Laboring On

A few weeks ago I read an article about Thomas Geoghegan, and decided to see if the library had a copy of his book Which Side Are You On: Trying To Be For Labor When It’s Flat On Its Back. (Geoghegan, if you aren’t familiar with him, is one of the contenders for the Illinois congressional seat that Rahm Emmanuel left open when he became Obama’s Chief of Staff.)  He is also a labor lawyer, and chronicles some of his experiences in Which Side Are You On.  My interest in labor history is fairly recent, and I really know very little about it other than what I’ve seen in a few documentaries, and this book was perfect for filling in some of the holes in my knowledge.  Geoghegan worked for some of the biggest and most powerful unions around– the United Mine Workers (UMW) and The United Steelworkers of America (USWA).  This isn’t a straight history of labor, but more like a collection of anecdotes, peppered liberally with historic facts.  In other words, exactly the kind of labor history that I was looking to read. Of course, the fact that this book was published in 1991 means that some of the big events in more recent labor history– the collapse of Bethlehem Steel in 2003, for example– haven’t happened yet, but some of his stories of recession and layoffs and big business seem to foreshadow the current economic crisis.

I can’t read about labor history, particularly when so much of it focuses on the steel industry, without thinking of Pittsburgh’s own labor history.  I’m still a relative newbie to the area, but so far I’ve found the steel-town history of Pittsburgh to be omnipresent.  Beer, football, and my favorite Pittsburgh movie all nod at the city’s industrial past. And I love how little traces of the city’s industrial past are all over the place — like that corner of the library that was left black during the building’s cleaning several years ago.  I tend to be something of a visual learner, so I’ve also been loving the image search feature of the Historic Pittsburgh database. A search for “steel” brings up nearly 2,000 historic photographs!

After being in a bit of a reading funk lately, I’m happy to have finally found a subject as interesting as this to keep me occupied for a while.  I have a feeling that I’m only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning about Pittsburgh’s labor history, so you’ll probably see me lurking in the library’s Pennsylvania Department, looking at photographs or checking out some of their books on the city’s past.  And of course, I’m always open to suggestions — leave a comment if you’ve read any particularly fantastic books about Pittsburgh’s industrial history!

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