Tuesday, July 22, 2014

University of New Orleans Professor Releases New Book on the History and Politics of Labor in New Orleans

For centuries, writers have been drawn to New Orleans, essaying to capture the sounds, sights, mores, landscape, politics and culture of the Crescent City. Yet few have written about work in the 300-year-old city and now a University of New Orleans professor and his colleague have released a book on the topic.

"It's a city that has been well studied by historians but not so much by labor historians," said Steve Striffler, an anthropology professor at the University and the Doris Zemurray Stone Chair in Latin American Studies
New School for Social Research. "... It's been surprisingly neglected for a city that's rich in labor history."

Striffler, an expert on Latin American studies, has long studied the history of labor vis-à-vis South and Central America. Two conferences held together with colleagues from Tulane University showed him a gap in documentation of the history of labor in New Orleans, a port city with a long history of immigrant, low-wage and industry workers, he said. Together with Thomas Adams, a former Tulane faculty member who now works in England, Striffler compiled and edited a small book of essays released this month.

Working in the Big Easy: The History and Politics of Labor in New Orleans, published by the Univ of Louisiana at Lafayette "is a start at rectifying two troubling historiographical, cultural, and analytic absences —the place of labor in the history of New Orleans and the place of New Orleans in the history of labor," Striffler and Adams said in a synopsis.

"I would say that most of the articles focus on work, and political organizing around the work, the experiences of working people in particular moments in history, how they shaped the politics and economics of the city," said Striffler. "But there is a lot of history about organizing and unions."

Since the founding of New Orleans in 1718, scholars have analyzed the city's racial formation, Atlantic World empire and colonialism, urban slavery, trans-Atlantic, Caribbean, and Mississippi political economy, urban geography, post-emancipation politics and life, the Great Society, and modern disaster in the context of New Orleans, the scholars said.

"Despite this large, growing, and impressive body of scholarship on New Orleans, scholars of the city and South Louisiana have been relatively untuned to questions of labor history," Striffler and Adams said in a foreword. "If self-conscious scholars of New Orleans have a labor problem, then it is equally true that self-conscious scholars of labor have a New Orleans problem. Despite a large and growing literature on work in the south dating back to the origins of the American variants of the "new labor history" four decades ago, Louisiana and New Orleans have been peculiarly underrepresented in this tradition. Compared to various regions of Alabama, Virginia, and the Carolinas, let alone virtually every major northern, Midwestern, and Western city, this absence is striking both on its face and in relationship to the longer urban, regional, and metropolitan histories of New Orleans."

Throughout their work, writers endeavored to answer two key questions: How does the history of labor change our understanding of the history of New Orleans and how does the history of New Orleans shift our understanding of the history of labor?

Three of the book's chapters are written by UNO researchers, Striffler said, citing essays by UNO Professor of History Michael Mizell-Nelson and graduate students Chanda Nunez and Celine Ugolini.

The book includes an array of essays on a variety of topics, he said. It includes "chapters on waterfront workers, folks involved in transportation, particularly in rail, voodoo, praline women, service industry, different aspects of the city's economy," he said of the book, which covers labor in New Orleans from the 1700's to the present.

"I don't think I would describe there ever having been an immensely strong labor movement in the city. There certainly was an early history," Striffler said. "There was cross-racial organizing, compared to other parts of the country. That was certainly present. It was a place that early on brought people from all over the world and on some level was at the very least more open to racial mixing than other parts of the South and I think that's kind of the history of port cities in general."

The book is largely aimed at historians but is accessible by a larger audience, said Striffler. It provides cultural insights to one of the world's most fascinating cities by providing a history of work and working people and understanding their experiences in time and place.


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