In 2012, the New York Labor History Association established the Bernard Bellush Prize for the best graduate research paper written during a given academic year. With permission, an abstract of the winning paper is posted on the NYLHA website. Please encourage your best graduate students to submit their work!
Papers on any aspect of labor or work history will be considered. Entries will be evaluated on the basis of scholarship and literary merit.
Most Recent Winners
2017: This year the prize was shared by Marc Kagan for “An Early Challenge to the Age of Austerity and Inequality: Re-Examining New York City’s 1980 Transit Strike from the Bottom-Up” and Luke Elliot-Negri for “Wall to Wall: Industrial Unionism at the City University of New York, 1972-2017.”
Abstract for “An Early Challenge to the Age of Austerity and Inequality: Re-Examining New York City’s 1980 Transit Strike from the Bottom-Up” by Marc Kagan:
New York City’s fiscal crisis birthed a now four-decade- long era of working-class austerity, and the its eleven day 1980 transit strike was the first significant attempt to oppose it. I examine the strike’s genesis and outcome in the context of transit worker culture, pre-existing union structures, and the long-established strategies of union leaders and oppositionists. Workers and dissident transit activists shared the premise that a better top-down leadership – a sort of bureaucratic radicalism – was all that was needed to secure better contracts. The strength of this idea was its rhetorical clarity and easy appeal to workers, who were only required to “throw the bums out;” its weakness that it inhibited preparation for a strike or the development of shop-floor mobilization and consciousness. Elections reaffirmed the union’s fracture along occupational and racial lines. The union’s president retained his post with only a plurality of votes. With only a narrow majority on the union’s Executive Board, leftist-led dissidents stymied a proposed contract and forced a strike but were unable to seize control of the negotiations. The resulting deal was an economic victory but a psychological defeat for workers. The union leadership was able to take credit for a substantial raise, while blaming the loss of pay and onerous fines on the opposition, whose earlier decision to avoid discussion about the necessity of a strike now came back to haunt them. Other New York union leaders, eager to rebuff dissidents in their own ranks, joined the chorus of nay-sayers. The transit strike became just an odd blip on the radar of what was soon to be called neo-liberalism, rather than a significant blow against it in its American birthplace.
Abrstract for “Wall to Wall: Industrial Unionism at the City University of New York, 1972-2017” by Luke Elliot-Negri:
The Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the industrial model union representing full and part-time faculty, professional staff and graduate student-workers, across some two dozen urban campuses at the City University of New York (CUNY), was chartered as an American Federation of Teachers in 1972, through the merger of two previously existing unions. This
paper explores both the benefits and the tensions that this expansive bargaining unit produces. Under what conditions have contingent workers gained from their formal connection with tenured faculty through the PSC? In what ways has this broad organizational model facilitated or hindered part-timer access to benefits generally and to university governance specifically? I argue that contingent workers in the CUNY system face an extension dilemma: on the one hand, they benefit from the resources generated by the dues base of more highly paid full time faculty; on the other hand, their goals are often submerged by those same organizational partners. The paper explores the historical variation in what contingent workers have been able to achieve, as they choose one horn or the other of this dilemma – and as they develop creative “inside/outside” strategies. The paper concludes with implications for organizing under a Trump Supreme Court, which will likely end agency fee shops via Janus vs. AFSCME, a case already making its way through the 7th circuit.
2015: There were two winners of the Bellush Prize for 2015, Jonathan D. Cohen for “This is Your Hometown: Collective Memories, Industrial Flight, and the Fate of Freehold, New Jersey”, and Doug Genens for “Fighting Poverty in the Fields: Legal Services and the War on Poverty in Rural California.”
Abstract for “This is Your Hometown: Collective Memories, Industrial Flight, and the Fate of Freehold, New Jersey” by Jonathan D. Cohen:
Freehold, New Jersey faced two major moments of deindustrialization in the post-World War II period. In the late 1950s, the rug mill that sat at the center of the town’s economic and cultural life began to close down. In 1986, a 3M audio-visual tape plant that had helped the town avoid economic ruin shut down as well. This paper illustrates the continuities between these closings, challenging the dogma in labor history that plant closings occur because of management’s desire to avoid an entitled and demanding workforce. Though workers at both plants were unionized, neither the rug mill nor the 3M workers made major demands on their employers in the postwar period. Thus, this paper analyzes the conditions that prompted shutdowns in Freehold, illustrating the role of broader market forces as well as internal company dynamics in driving capital flight. Furthermore, a close look at the 3M closing reveals the importance of working-class culture in assessments of responses to deindustrialization. Following 3M’s announcement of its plans to shut down the Freehold plant, workers began a national media campaign to save their jobs. At the heart of this campaign, I illustrate, was the memory of the rug mill that had closed 25 years earlier. This paper demonstrates the role of memory as an active force in shaping workers’ experience with deindustrialization and the way unions have struggled to codify the relationship between capital and community in the twentieth century.
Abstract for “Fighting Poverty in the Fields: Legal Services and the War on Poverty in Rural California” by Doug Genens:
Between 1966 and the end of the 1970s, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) helped farm workers unionize, fight for safer workplaces, and resist the exploitation of their labor by the state’s large growers. Part of the War on Poverty’s Legal Services Program, CRLA allows scholars to rethink the parameters of the poverty war. Historians have typically seen the War on Poverty as hobbled by the decline of New Deal social democracy, a focus on racial instead of class inequality, and a way of thinking about the poor that saw a “culture of poverty” as the primary force creating inequality. CRLA attorneys, however, viewed poverty not as a problem of culture, but of political economy. Its work linked the provision of legal services with interventions in workplace struggles as it sought to rein in growers, empower workers, and restructure a deeply unequal system. Unlike other studies of the Legal Services Program that stress the actions of lawyers, this paper illuminates the role of farm workers and the rural poor as well. This paper traces the development of CRLA, some of its major cases, its high profile conflicts with politicians like Ronald Reagan, and, ultimately, the declining efficacy of its legal strategy. While CRLA continues to help farm workers and the rural poor in the present day, the weakening of the UFW, the restructuring of the agricultural economy in the early 1980s, and the inability of court victories to effectively manage grower intransigence spelled the end for a strategy focused on worker mobilization.
2014: The winner of the 2014 Bernard Bellush Prize was Trish Kale, of the Department of History of the University of Chicago, for her paper entitled “The Graveyard Shift: Energy Industry Reorganization and Rank and File Rebellion in the UMWA, 1963-1973.”
Abstract: The rise of the Miners for Democracy (MFD) in the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) has typically been remembered as a struggle to oust a particularly corrupt union leader, Tony Boyle. The incredible tumult which destabilized Boyle’s rule and made possible the victory of the only union democracy slate to win control of a union at the international level, however, was much broader than internal corruption in the union. Rank-and-file rebellion in the UMWA emerged at the beginning of a broader economic and social transformation which would later be termed neoliberalism. Caught at the intersection of struggles over energy production, workplace safety, and environmental politics, coal miners were among the most vulnerable to these changes, but also among the best placed to shape their eventual outcome. Miners grappled with an energy economy in transition as oil conglomerates diversified their interests, investing in coal, uranium, and natural gas at the same time they were faced with a safety crisis in the mines and an epidemic of black lung. Boyle, in a bid to preserve his own power, linked these issues, but the MFD used these connections to channel miners’ anger into rebellion. In particular, the development of a class-based ecological consciousness played a central role in turning rank-and-file miners’ anger over corruption and ineffective leadership in the union and the government into political and workplace action. As such, their understanding of these issues–and the action miners took around each–mirrored each other: the environmental issues of strip mining and the development of nuclear power were understood as safety issues, while working conditions were understood as an environmental issue as well as a safety issue. Yet ultimately, the miners were unsuccessful in shifting national energy policy. Once the oil companies expanded into energy conglomerates, it was no longer adequate to challenge specific elements of capitalist energy policy—the entire system had to be restructured. It was a challenge the miners were unable to meet. Still, this story remains important. It challenges the idea that union power in energy-extractive industries is necessarily at odds with environmental justice and suggests an environmental labor history of the long seventies may provide a more comprehensive explanation of changes in capitalism, work, and working-class life during neoliberal transformation.
2013: The winner of the first annual Bernard Bellush Prize was William S. Cossen, Pennsylvania State University, for his research paper entitled “The Rise and Decline of a Catholic Labor School: Hartford’s Diocesan Labor Institute and the Education of the American Worker.”
Abstract: Seeking to overcome the traditional disjuncture between labor history and religious history, this paper analyzes the role of Catholic labor education as a central point of contact between the Catholic Church and workers in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Spearheaded by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department and by labor priests and lay workers in dioceses, parishes, religious orders, and Catholic colleges across the country, a national network made up of dozens of Catholic labor schools flourished from the 1930s to the 1960s. These schools endeavored to reach out to workers to assure them that the Catholic Church was concerned with their practical and moral welfare. Priest-teachers sought to foster a more cooperative, amiable relationship between labor and management; they also attempted to inform workers of their legal rights and aimed to train their students in effective unionization and debating techniques. The schools’ reach often extended beyond the classroom, as evidenced by several priests’ repeated interventions in union affairs and by their active opposition to communist influence in the labor movement.
This study takes as its primary subject Hartford, Connecticut’s Diocesan Labor Institute (DLI), founded in 1942 by Joseph F. Donnelly, a priest of the Diocese of Hartford. Hartford’s program is of particular historical interest due to its relative longevity, its extensive public reach, its role as a model for the establishment of similar labor schools, and its function as a clearinghouse for written materials that served as the foundation of several other schools’ core curricula. The DLI provides a useful window through which to view the motivations and activities of labor priests and Catholic workers in the postwar era, an important period of both economic adjustment and labor organizing in one of the country’s most industrialized states. This paper argues that the history of the DLI and similar labor institutes provides compelling evidence that the Catholic Church was an active player in the postwar labor scene and that gender and class transformations — particularly the increasing entry of women into the workforce and a perceived climb up the class ladder by many Catholic workers — in addition to an ever-present hostility toward communism were substantial, interconnected factors in both the rise and decline of Catholic labor education in Connecticut and in the United States.