The American Way of Class War: An Interview with Leon Fink | Newberry

The American Way of Class War: An Interview with Leon Fink

Leon Fink is the UIC Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he directs the Ph.D. concentration in the History of Work, Race, and Gender in the Urban World (WRGUW) and edits the journal, Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas. The author or editor of eight books, Fink is one of the most prominent historians of labor and working-class history. His wide-ranging research and writing has focused on the transnational nature of workplaces experiences and political engagements in American life, from the history of Colonial-era sailors to the protests of recent Mexican immigrants in the American south.

Professor Fink has had a longstanding relationship with the Scholl Center, serving as one of the coordinators of the Seminar in Labor History. This year, he will be in residence at the Newberry on the library’s Lloyd Lewis Fellowship in American History. Recently, Professor Fink chatted with the Scholl Center to discuss his work as a Lloyd Lewis Fellow and how the Scholl Center’s Labor History Seminar has contributed to the field.

Scholl Center: We’re excited to have you at the Newberry over the next year as a Lloyd Lewis Fellow. What do you plan to work on during your time here?

Leon Fink: I’m delighted to be able to engage visiting scholars as well as the research staff and the material holdings of the Newberry for my current project.  It’s a wide-ranging attempt to look back at the so-called Labor Question of the Gilded Age/Progressive Era in both a comparative and transnational perspective.  Tentatively entitled, “The American Way of Class War,” my book-in-process attempts to grab onto a number of developments that made the American response to industrial development at once unique but still related to outcomes in Great Britain, Europe, and Australasia as well as other parts of the Americas.  Among the themes I’ve selected to explore are: the American ideal and ideology of “freedom”; the significance of leadership in moments of social crisis; contending legal systems of dispute resolution; intellectuals as reform agents; and revolutions abroad in the American mind.  In addition to strong holdings at the Newberry in history and social science from the turn of the 20th century, I am making use of government records including congressional debates and industrial commission reports.  I have also been happily surprised by the range of materials touching on industrial relations and arbitration systems in Europe and beyond.

SC: You’ve been one of the lead coordinators of the Scholl Center’s Labor History seminar for the last several years, where scholars at every stage of their career have presented works in progress. How have you seen the field of labor history evolve in work that has been presented at the Newberry?

The Newberry’s Labor History seminar has emerged over the past dozen years as likely the premiere forum in the country to present new work in this field.  As such, it is also a good barometer of the frontiers of labor-related scholarship, defined in increasingly broad and creative ways.  This year alone, topics range from ‘traditional’ topics including re-evaluations of the Chicago Teamsters Union and the National War Labor Board to boundary-crossing topics like the treatment of Mexican migration and the comparable worth movement.  A move towards transnational and internationally-comparative work is also worth noting: among upcoming sessions, are discussions of longshore unions in the U.S. and South Africa, the politics of black anticolonialism, and the economic infrastructure for U.S. military and humanitarian interventions abroad.

SC: One of the newer fields to be gaining interest in the historical profession has been the history of capitalism. How do you see labor history’s relationship with this new field?

The developing field of the history-of-capitalism also is attracting considerable interest from labor historians.  For some years now, those doing “working-class history” have realized how important it is to have a handle on business history as well as political history, i.e. we can’t appreciate the reality of worklife or social class without an appreciation of how power is wielded in industrial societies. The ‘history of capitalism’ and ‘political economy’-not surprisingly gathering steam within the arc of the current global economic crisis-are offering important new angles of investigation, particularly in their focus on the history of debt and financial institutions. I am currently part of a history-of-capitalism reading group spanning faculty and graduate students from across the city, and I am sure that we will be hearing more on this subject across the coming years.