Monday, February 8, 2016

Chad Pearson

Chad Pearson is Professor of History at Collin College. His new book is Reform or Repression: Organizing America's Anti-Union Movement.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Pearson's reply:
During the course of researching what became my book, I discovered that employers, all of whom wanted control over their workforces, could be rather violent. Several employers active in the turn-of-the-century anti-union open-shop movement were once active in Civil War-era vigilante organizations. For example, Wilbur F. Sanders, one of the leaders of the anti-union Citizens’ Industrial Association of America, served as the lawyer for the Montana Vigilantes in the 1860s. And N. F. Thompson, another prominent Progressive Era union opponent, had served in the Ku Klux Klan with Nathan Bedford Forrest while he lived in Middle Tennessee. More than three decade later, Thompson called for a “justifiable homicide law.” Thompson believed that employers and non-union workers deserved the right to murder union activists responsible for seeking to prevent strikebreakers from entering workplaces. One of my book’s themes explores the long history of employer violence.

Questions about labor-management tensions--and employers’ belligerency in particular-- continue to interest me, and I’m currently looking at underexplored events to better understand these questions. Rather than focus exclusively on the industrialized northeast or Midwest, I have been drawn to the nineteenth century South. Military conflicts offer some useful examples for scholars of labor and management. In recent years, a number of scholars have re-introduced readers to the important insights found in W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction, an outstanding class struggle study that takes seriously the agency of the close to four million slaves during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. He famously calls their involvement “a general strike.” A number of terrific books, including David Roediger’s Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All, David Williams’s I Freed Myself: African Americans Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era, and Mark Lause’s Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of an American Working Class  add dimensions to Du Bois’s thesis, and offer scholars of management much to ponder. For example, I think it is useful to treat white supremacist organizations like the first Ku Klux Klan and Knights of the White Camelia, organizations that sought to contain the gains of emancipation, as employers’ associations.

I have found useful information from studying other nineteenth century military conflicts as well, including the Second Seminole War. John K. Mahon’s classic account, History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842, is a good general introduction to this war, and he helps management historians understand the class interests of those involved in fighting it. Indeed, the most passionate supporters of the war were slave-owners, individuals deeply upset that the Seminole Indians offered solace to escaped slaves. For plantation owners throughout the Southeast, the war offered them a way to resolve a serious management problem. Indeed, the Second Seminole War was, as historian Larry Eugene Rivers points out in Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation, “a massive slave revolt.” Rivers reminds us of the possibilities of applying Du Bois’s useful observation to earlier conflicts. What lessons did plantation managers learn in the aftermath of this war? How did they change their ways?

All of these books have helped me better understand power relations and inequality, problems we continue to grapple with today.
Learn more about Reform or Repression at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue