For most people the word Labor probably conjures up images of manual work, of people in hard hats and high-vis vests, but labor really is in everything we do. Yes, it’s the work we put in at the office or on the job, but it’s also the work we put in at home caring for ourselves and loved ones. Labor is also a part of our activism and our efforts to make the world a better and more equitable place.

By studying labor students have an opportunity to reflect on questions and ideas that are central to society and to understanding how we live and operate in the world. 

Read below to learn more about the diverse array of labor studies classes that the Harry Bridges Center is sponsoring in 2020.

The Bridges Center also offers a labor studies minor for undergraduates, to learn more click here.

HSTCMP 249/POL S 249/SOC266: Introduction to Labor Studies (Spring 2020).

Introduction to Labor Studies

What is meaningful work? And why does that definition matter?

These are the questions Professor Mathieu Dubeau asks students as they embark on his Introduction to Labor Studies class.  

“Thinking about this is really important because most of us will be working for most of our lives, but perhaps more significantly because labor is at the heart of that fundamental human question.…who are you?….I see labor ultimately as the materialization of the self in public….it is the category by which we give ourselves, and are given, purpose and value in society….” Dubeau reflects.

A lot is therefore at stake in these definitions.

In this class students will learn to interrogate and evaluate the purpose and meaning of their own work through an exploration into the historical struggle for labor’s recognition and liberation in the United States.

Professor Dubeau beings with an overview of normative and theoretical accounts of labor, covering a diversity of perspectives from John Locke to Karl Marx. These are examined over the quarter as students learn about labor movements and workers struggles - from the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, to the Fight for 15 minimum wage campaigns in Seattle in 2016.

“What I really want students to reflect on is this idea of what is work and what makes it meaningful? How has it been defined socially and historically, and what have been the implications of this….” Dubeau continues.

Another of Dubeau’s goals is to help students see the effects that labor struggles – and debates over meaningful work – have on society and the social order.

“When we attribute a monetary value to work and labor we are designating it as meaningful, by relation some types of work (and workers) come to be seen as more important/valuable than others….I want students to think critically about this process with a view towards building intersectional solidarity among the working class and a more equitable landscape for workers…” he explains.

Some key topics and themes covered include:

  • The intersection of labor and power, labor and race and labor and gender
  • Labor and dignity
  • The role of the state in defining labor (good and bad) and how it has historically acted to constrain workers in the interests of capital
  • The history of immigrant/migrant workers and their struggles 

Students will also hear from guest speakers in the labor community as they talk about their experiences within labor movements and struggles.

“Labor affects us all and whether you’re a Libertarian or a Marxist there’s something for everyone to learn and gain by taking this class… Dubeau concludes “…..only by understanding how historical labor movements have coalesced and helped to form our contemporary landscape of work can we begin to evaluate and postulate for greater forms of liberation today.”

HSTAA 290: Migrant Workers History: Racial Capitalism, US Empire and Migrant Labor Activism (Spring 2020)

Modern Migrant Workers

This new class offers students the chance to engage with an important, but often underexplored, element of US labor history: the role of migrant work and its ties to racial capitalism and US empire.

“I grew up in an area where agriculture was the main industry and would see agricultural workers, many of whom were migrants, on a nearly day to day basis.…” Professor Roneva Keel, who is teaching the class, explains, “…so that’s who I thought of when I thought of labor, but when I started to take labor history classes these weren’t typically the stories or voices that I was hearing, so I’m really pleased that I get to teach this class on migrant workers…” Keel continues.  

In this course students will engage a variety of primary and secondary sources (including many first person migrant narratives) to explore the history of migrant work, and workers, in the US, and how their status - specifically how they have often been categorized as deportable - has been central to the development of the US state and economy.

“The history of migrant workers in the US is inextricably linked to immigration and when we look at this history we discover how central debates over migrant workers have been to shaping the kinds of workers/people that the US wants and values, and those it doesn’t, by rendering some workers deportable and others not. The big question of this class is how is it that some workers are rendered deportable? I also want students to think about how these questions are linked to the history of race and racialization in this country….” Keel continues “…. because, as students will learn, migrant workers are often concurrently racialized and rendered deportable.…”

Other themes/questions to be addressed:

  • The role of migrant work and workers in US economic development
  • How has the state grown/developed through its interactions with, and categorizations of, migrant workers?
  • How have ideas about race, gender, and sex made some groups of workers more vulnerable to exclusion and deportation at various times in US history?
  • The history of migrant worker activism and resistance against exploitation, and their central place in activist and labor movements.

The course starts with the history of Chinese immigrant workers who came to the US during the period of the Civil War and goes up till the modern day. Students will be encouraged to take a hands-on approach to these histories. They will also spend time in the Labor Archives of Washington looking at primary sources and records related to the history of migrant labor in the Pacific Northwest and will learn how to use these documents to make visible migrant voices and histories.

“As with all history classes I hope this one will help students reflect critically on where we are today….” Keel concludes,"… “I want students to see how central the history of migrant workers is to understanding many of our current social, economic, and political realities. For example, it’s only because of the historical labor of migrant workers in fields like agriculture, like those I saw growing up, that non-migrant labor has been able to move towards wage labor and all the economic opportunities that come with that. Moreover, debates around migrants and their work are an important reason why institutions such as border patrol and ICE exist today….looking at and knowing this history is therefore of critical importance as we engage in debates about these organizations and their treatment of migrants today.”

CHSTU 224: Life and Labor in the US-Mexico Borderlands (Fall 2020).

Bracero Program

In this new class students will read a mix of historical and anthropological accounts that tell the lives and labor histories of the people who have inhabited the US-Mexico borderlands since their creation in 1848 up to the modern day.    

Students will learn how the governments of the United States and Mexico have shaped the border and its occupants’ lives and how occupants have in turn engaged these states and the international boundary.

A major focus is on the intersection of life and labor at the border.

“Latino/a identity (especially Mexican) has always been bound up with the idea of ‘work’ and ‘worker’ in the US….” Professor Alina R. Méndez, who is teaching the class, explains. “…. And borderlands are unique sites to explore these issues of work, nation, and identity because they overlap at these international boundaries. Migrant workers who live at, and who cross borders to work - sometimes on a daily basis – have constantly found themselves commodified on either side of the line…” she continues.

As a result, the value of these migrants has been defined by their ability to work, and by the kinds of workers that the US does, and doesn’t, want. This has meant that these sites have become prime spaces for the exploitation of workers and ‘cheap labor.’

Students will explore how individuals and communities have navigated and resisted these processes.  

Other key themes addressed include:

  • The fungibility of the border – Are borders fixed or flexible? Who or what can/has permeated them? What is at stake in the definition and policing of borders?
  • Crossing – Who can cross and who cannot? Capital at the border vs workers at the border
  • Cultures of migration and the creation of ‘Greater Mexico’
  • The influence of labor and migration in gender construction at the US-Mexico border

“In all my classes I want students to think about how events in the past have an impact today and how we might use them to reflect on current concerns and issues…” Méndez concludes “…. these stories and histories are of such significance because they go right to the heart of contemporary politics and society, especially regarding debates over immigration that are always centered on issues of border enforcement and around the idea of good vs bad migration which, as students will learn in this class, is inextricably linked to notions of labor, value and power.”

GWSS 390B/CHID 480B: Feminist Social Reproduction Theory and Radical Politics of Care (Spring 2020).

Social Reproduction Class

“To labor is to produce something. That can take so many forms, whether that be a product in return for wages, or something more symbolic, such as expending emotional labor to care for a friend.” Instructor Jey Saung, who will be teaching Feminist Social Reproduction Theory and Radical Politics of Care, explains.

“In this class the focus is on the forms of work and labor required to produce and (re)produce modern society….and the conditions that make our contemporary ways of working possible.”

Students will explore a broad range of social reproduction theories that look at capitalism and the ways in which it functions together with neoliberalism, racism and sexism. They will also engage in conversations about gender, race, class, ability and labor through an intersectional feminist framework.     

A major focus of the class will be on caring labor because, as Saung states, “caring labor is the work that is required for our society and our workforce to reproduce itself. This can range from the quotidian and the mundane, such as cooking, cleaning, and budgeting, to the abstract and the incredibly challenging, such as bearing witness to grief, loss, happiness, and joy.”

By seeing society as a product of our labor (in several forms) and our main identity within this system as workers, students are encouraged to think critically about the kinds of systems that are, and can be produced through the work they do and how society might use its labor to bring about social change against contemporary forms of life that have led to the dispossession and devaluation of many.  

For example, in the field of caring labor it is only “through recognizing the ways in which our systems of power have historically denigrated and devalued this kind of work – which is usually done by women and femme folks of color – that we can begin to acknowledge the people who take on this labor, center their knowledge and experiences, and work towards an epistemological shift,” Saung argues.

Additional themes and questions to be addressed include:

  • How are workers at the same time produced by the societies they also help to manifest/create?
  • How is the family implicated in producing the worker?
  • How do we understand reproductive labor through international political economies, such as transnational commercial surrogacy?
  • How can we come to understand queer and trans labor within the chain of the care paradigm?

 “One of the biggest takeaways I hope students will get from the class is how to think at the level of systemic and institutional analysis. It is easy to get mired in the interpersonal, particularly when talking about the ways in which caring labor is manifested. And though the interpersonal is important, I'd also like students to come away with an understanding of how conditions are produced and reproduced through larger systems of power within the U.S….” Saung concludes.

Other classes sponsored by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies in 2020:

James Gregory, HSTAA 353: Labor and Capitalism

Jack Turner, POL S 318/319: American Political Thought From The Colonial Era To The Civil War (two quarter sequence being taught Winter 2020 and Spring 2020)

Don’t miss your chance to explore the diversity and importance of labor issues in these classes.

Registration is open NOW!