Wertheimer Prize Winners

Most Recent Winners

2015: Jared Odessky, Columbia University, won the 2015 Barbara Wertheimer Award for his senior honors thesis “Saving Our Children: Queer Teacher Organizing, the Religious Right, and Battles Over Child Protection in South Florida’s Schools, 1977-1997.” His faculty advisor was Mae Ngai. Odessky’s paper addresses the short- and long-term responses of South Florida’s queer teachers to Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign, which targeted “sexually deviant” educators as a threat to South Florida’s youth. Drawing from a source base of interviews, periodicals, and archival materials, the thesis demonstrates how the history of South Florida’s queer teachers is not merely a story of repression, but also one of resistance and reclamation. Queer educators turned from being the targets of the religious right’s effort to “Save Our Children” to the leaders of a movement to protect queer children from dangerous school environments that the religious right had helped instigate through this very campaign. Queer educators took hold of the rhetoric of children’s defense and won their own employment rights in the process. Odessky’s thesis works at the intersection of queer and labor history, which is new terrain in academic research. The paper explicates the process of how queer teachers’ political strategies engaged with both opponents and ostensible allies and wrought transformations that were at once personal and political.

Previous Winners

2014: The two Wertheimer winners for 2014 were Connor Kenaston and Kathryn Tokle.

Connor Kenaston, Yale University, won the Barbara Wertheimer Award for his paper “If the Men Don’t Fight, the Women Will: Women and Gender Roles in the West Virginia Mine Wars.”  His faculty advisor was John Faragher.  Kenaston uses the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912 as a case study to analyze the role that women played in the West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of armed conflicts between striking coal miners attempting to unionize and mine operators bent on remaining non-union. The paper fills a void in the Mine Wars’ historiography that has hitherto relegated women to the margins. By using a variety of sources including oral histories, photographs, and investigation commission testimonies, Kenaston effectively demonstrates that, inspired by Mother Jones, women played a crucial role in the strikes, participating in both traditional and nontraditional ways for women of that time and place. One might think that women’s contributions—particularly those that extended into traditional male spheres—would alter gender roles in coal camps, but this was not the case. Instead, like many instances throughout American history, women’s contributions were understood as extraordinary actions in unique circumstances which allowed society to compartmentalize these actions so that they did not disrupt the gender hierarchy.

Kathryn Tokle, of the University of Montana, won the Wertheimer Award for her paper, “In the Wake of Disaster and Disease: Widowhood in Butte, America, 1900-1920.”  Her faculty mentor was Anya Jabour.  This paper investigates mining widows in Butte, Montana, in the years between 1900 and 1920, the peak of Butte’s mining industry. Women have only entered the historiography of Butte in the last thirty years, and although many Butte historians including David Emmons, Mary Murphy, and Janet Finn mention widows in their work, no historian has yet treated Montana widows exclusively as a topic. The source base consists of a number of sources from the K. Ross Toole Archives and Special Collections at Mansfield Library, the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, and the Montana Historical Society in Helena:  printed sources; local records including mortuary, paupers’ assistance, state orphanage, and mothers’ pension records; correspondence; and oral histories. The evidence features analysis of small samples of data (200-500) taken out of order from local records, then compared to data from a 1913 study of widows in eastern industrial cities. For the most part, this evidence is fragmented and tangential due to the limited remaining evidence of Butte’s widows’ lives. To weave the sources together and to form an argument, this paper utilizes the theoretical economic concepts of externalities and market failure.  The author argues that Butte’s widows bore the social costs of the mining industry, unaccounted for by markets; in other words, Butte’s widows represented a negative economic externality. Externalities are defined as market failures by economists, with implications for public policy, discussed at the end of the paper.  This study looks at the social conditions that contributed to societal overlook of external costs and the “invisibility” of Butte’s widows in the historical record.

2013: Sarah Stern won the Barbara Wertheimer Award for her senior honor’s thesis, “We Cast Our Lot with the Farm Workers’: Organization, Mobilization, and Meaning in the United Farm Workers’ Grape Boycott in New York City, 1967-70.” Stern’s paper is a NYU Honors thesis written for Linda Gordon. Rather than look at either the UFW or the farm workers themselves, she focuses on the New Yorkers who made the boycott a cause of their own. Relying on letters in the UFW archives at the Reuther Library at Wayne State, the paper is very well written. Her discussion of the boycott as a broad-based social justice movement in NY in the late-60s is particularly relevant to the efforts to revitalize labor today.  A more detailed abstract will be published soon.

2012: The winner for 2012, Ryan Tate, of Hamline University, submitted an essay entitled “A House Divided: Women’s Activism in the Minnesota Labor Movement, 1900-1935.” This case study of Minnesota outlines three female identities that each strived to improve labor conditions during the Progressive and Inter-war Era: working and middle-class wage earners, housewives, and social reformers. In addition to the external circumstances marginalizing women’s role in the labor movement, this study acknowledges conflicts within the female dominion. As a gendered analysis it is less honed on the interactions between the sexes, and more mindful of those struggles taking place among women themselves. It argues that real and perceived cross-class differences impeded women’s potential for unity. These networks of women remained isolated and lacked cohesive action, inhibiting each from gaining sufficient power to define the labor movement, and marginalizing their influence in the state. It pays particular attention to activist behaviors, such as unionized strikes and protests, consumer and auxiliary organizing, and settlement house reform efforts.

2011: The winner for 2011, Neal Joseph Meyer, prepared his paper, “‘Yours for the Revolution,’ Left-wing Organizers and the Committee for Industrial Organizations, 1920 – 1937,” at Harvard University under the direction of Lisa McGirr.  It looks at the careers of two labor organizers and political radicals, Rose Pesotta and Powers Hapgood, and argues that their leftist politics played a central part in their success as national organizers for the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Pesotta was an anarchist, a Russian immigrant, and a garment worker who organized for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Hapgood was a Harvard graduate turned coal miner, an organizer for the United Mine Workers, and an active member and organizer for the Socialist Party. In 1935, both Pesotta and Hapgood began a two year period of intense organizing work as national organizers for the CIO and its member unions, during which they became close friends and companions.   The first two chapters look at Pesotta and Hapgood’s careers in turn and show that their radicalism preserved their commitment to organizing over a 10 year period of demobilization in the 1920s. When the Great Depression came and labor unrest began to mount, they were some of the few experienced members of the labor movement with organizing experience capable of leading this drive. Most importantly, their shared analysis that a class struggle existed in the United States between workers and capitalists committed them to organizing industrial and participatory unions, which directly led to their decision to work for the CIO.  The final chapter looks at their participation in the Flint Sit Down Strike of 1937. In Flint, a cast of radicals coming out of a national leftist community, all with prior friendships and similar understandings of where the labor movement needed to go, came together to lead the strike. Pesotta and Hapgood fit comfortably into this developed leftist milieu in Detroit and Flint, and without it and the organizers involved the sit down strike would never have been successful, potentially depriving the labor movement of its most important catalyst. The conclusion of this thesis argues that successful movements of labor require a radical philosophy and national community to educate, inspire, and connect labor organizers.

2010: Rose Friedman prepared her paper, “The IWW and the Mesabi Miners, 1916-1917,”at Macalester College under the direction of Professor Peter Rachleff.  Using David Roediger’s theory of “race management,” which says that managers use race as a tool to prevent unionization in the workplace Friedman discusses race and organizing on Minnesota’s Iron Range. The range held a huge number of immigrant workers in the early 1900s, and the mining company pitted them against each other in hopes that a fractured workforce would not form a union. It didn’t work, and with the help of the IWW, which was the only union willing to organize the lower working classes at the time, several strikes occurred. While the actions themselves were unsuccessful, many of the demands were met in the following years. She attributed much of the success to the IWW’s use of race as an organizing tool, turning race management on its head. The “wobblies” urged the miners to use cultural institutions for organizing purposes. So Finnish opera houses became labor halls, centers of the strikes, and miners were able to come together for one cause.

2009: Brian Sarnacki prepared his paper, “A Not So Golden Oldie?  Rethinking the Golden Age of Capitalism through the 1959 St. Louis Newspaper Guild Strike,” at Notre Dame University under the direction of Professor Daniel Graff.   While many scholars, political commentators, and others have viewed the 1950s as the “golden age” of capitalism, in which unions and companies worked together rather peacefully to establish “Labor-management accord,” the 1959 Newspaper Guild strike of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat suggests that the 1950s were more gilded than golden. During the strike, the Newspaper Guild fought for control of their future security by attempting to regulate their pensions and trying to keep their job security provisions as management fought for unhindered control over personnel decisions. While management pushed back against union gains, it was not a complete victory for either side. The union still had job protections and the management won the recognition of some of its authority. Although the union and company lobbied for the public’s support, the public was reluctant to involve itself, instead urging a negotiated settlement. This case study shows that while collective bargaining was a hard fought struggle, the public’s expectation of an accord, combined with the postwar economic boom, gilded the labor conflicts of the time period. Although the economic boom permitted the gilding of the age, the St. Louis public’s disinterest holds the key to the creation of the “golden age” image. The peaceful “golden age” founded upon the acceptance of unions, management, and collective bargaining that seems to have existed during the 1950s was merely a result in the public’s growing disinterest in labor issues. Viewing the golden age of the 1950s as the gilded age that it really was, better frames the decline of the labor movement. The gilded nature of the 1950s was exposed when the economy soured after the postwar boom ended in the 1970s. While the public wondered what had happened to the peaceful “accord,” workers were left to continue fighting with management.

2008:  Genna Braverman prepared her paper, “Historical Struggles:  The Evolution of Gender, Race, and Organizing at Yale-New Haven Hospital,” at Yale University, and the advisor was Jennifer Klein.  Using Yale-New Haven Hospital as a case study, this paper examines the continuities and shifts in service sector organizing over the past forty years. The paper is structured around two unionization drives at the hospital: the 1970-1973 campaign, which successfully unionized the hospital’s food service workers, and the 1998-2008 effort, which unsuccessfully sought to organize the hospital’s 1800 remaining un-unionized service personnel.  Relying on oral histories, court documents, newspaper articles, and union publications, this paper argues the significance of a discursive shift, which radically differentiates past and present organizing campaigns. The food services drive harnessed the anti-war, civil rights sentiments of the period, evoking and fostering a consciousness that overlooked the centrality of gender politics. Whereas the 1970s drive was underpinned by the discourse of civil rights understood as manhood rights, the most recent effort has grounded its vocabulary and strategy in the expansive concept of “community- based rights.” Such a departure maps onto the realities of an altered labor landscape, a landscape in which manufacturing has given way to the service sector and women of color comprise an overwhelming majority of that workforce.  This study probes the intersections of race and gender hierarchies in the hospital, and explores the ways in which these intersections inform the contestation of institutional power structures. As a final point of analysis, this paper considers the importance of political climate to the success of unionization efforts, and examines the degree to which federal policy has impacted organizing capabilities at the hospital.

2006:  Kevin Brown prepared his paper, “Defining ‘Amicable Relations':  Class Formation, Conflict and Political Economy in 1870s Pittsburgh,” at Bucknell University.  The advisor was Professor John Enyeart.

2006:  Michael Murphy, “Anthrax Strike:  The 1976 Outbreak of Labor Militancy in the Panama Canal Zone”, senior seminar essay, National Labor College,  The advisor was Professor Robert Reynolds.

2005: Lori Flores for her senior thesis, “An Unladylike Strike Fashionably Clothed: Mexican American and Anglo Women Garment Workers Against Tex-Son, 1959-1963.” Lori graduated in May 2005 from Yale University. Her advisors for this thesis were Stephen Pitti and Beverly Gage.

2004: Matthew Lee-Ashley for his senior thesis, “The 1903-1904 Coal Strike and the Origins of Corporate Hegemony in Southern Colorado.” Matt graduated in May 2004 from Pomona College. His advisor for this thesis was Victor Silverman.

2003: Raphael Rajendra for his senior thesis “Hopeless Struggle.” The essay was written at Columbia University, and Raphael’s advisor was Eric Foner.