for the same position at the University of Pittsburgh, that David won, and less than a decade later I succeeded him at the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick where he and E.P. Thompson created the M.A. Program in Anglo-American Labor History. At Warwick I learned of the powerful impact that Montgomery had on British students and how he continued his political activism as well as his scholarship, speaking to Labour Party and trade union groups. It was his activism that caused the Rootes Motor Company (a subsidiary of Chrysler) to employ a private detective to investigate Montgomery and then seek to have him deported from England as an “undesirable person” through the offices of the university vice-chancellor. So it might be said that Montgomery’s influence led to the strike precipitated by the M.A. students in the Anglo-American Labour History program that shut down the university for the entire second term in 1970. Few American historians have had as great an international impact as Montgomery, whether through the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam or universities in Italy, Germany, France, and Latin America. Montgomery not only breathed new life into a stale historical backwater in the U.S., as Brody noted, but he did so as well on a global stage. He earned all the many honors that he received in a distinguished career, and his presence will be sorely missed by many too numerous to count.

Melvyn Dubofsky is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History & Sociology at Binghamton University. He is the winner of the 2011 Sol Stetin Award for Labor History.

Remembering David Montgomery (1927-2011)

This is the second in a series of posts honoring the memory of David Montgomery, a distinguished labor historian who served as the lead judge for the Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award.

David Montgomery deserved to be the first winner of the Sol Stetin Award because he was the preeminent labor historian of his generation. No one had as big an impact on what became known as the New Labor History. This was first of all because he brought to it a distinctive shop-floor perspective, derived I think from the decade he spent as a machinist and Communist organizer before he entered academics. Once he found his footing–his dissertation on the labor movement during the Civil War era, while impressive, was more conventionally conceived–Montgomery never deviated from the view that the central subject of labor history should be, as he wrote in an influential collection of essays, “the battle for control of the workplace,” that the battle should always be seen by labor historians from the perspective of the workers themselves, and be understood as essentially political and transformative in nature. Hence the reservations he held about the New Deal, which, he wrote in a prescient essay, “was simultaneously liberating and co-optive for workers,” at once rescuing them from the heavy hand of managerial control while opening “a new avenue through which the rank and file could in time be tamed and the newly powerful unions be subjected to tight legal and political control.” A challenging perspective like this one is the essential ingredient in energizing a field of study.

History is, of course, a joint enterprise, and others with different ideas, pioneers like Herbert Gutman, are also to be credited for the New Labor History. No new subject can be the product of one person. But more than anyone else, it was Montgomery’s scholarship, always passionately argued, that infused a subject that had been a backwater of labor economics into an innovative, core subject of study in American history. No one, moreover, excelled Montgomery as a graduate trainer, and especially in his years at Pittsburgh, he salted the field with a grand cadre of labor historians, many of them now occupying senior positions in the profession. They will no doubt be testifying in the coming days to what studying under Montgomery meant to them. But for a contemporary of David’s like myself, what I most admire is that he entered an essentially dead field and made a live subject of it. And it is for this, that at his death, I celebrate David Montgomery’s life.

David Brody is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Califoria, Davis and an affiliated faculty member at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkely. He received the Stetin Award in 2008.

Flash Conference: "From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond--The Future of Networked Democracy"

What do Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have in common? Find out at Tech President’s flash conference, “From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond–The Future of Networked Democracy,” on December 12:

Monday night December 12, from 6:00-8:30pm at NYU, Personal Democracy Media will present a flash conference titled, “From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond: The Future of Networked Democracy” with Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider; Beka Economopolous, organizer, Occupy Wall Street; Marianne Manilov, co-founder, The Engage Network; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder, Tea Party Patriots; Mark Meckler, co-founder, Tea Party Patriots; Clay Shirky, NYU, author, Here Comes Everybody; and Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Carolina.

The Hillman Foundation is an official conference media sponsor. Please join us for an evening of stimulating conversation. Tickets are $5. Space is limited, so register today.

Monday December 12, 6:00-8:30pm
NYU Kimmel Center for University Life
Richard L. Rosenthal Pavilion - 10th Floor
60 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012

Hashtag: #PDMteaows

[Photo credit: _PaulS_, Creative Commons.]

Labor Historian David Montgomery (1927-2011)

David Montgomery, the first winner of the Sidney Hillman Foundation’s Sol Stetin Award for Labor History and subsequently the award’s lead judge, died on December 2 at age 84.

Montgomery was the nation’s leading labor historian. His many articles and books, especially Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872; Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles; and The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925, profoundly reshaped our understanding of the history of American workers.

More than other historians, Montgomery took his readers into the workplace, into the iron mills and railroad shops and munitions plants and electrical equipment factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which he saw as central to shaping workers’ consciousness and political struggles. The key to working-class organization and advance, for Montgomery, lay in the militant minority, in the shop stewards, radicals, ethnic leaders, and itinerant organizers who populated the landscape of industrial America. Clear-eyed about labor’s defeats as well as its victories, Montgomery had a firm faith in the power and ingenuity of working people in fighting for better lives and a better society.

David’s intense interest in the details of work life – workers’ tasks and routines, their efforts to control the pace of work, and their complex relationships to machinery, supervisors, and one another – reflected his own decade as a machinist and union activist in New York and Minnesota. As a young member of the United Electrical Workers (and of the Communist Party until 1957), he once arranged for W.E.B. DuBois to address his fellow workers during Negro History Week, typical of David’s lifelong commitment to anti-racism and his respect for the intellect and vision of his fellow workers. Only after FBI harassment got him fired from one job after another did Montgomery finally leave the machine shop for the groves of the academy.

After earning a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, Montgomery spent fourteen years at the University of Pittsburgh before being appointed the Farnam Professor of History at Yale University. He shaped labor history as much through his teaching as his writing. Thousands of students had the startling experience of hearing David speak for the first time; his normally shy demeanor changed at the podium, as he held forth about history with passion and in cadences more associated with the Petrograd Soviet than with the snoozy atmosphere of an academic conference or a university classroom. Montgomery trained several generations of graduate students who today hold senior positions in history departments all across the United States and who have pushed labor history forward in myriad directions. A dedicated internationalist, Montgomery co-founded and long edited International Labor and Working-Class History, which has promoted an ever more global and comparative view of the history of workers.

David never abandoned his core belief in solidarity even after he ascended to highest ranks of academia (including serving as president of the Organization of American Historians). Many New Haven workers remember him as the professor who, without fail, would show up at their picket lines, not the usual passtime for senior Yale faculty. In the machine shop, the library, the classroom, and on the picket line, David Montgomery spent a long fruitful lifetime fighting for workers’ advancement, equal rights, and social justice.

Joshua B. Freeman is Professor of History at the City University of New York and a Stetin Award judge. He has written extensively about the history of labor, modern America, and New York City.