Reimagining Philadelphia’s Labor History: How Including Trolleymen, Black Wobblies, Flappers, and Trashmen Turned the Historiography on Its Head

AHA Session 96
Labor and Working Class History Association 3
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Walter M. Licht, University of Pennsylvania
Sharon McConnell-Sidorick, independent scholar
Francis Ryan, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
James Wolfinger, DePaul University

Session Abstract

Despite decades of research in "new" labor history, the dominant image of workers in America's past—especially union members—remains that of the muscular white male in the giant steel or auto industries. As a result, much of the actual life of working-class communities, and their struggles and organizations, have been lost in the public eye as well as in the historiography of labor. Nowhere has this been truer than in the history of Philadelphia after the mid-nineteenth century. Despite its role as the "Workshop of the World," the city was remembered as "scab city" in the twentieth century and was virtually a desert in the historiography of the tumultuous advances of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the New Deal era (in which it actually played a large role).

The authors of four recent books on twentieth-century Philadelphia labor will discuss how their work has disrupted the dominant narrative. Sharon McConnell-Sidorick’s Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal (UNC, 2017) examines Philadelphia’s left-wing hosiery workers, their vision of the city, and campaigns to reinvigorate the national labor movement, while Francis Ryan’s AFSCME’s Philadelphia Story: Municipal Workers and Urban Power in the Twentieth Century (Temple, 2011) uncovers the working class conservatism of blue collar city workers and machine politics through the twentieth century. James Wolfinger’s Running the Rails: Capital and Labor in the Philadelphia Transit Industry (Cornell, 2016) covers the city’s mass transit providers and the victories and defeats of workers in an important but understudied industry, and Peter Cole’s Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia (Illinois, 2007) links radical politics and the origins of interracial unionism on the Delaware River docks.

Commentary is provided by Walter Licht, whose scholarship on industrial Philadelphia (Getting Work: Philadelphia 1840-1950 and with Philip Scranton, Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950) has been a foundation on which these histories have emerged.

This panel opens the first in-depth discussion of the ways these approaches alter common assumptions about Philadelphia’s working class and political histories in the twentieth century and how they interact with gender identities, neighborhood geography, migration, and mainstream culture. The prospects for such a discussion are exciting: through this exchange, initial steps toward a synthesis will be put forward that will prove valuable for historians who address similar issues across time and space. In this way, the larger implications of the calls for new historical approaches that began in the 1970s and 80s—emphasis on workers' culture, feminist historians' deconstruction of both masculine and feminine identities, the treatment of everyday life practices, and the interplay between the local and national state can be measured. How have these new works realized historiographical projects of the past two generations? How might further efforts be imagined? Do these historians together present a “New Philadelphia history?” How do such re-workings from the nation’s birthplace challenge the field?

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