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Towards the Making of History's Working Class

Cultural institutions are all too often labors of unrequited love, but frontline workers are beginning to fight back.

Andrew Carnegie revolutionized American philanthropy in his Gospel of Wealth. He supposed the affluent had a duty to endow the public with "luxuries" that became "the necessaries of life."

A panel from "The Crowning of Labor" (1907-08) by John White Alexander in the Carnegie Museum of Art

Even before the sale of his enterprise in 1901 to J.P. Morgan -- forming what instantly became the world's first billion-dollar corporation -- Carnegie established museums, galleries, universities, and libraries throughout the North Atlantic world.

"My heart is in the work," Carnegie famously said.

In Pittsburgh, a handful of these nonprofit institutions anchored the city's vaunted postindustrial renaissance from the 1980s onward, including Carnegie Mellon University.

Indeed, Richard Florida wrote his now classic Rise of the Creative Class while on faculty, observing firsthand the importance of major cultural institutions in luring knowledge workers back to American cities.

For the tech sector, this strategy has been rather successful. Pittsburgh is now the epicenter of North American robotics and autonomous vehicle research. But for the entirety of a century, cultural workers have been haunted by Andrew Carnegie's love of philanthropy.

Perennially paid less than a living wage, librarians and archivists at the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh voted in 2019 to unionize with the United Steelworkers. By 2022, nearly 300 workers ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with management. Faculty at the University of Pittsburgh also unionized with United Steelworkers

There is now a growing movement towards unionization among knowledge workers in major cultural institutions across the metropolitan United States.

Following a 19-day strike in October 2022, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Union secured a significant wage gains on par with peer institutions. Museum workers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles almost immediately after formed unions of their own.

What remains unclear is if this movement will become national. The struggle is much harder in the heartland -- and historical institutions have lagged particularly far behind.

In small towns, some local museums may open but twice a month -- all volunteer -- while the luckier few might have state support, complete with an executive director, curator, part-time clerks, seasonal interpreters, and a rotating pool of retirees who give their time as docents.

Interpretation requires a range of skills, from content knowledge to educational pedagogy and -- perhaps most maligned -- performance.

Historical workers, paid or not, give themselves to the craft.

People who make history "come alive" personally ensure that patrons enjoy their visit. In The Wages of History, laborer-turned-author Amy Tyson expertly traces the emotional toll of these thankless responsibilities on frontline workers. She spent several years during her doctoral training at the Fort Snelling History Center on the outskirts of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The center, imagined by managers in the Minnesota Historical Society as providing a "personal service as the product," demanded that seasonal employees "love" their job, "that's all." Predictably, pay was low. Hours, precarious.

Through semi-structured interviews, Tyson demonstrates how seasonal interpreters grappled with both pride and shame for their careers "as a positive good" that add "value to society" (90).

These "customer service superstars" refrained "from confronting the material circumstances of their working lives" precisely "because they understood their cultural work of connecting visitors about the past as a privilege" (3-4).

Although hardly rural, knowledge workers in Saint Paul help us all understand that any national movement of knowledge workers must push beyond coastal cultural capitals. And the strategy cannot rely solely on the unionization of major nonprofit institutions.

In smaller places with fewer institutions, employees have perhaps one or two options to perform work with an intrinsic social value. Scarcity of options, no doubt, shapes an individualization of the front line labor struggle in history.

However, what's clear is that all across the nation there is grassroots support for this work.

We ought to prioritize coalitions -- urban and rural, nonprofit and public, university and community, coastal and heartland -- aimed at rebuilding state capacities within the cultural sector while maintaining our expectation that all workers deserve a living wage.


This blog post was written for the 2022 seminar on Managing History at Temple University.

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