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David Montgomery obituary December 12, 2011

David Montgomery, who has died aged 84 of a brain haemorrhage, was one of the most prominent historians in the US and the model of a scholar-activist. Along with the late Herbert Gutman, he was the most influential practitioner of the “new labour 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 organiser for the Communist party, working with the United Electrical Workers, International Association of Machinists and Teamsters union, an experience rare among modern academics.

Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Montgomery served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the second world war, 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 organising. 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, as he later recalled in an interview with the Radical History Review, because of the party’s “stifling” intellectual atmosphere.

But he remained deeply 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 the American labour force. He saw class consciousness not as 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 labour history for 14 years at the University of Pittsburgh, then moved to Yale University as the professor of history. A powerful, charismatic speaker, he attracted legions of students to his classes.

Montgomery’s writings reconceptualised 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 labour question in the northern states rather than the fate of the emancipated slaves. The war, a disaster for northern workers because of rampant inflation, spawned the emergence of the nation’s first mass-labour movement, whose demands challenged the adequacy of the ideal of legal equality promoted by the radical republicans.

The book’s title suggested that beyond legal equality – a momentous achievement for the 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 labour 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 shopfloor power was eventually eroded by mechanisation and the introduction of bureaucratised systems of factory management.

The Fall of the House of Labor (1987) expanded his compass to include not only these privileged workers, but machine operatives in factories and the unskilled manual labourers 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 organised 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 line. In 2000, as president of the Organisation 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.

Montgomery had a longstanding connection with Britain. From 1967 until 1969, he taught at the University of Warwick, where, with EP Thompson, he helped to establish the Centre for the Study of Social History, and from 1986 until 1987 was professor of American history at Oxford University.

In his interview with the Radical History Review, Montgomery remarked: “Although my speciality 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 US, labour history has become a much more marginal field than in Montgomery’s heyday – a reflection of shifting intellectual interests and the decline of the labour movement itself. Those interested in labour 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.

He is survived by his wife, Martel (when they wed in 1952, their interracial marriage was illegal in many US states), two sons, Edward and Claude, and five grandchildren.

David Montgomery, historian, born 1 December 1927; died 2 December 2011

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A Chris Christie Run Should Worry Team Obama September 30, 2011

Pollster John Zogby updates our weekly Obama Report Card with a grade on the president’s performance. Zogby uses his polling, expert analysis and interaction with major players to come up with a grade and some comments that capture how he sees the president’s week ending.

John Zogby on Week: 141

“President Obama spent another week on the campaign trail promoting his jobs plan and making pointed distinctions between himself and Republicans. His most controversial comments were aimed at the Congressional Black Caucus, telling its members to ‘shake it off, stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying.’ Time will tell whether he inspired or alienated African-Americans. Our polling showed his job approval steady at a 42 percent, with some increase in real satisfaction with him among loyal Democrats. Obama avoided a government shutdown showdown with Republicans over offsetting disaster relief costs, but only because FEMA found it had enough money. Meanwhile, the GOP race became more muddled. Rick Perry’s fall may not be good for Team Obama, and an entry by Chris Christie should cause them to re-calibrate re-election strategy.”

This week’s grade: C-

Last week’s: C

John Zogby is Chairman of the Board and Chief Insights Officer for IBOPE Zogby International, a non-partisan public opinion, research, and business solutions firm with experience working in more than 70 countries around the globe. IBOPE Zogby International specializes in telephone, Internet, and face-to-face survey research and analysis for corporate, political, nonprofit, and governmental clients. The firm is headquartered in Utica, N.Y. John Zogby is also the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House).

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2010 Data Show Surge in Poor Young Families September 28, 2011

At 37 percent, it was the highest level on record for the group, surpassing the previous peak of 36 percent in 1993, according to the analysis by Ishwar Khatiwada, an economist at the center. By comparison, the rate was about 25 percent in 2000.

The economic distress among the country’s youngest families — defined as under the age of 30 — is in contrast to the poverty rate for elderly families, which remained low in 2010, at 5.7 percent, according to the analysis. In the 1970s, poverty was only slightly higher for younger families than for families headed by someone age 65 or over.

The change is evidence of shifting policy priorities that are putting the next generation at risk at a time when competition in the labor market has never been tougher, said Andrew Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern and the director of the center.

“Young families with children are now six times as likely to be poor as elderly families,” Professor Sum said. “This is a major generational change. From a public policy standpoint, we should be very deeply troubled by this.”

Economists cited several reasons for the rise. First was the economy. College degrees hold greater value now, while opportunities for low-skilled workers have dwindled, as manufacturing and other industries have declined. That has pushed more young families into poverty.

The number of men in their 20s with only a high school degree who worked full time fell by 22 percent from 2007 to 2010, while those with a college degree dropped by just 1 percent, according to census data. Fewer than a third of high school dropouts in their 20s were working full time last year.

“Dropping out of high school in 1970 was much less costly than dropping out of high school now,” said Richard Murnane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “That’s purely a function of changes in the economy.”

At the same time, the fortunes of poorer Americans, especially those with children, are more closely tied to the labor market because welfare reform in the 1990s made cash assistance harder to obtain. It was hailed as a success for getting more mothers to work, but now that jobs are scarce, young families have little to fall back on.

Robert Moffitt, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, said there had been a shift of resources from the young to the elderly that dates back to the 1980s.

In an analysis of government transfers over time, Professor Moffitt found that aid to the elderly living on less than half of poverty-level income rose by 13 percent from 1984 to 2004, while aid to single-parent families in the same situation dropped by about 38 percent.

“The worst-off families have been left behind,” Professor Moffitt said.

For Margaret Allstrom, a 27-year-old divorced mother of two in Atlanta, being a mother has made it harder to get hired. She lost her full-time job when the recession began and now supports her children with three part-time jobs, as a waitress, a teacher and a freelance print maker.

“Whenever I go to a job interview, that comes up — they’re not going to hire a mom,” Ms. Allstrom said. “Technically it’s not legal. But they ask questions like, ‘What’s important in your life?’ You’re going to mention your kids, and then they know.”

Children bear more than their share of the burden of poverty, accounting for 35 percent of people who were poor last year, but only 24 percent of the population, according to census data. That lopsided ratio handicaps the next generation of American workers, advocates for children say.

“The younger you are, the poorer you are, and that’s a disgrace,” said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund. “We need an educated work force, and that starts in the early years.”

Some of the highest rates are among black and Hispanic children, who are close to becoming the majority of the child population in the country. About two in five black children were poor last year, according to census data. The ratio was slightly lower for Hispanics.

Greg Duncan, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, said young children living in poverty were less likely to succeed in school, in part because stressful and traumatic conditions impeded learning.

Vernae Jones, 22, moved with her three children back into her parents’ house in Atlanta after losing her job at Kroger. Almost all the children in her daughter’s preschool qualify for reduced price lunches, Ms. Jones said. Most have young parents.

“It’s just a hard time to be a parent,” she said.

Ms. Jones receives food stamps, a noncash assistance program the census poverty calculation does not count. But out-of-pocket medical and child care costs are not included in the official measure either. Timothy Smeeding, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, estimated that poverty figures scheduled for release by the Census Bureau next month, which include all those adjustments, would probably be higher than those published last week.

Robbie Brown contributed reporting from Atlanta.

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Obama Maybe Poised for a Comeback September 17, 2011

Pollster John Zogby updates our weekly Obama Report Card with a grade on the president’s performance. Zogby uses his polling, expert analysis and interaction with major players to come up with a grade and some comments that capture how he sees the president’s week ending.

John Zogby on Week: 139

“Opinion polls had Team Obama feeling better, but then an actual election loss in a 3-to-1 Democratic Congressional district demonstrated the troubles Obama faces with discouraged voters. Was the Republican win in former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s district a rejection of Obama, or just the result of a poorly run campaign and local issues particular to the heavily Jewish Orthodox Brooklyn-Queens district? Our polling suggested Obama doing better nationally, as both independents and Democrats helped improve both his job approval and re-election numbers after his jobs speech to Congress. While Democrats may panic over the loss of a New York City seat, what’s left of the Republican establishment is worried that Rick Perry is a runaway train headed to the Presidential nomination and defeat next November. Finally keep an eye on what could become Obama’s first potential serious ethics problem, a $500 million loan to now shuttered solar panel company Solyndra, whose major backers are associated with Obama campaign fundraiser George Kaiser.”

This week’s grade: C-

Last week’s: B-

John Zogby is Chairman of the Board and Chief Insights Officer for IBOPE Zogby International, a non-partisan public opinion, research, and business solutions firm with experience working in more than 70 countries around the globe. IBOPE Zogby International specializes in telephone, Internet, and face-to-face survey research and analysis for corporate, political, nonprofit, and governmental clients. The firm is headquartered in Utica, N.Y. John Zogby is also the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House).

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