North American Labor History Conference, An NCPH Mini Con

Hosted by Wayne State University

October 19-21, 2017 / Detroit, Michigan

For more information, visit

NCPH and the North American Labor History Conference (NAHLC) are jointly sponsoring a working group on the Public History of Labor. See the Call for Discussants below for more details.


Labor and working-class history has featured prominently in in roundtables, panels, and working groups at recent conferences of the NCPH. Similarly, scholars have presented publicly-engaged research on labor and working class history at more traditional academic conferences, such as the Labor and Working Class History Association and the NALHC. With some exceptions, however, participants in these networks remain largely distinct. NCPH and the NALHC are jointly sponsoring a working group on the Public History of Labor during the 2017 NALHC (visit the conference website for more information). The purpose of this working group is to bring these groups together in a collaborative enterprise to enhance both the representation and understanding of labor history in the public realm.

During the last four decades, the American workers and labor unions have suffered numerous blows. Automation eliminated many traditional working-class jobs, while “Right-to-Work” states lured manufacturing jobs away from union strongholds. Since the early 1970s the number of American workers represented by labor unions has fallen below 11%. Wages for almost all workers, both organized and unorganized, stagnated during that same period.

Yet, rather than merely document the loss of working-class jobs and the decline of traditional working-class communities, we should recognize that labor in the United States is currently at a crossroads: waves of anti-labor policymaking at the state and federal levels exist alongside an upswell of worker-driven activism, and occupations in service industries that have rarely been considered part of the traditional labor movement are leading drives for unionization and living-wage campaigns. In contrast with the older image of white, male union members, women and people of color have become the leaders of these political and workplace mobilizations. Furthermore, the new battlegrounds for labor struggles are in the very places where, historically, labor organization has not fared well. As the face of labor organizing changes, historians–public and academic–must grapple with increasingly urgent questions about what the working class is and who working-class Americans are, and how the answers to those questions differ across time and space.

Some of our driving questions include:
  • How can public historians connect the past to the present by using the multifaceted history of the labor movement to make sense of current issues and struggles?
  • How can we use labor history and cultural heritage to support or enhance contemporary political and workplace struggles among organized and unorganized workers?
  • How can our work broaden the larger understanding of what labor history is and who is a worker (e.g. what places can be considered historical sites of labor, even if they haven’t been identified as such? How have workers and labor activists created cultural products, thus generating a cultural heritage of labor?)
  • How can our work help to generate a more socially and culturally inclusive understanding of history, particularly that of the United States?
  • How can historic sites, museums, archives, and other repositories of labor history help to challenge historical myths, reshape popular conceptualizations of this past, and communicate to labor audiences that our institutions belong to them as well?

The intention is for this working group to be the beginning of a longer and wider conversation—a conversation that will begin at the North American Labor History Conference and continue at the 2018 NCPH Annual Meeting. To engage an even broader community, we hope to create a network of scholars and practitioners of labor history that will enhance future projects in the public history of labor.


The application closed on August 15.

Questions about the working group? Contact the facilitators:
Richard Anderson, Princeton University
Rachel Donaldson, College of Charleston

Questions about the North American Labor History Conference? Visit

Questions about the 2018 NCPH Annual Meeting? Visit


Working groups, involving facilitators and up to twelve discussants, allow conferees to explore in depth a subject of shared concern before and during a conference. In these seminar-like conversations, participants have a chance to discuss questions raised by specific programs, problems, or initiatives in their own public history practice with peers grappling with similar issues. Working groups articulate a purpose they are working toward or a problem they are actively trying to solve and aim to create an end product(s), such as a report, article, website, or exhibition.

We welcome submissions from individuals across a range of professions and career stages. Individuals who are selected will be listed as working group discussants in the conference Program and will participate in the working group session at the annual meeting. This summer, the group facilitators will ask participants to contribute a case statement of no more than 500-1,000 words for discussion. The case statement will describe a participant’s particular experience, define the issues it raises, and suggests strategies and/or goals for resolution. Case statements will be circulated among participants by email and posted on the NCPH website. Discussants are expected to read and comment briefly by email on one another’s case statements well before the conference date.

Questions? Contact the NCPH office at (317) 274-2716 or [email protected].