David Montgomery, Prominent Labor Historian and Friend of UE, Dies at 84

January 13, 2012
David Montgomery
David Montgomery addressing delegates to UE's 71st Convention in New Haven, 2009.(Photo by Ron Flowers)

David Montgomery, the most respected U.S. labor historian and a longtime friend of UE, died on December 2 at age 84. In the early 1950s Montgomery was a UE member and shop chairman at Premier Machine, a small machine shop in Greenwich Village which was part of UE Local 475, a large amalgamated local in New York City. Many years later he was a guest speaker at four UE conventions (most recently 2009).

From 1963 to 1975 he taught at the University of Pittsburgh, and many of the people who teach and write about U.S. labor history today were Montgomery's students at Pitt. Later he taught at Yale.

Montgomery's speeches at UE conventions were a high point for those who heard them. The comments of UE President Albert Fitzgerald at the conclusion of Montgomery's third address to a UE convention, in 1975, indicate how highly he was regarded by UE members:

"I think maybe instead of having Dave with us only three times we ought to make him an annual fixture and I don't think we will need anyone else. All three times that he has been with us he has talked about something different and I know from discussing it with the delegates, Dave, that they have received you in the most enthusiastic manner, and I think you have brought them more things that they can work on than anyone else that speaks before our conventions. Thank you very much for coming."

Addressing the UE Convention in New Haven in 2009, several years after he'd retired from Yale, Montgomery recounted three early-20th century struggles in plants later organized by UE - Sargent in New Haven, Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh, and Erie GE. In each of these cases, he said, "one can get a sense of UE a-coming, long before it was born," as workers sought a new kind of unionism - democratic, militant, and open to all workers. Speaking both of the central role of Italian immigrants in the 1902 Sargent strike and that of Latino workers in the 2008 Republic Windows and Doors plant occupation, Montgomery told delegates, "Time and again in the history of this country, the American workers movement has received a new shot of strength, energy, and ideas from new immigrants."

Since the 1970s UE's archives have been housed at the University of Pittsburgh, a decision made long before the UE national office moved from New York to Pittsburgh, because of UE's bonds with Professor Montgomery.

Along with a few other historians including the late Herbert Gutman in the U.S. and the late Edward Thompson in England, Montgomery transformed the study of labor history in the 1960s and '70s. As historian Dana Frank wrote recently in The Nation, these scholars "blasted apart the earlier notion that labor history could be reduced to studying collective bargaining contracts or the machinations of labor leaders. Today we take it for granted that 'labor history' encompasses a vast range of working people and their collective actions of every sort."

In that same article Frank notes that while Montgomery in his early years had been a member of both the Machinists and Teamsters unions, "his heart lay with his third union, the United Electrical Workers." Frank also writes that as one of Montgomery's graduate students, "we routinely tromped out to picket lines at local factories at five in the morning in the snow. That was what you did if you were a labor historian, he taught us, without saying a word."

Montgomery's own activism in behalf of workers included support for strikes and organizing struggles by Yale's maintenance, service and clerical workers and graduate teaching assistants. During their long struggle for a first contract, UE members at Circuit-Wise near New Haven staged a demonstration outside the 1989 Yale class reunion of the company president and vice president. The action included a guerilla theater skit, with David Montgomery playing the role of one of the bosses.

You can read more about David Montgomery by clicking here, here and here. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, February 11 at 3:00 p.m. at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium at the University of Pittsburgh. Get directions by clicking here.

David Montgomery is the author of four outstanding books. If you want to deepen your knowledge and understanding of the history of the working class in the United States, there is much to be learned from these books.

Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872. Montgomery's first book, originally published in 1967, shows how labor unions in the post-Civil War years challenged the economic inequality that lay behind legal equality.

Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology and Labor Struggles (1979) deals with struggles by skilled workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for control over the nature and pace of work.

The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (published 1987) is Montgomery's greatest work. It examines in detail the nature and cultures of work in a variety of industries and occupations, and the attacks by the corporations and the state on the forms of workplace power that workers had been able to establish. The "fall" in the title refers to the general defeat of craft unionism by the 1920s. The book covers struggles by GE workers in the World War I era.

Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States With Democracy and the Free Market During the Nineteenth Century (1993) addresses ways in which the law and political power have been mobilized against workers, and how workers have expanded their rights. Montgomery describes the surprising extent to which the legal relationship of bosses and workers in the U.S. is rooted in master-servant law handed down from England in the Middle Ages.

 

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