Why Are There Now 2 Journals Devoted to Labor History?


Mr. McCartin (Georgetown University) is Consulting Editor, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the America.

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A potentially momentous event with far-reaching implications unfolded at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on March 27, 2004, in Boston. On that date, Duke University Press officially inaugurated a new journal, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas. But this event, held not far from the site of the Boston Tea Party, was more than the launching of merely another academic publication. It marked a rebellion against the commercialization of academic research, whose ripples may ultimately extend well beyond the field of labor and working-class history.

Labor was founded by Leon Fink and forty other scholars who resigned from the journal Labor History in the summer of 2003 when irreconcilable differences emerged between them and the profit-making Taylor & Francis Group, which had purchased ownership of Labor History some months before from the Tamiment Institute. The shift in ownership from Tamiment to Taylor & Francis, an action taken independent of Labor History’s editorial board, dramatically changed the context in which the journal was published.

Tamiment, a non-profit concern with roots in post-war New York’s vibrant democratic socialist politics, had launched Labor History in 1960. The Taylor & Francis Group, a multinational publishing concern headquartered in London, is an altogether different sort of entity. It owns more than 800 journals according to its corporate website, including 35 in the field of history alone. According to Taylor & Francis’s annual corporate report for 2003, the company’s net assets were valued at roughly 89 million British pounds. In recent years, Taylor & Francis has certainly been a profit-maker. Its after-tax earnings tripled over the last five years. Nor has this corporate behemoth been content with its status. On April 14, 2004, shareholders approved a merger between Taylor & Francis and Informa, a specialist information and publishing company, which generates 1,500 publishing products and operates branch offices in eighteen countries. Once effected, the merger will create a global publishing and information powerhouse whose assets would be valued at 1.1 billion pounds, according to the London Times.

Having bought the copyright to Labor History, Taylor & Francis lost little time devising ways to use the journal as a vehicle for revenue generation. Over the objections of Labor History’s editorial committee, Taylor & Francis decided upon a plan to speed up the production rate of the journal. As Taylor & Francis’s publishing director, Dr. David Green, informed Leon Fink in March 2003, “the financial arrangements of the buy-out of copyright are dependent on generating more income for the journal in 2004. This entails publication in six issues at the outset.” Of course, increased output would justify higher subscription rates. When Fink objected to this forced speed-up, arguing that it would undermine the high quality of the journal, his complaints were rebuffed.

Concerned that they could not entrust the scholarly integrity of a labor history journal to an enormous multi-national corporation determined to wring profits from it and to dictate its production schedule accordingly, Fink and his entire forty-person editorial team (myself included) resigned and committed themselves to founding a new journal with a not-for-profit publisher. Soon afterward the former Labor History editorial team helped Fink launch Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas through Duke University Press.

The contents of Labor’s founding issue suggest the journal’s admirably expansive vision of labor and working-class history. On the one hand, the journal pays homage to the traditions that have shaped the field since the 1960s in James Barrett’s interview with the eminent labor historian David Montgomery. On the other hand, James Green offers a regular section on contemporary affairs. The journal’s breadth of coverage is also wide. In the first issue, Gregory Kealey inaugurates what will become a regular section on Canada and John French does the same for a section on Latin America and the Caribbean. The issue also includes articles on international labor solidarity, women auto workers, and domestic service placement agencies by Dana Frank, Steve Meyer, and Kristen Hill Maher respectively. These offerings suggest a mixture of new perspectives, venerable traditions, and catholic influences that should distinguish Labor in the years ahead.

But Labor’s significance transcends the community of labor and working-class history scholars. Its launching is also a welcome development for academic libraries. In recent years library budgets have groaned under the weight of skyrocketing institutional subscription prices for journals, prices that have escalated as profit-making concerns increase their presence in academic publishing. Thus Labor enjoys the warm support of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an alliance of universities, research libraries, and allied groups founded in 1998 to deal with the dislocations being caused by the increasing commercialization of academic publishing. SPARC contends that the rising prices of academic journals, a large portion of which are now produced by profit-making corporations, “have reduced dissemination of scholarship and crippled libraries.” The alliance is currently organizing alternatives to high-priced academic journals, educating educators about the problems of the academic publishing market place, and agitating for changes in the field. SPARC takes credit for having already driven down the prices of some academic journal subscriptions through its activism.

The Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) has offered its strong support to Labor. LAWCHA, an organization of educators, students, and activists who seek to promote working-class history through research, writing, and organizing, has made Labor its official journal. Henceforth LAWCHA members will receive a subscription to Labor as a benefit of their organizational dues. The relationship is natural one. Just as LAWCHA has attempted to connect labor history scholars with labor activists and workers, so too does Labor hope to foster interchange between academics and activists, workers and researchers.

As Labor begins its life at Duke University Press, Taylor & Francis’s Labor History is proceeding under new editorship. This is good news for the field of labor and working-class history. No one connected with Labor wishes Labor History ill. To the contrary, we extend our best wishes to those now at the helm our old journal, and fervently hope that Labor History carries forward the tradition of outstanding labor scholarship that dates to its founding in 1960. Furthermore, we strongly believe that the very existence of the non-profit Labor will help ensure that Labor History does not abandon that proud tradition under the relentless pressures of its parent corporation’s profit-generation. Just as the unionization of some workers in an industry tends to prod employers to extend union-level benefits to that industry’s non-union workers, it seems that Labor’s founding has had a salutary effect on Labor History’s health. Since Labor’s creation, Taylor & Francis has apparently shelved its plans to increase its subscription rate to six issues per year. It has also recruited well respected scholars for its editorial team, drafted an “author’s bill of rights,” and kept Labor History’s institutional subscription price well below that of many of its other history journals. (Whereas some Taylor & Francis historical periodicals fetch more than $600 per institutional subscription, the corporation is currently charging less than half that amount for Labor History.) In indirectly bolstering Labor History as a respectable scholarly quarterly, Labor is thus helping to widen the range of forums for the publication of high quality scholarship in labor and working-class history. Our hope is that the proliferation of publishing outlets might spark a truly vigorous, democratic, open-ended scholarly debate in the field of labor and social history, bringing forth fresh influences and new voices.

We at Labor hope that the dissemination of labor history scholarship is not undermined by market imperatives in coming years. But we recognize that it this is unlikely without the vigilance of concerned scholars. If the founding of Labor encourages such vigilance across academia’s disciplinary lines, then the journal whose launching was commemorated in the shadow of Boston’s Freedom Trail will have fulfilled its founders’ best hopes.

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Andrew D. Todd - 5/9/2004

If you want to see something really interesting, look at anthropology departments, because there you have all this stuff in one department. The cultural anthropologists are not quite like historians, though there seem to be a lot of historians who like Clifford Geertz. The physical anthropologists, on the other hand, are essentially human biologists. They have labs, and they do National Science Foundation grantsmanship, and they are trying over time to move from nineteenth century descriptive biology to modern molecular biology.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/7/2004

It gets worse. There's always a scientist or two on the tenure-review committees, who doesn't understand why one published article is a decent year for an historian, and a book is a real achievement.

Andrew D. Todd - 5/5/2004

To understand what is going on with Taylor and Francis, you must remember that their main business is scientific journals. Scientific journals are in a state of cancerous hypertrophy because a disconnect has developed between what scientists actually do, and what they get rewarded for.

Imagine that we historians got rewarded for publishing citations of approximately relevant newspaper clippings, clippings which had not previously been cited. And further, imagine that the newspapers in question were not only available on microfilm, but were also being scanned and run through optical character recognition, and put online. Under those circumstances, we might very well want to put in a day of Googling, and then publish our working notes that same night, before anyone else could scoop us. But of course, that is not how historians get rewarded; on the contrary, it is agreed that "this is not history." Thank God.

Scientists do not have the benefit of a similar certainty. What they actually do is to design and build machines which do science, and it is not the design of the machines which is publishable, but their output. The result is that you get a kind of scientist who publishes twenty or fifty papers a year, with a great deal of repetition, and little or no intellectual novelty. He doesn't dare to hold off until he has finished his series of experiments and publish a unified paper (comparable in scope to a graduate seminar paper in history), because someone might scoop him, and in any case, the publication-counting mentality would probably not give him full credit. Think of all this as the journal equivalent of junk mail, or telephone books. There is a proliferation of commercial scientific journals, inferior in status and editorial reputation to those sponsored by learned societies. Taylor and Francis is one of a number of companies in the business.

The disconnect in science has resulted from progressive laboratory automation. There has never been a point where the scientists as a group could stand down, and talk out the issue of what ought to be published. The effect is very much like a stock market bubble. Robert M. Hazen's The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, 1988, 1989, is a good illustration of the actual practice of science.

I think that what happened was that Taylor and Francis sort of blundered into history, thinking in effect that scientists are smarter than historians, and that what is good enough for scientists should be good enough for historians. With a nasty scandal for a christening present, the new _Labor History_ will be clearly inferior in status to _Labor_. For practical purposes, Taylor and Francis has lost its entire investment.