David Montgomery, 1927-2011

David Montgomery, who died on December 2 at the age of 84 of a brain haemorrhage, was one of the most prominent historians in the U.S. and the model of a scholar-activist. Along with the late Herbert Gutman, he was the most influential practitioner of the “new labor history,” which moved the study of workers away from the institutional history of unions to the workplace struggles, political ideologies, and cultural values of the diverse groups who make up the American working class. Before entering academia, he spent several years as a shop-floor organizer for the Communist Party, working with the United Electrical Workers International Association of Machinists and Teamsters union.


Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Montgomery served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, including a stint at Los Alamos, New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed. After leaving the army, he attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. In the 1950s, Montgomery devoted himself to factory organizing. Hounded by the FBI, he was dismissed from several industrial jobs. He left the Communist Party in 1957 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and because of the party’s “stifling” intellectual atmosphere.


But he remained influenced by two aspects of his communist experience: Marxist analysis and a commitment to racial equality. Class remained his key category of historical analysis, although he was keenly aware of the multiracial, multi-ethnic nature of American labor. He saw class consciousness not as an adherence to a particular ideology, but as workers’ day-to-day activities in opposition to their employers.


Unions, whatever their political outlook, were for Montgomery places of human solidarity, their very existence a rebuke and challenge to the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of market society.


What he witnessed on the shop floor convinced him that “most of what was written in academic literature about the inherent conservatism of American workers…was simply untrue.” He decided to set the record straight.


Montgomery received his doctorate in history from the University of Minnesota in 1962. He taught labor history for 14 years at the University of Pittsburgh then moved to Yale University as a professor of history. A charismatic speaker, he attracted legions of students to his classes.


Montgomery’s writings reconcept- ualized the history of American workers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. His first book, Beyond Equality (1967), altered historians’ understanding of the era of reconstruction that followed the American civil war by focusing on the labor question in the northern states rather than the fate of the emancipated slaves.


The book’s title suggested that beyond legal equality—a momentous achievement for former slaves—lay issues of economic justice that the political system proved incapable of addressing. “On the submerged rock of class conflict,” he argued, “the radical project foundered."


Montgomery then turned his attention to the rise and fall of labor militancy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Workers’ Control in America (1979), he highlighted how groups of skilled industrial workers, iron puddlers, miners, and others “controlled” the nature and pace of work and how their shop floor power was eventually eroded by mechanization and the introduction of bureaucratized systems of factory management.


The Fall of the House of Labor (1987) included not only these privileged workers, but machine operatives in factories and the unskilled manual laborers who built the era’s railroads, subways, and sewer systems. In the early 20th century, management, with the assistance of the national state, launched a ferocious assault on workers’ prerogatives. By the 1920s, Montgomery wrote, “modern America had been created over its workers’ protests.”


The theme of political repression was further pursued in Citizen Worker (1993), which addressed the paradox that 19th century American workers enjoyed extensive democratic rights, yet confronted a national state that acted “to police the people for the free market.”


Montgomery was the opposite of the ivory tower academic. At Yale, he organized faculty support for clerical workers who engaged in a bitter strike against the university, demanding union recognition. When the workers at the Colt firearms company in New Haven (where Yale is located) launched a prolonged strike, Montgomery joined the picket lines. In 2000, as president of the Organization of American Historians, he moved the sessions of the annual meeting in St. Louis from the headquarters hotel to a local university, as an act of solidarity with black litigants who were suing the hotel chain for discriminatory practices.


In his interview with Radical History Review, Montgomery remarked: “Although my specialty is working-class history, the subject I am trying to get at is the history of capitalism.” In all his works, he tried to describe workers’ experiences within the broadest political and economic context. Today in the U.S., labor history has become a much more marginal field than in Montgomery’s heyday—a reflection of shifting intellectual interests and the decline of the labor movement.


Those interested in labor now study it as part of a newly prominent paradigm—the history of American capitalism. In other words, they are coming back to David Montgomery. 


Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of this country’s most prominent historians. He served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.