“Hurrah for the Time Man!” Tribute to David Montgomery (1927-2011)

The labor historians of the 1960s were born into the culture of unity forged in the working-class movement’s classical phase, between 1890 and 1945. In one form or another, they told the story of this era, not realizing how radically it might come undone.

Gabriel Winant

Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life
by Tobias Higbie

To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice
by Jessica Wilkerson

Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in the Durban and San Francisco Bay Area
by Peter Cole

I didn’t know David Montgomery, but I feel connected to him. A leading scholar of American labor history in the 1970s and 1980s, Montgomery shaped the whole field of which I’m a junior member. He wrote classics on workers’ control of production and the sources of class consciousness at the turn of the century. He mentored dozens of graduate students, many now prominent historians. He was a Marxist, an internationalist, and an ally of the workers’ movement all his life—someone who only went to graduate school after the FBI hounded him from factory to factory through the 1950s, stamping out the pockets of solidarity he left behind.

When he died, I had the chance to go to his memorial in January 2012, because I was a couple years into graduate school at Yale, where Montgomery had closed out his career as a happy class warrior. I’ve still never been to any event quite like it. Half of Yale’s Battell Chapel was full of eminent academics; the other half, working-class New Haveners who knew Montgomery as a perennial presence on their picket lines. One older eulogist came to the pulpit in his T-shirt from the International Association of Machinists (IAM), which had been Montgomery’s union before his academic career. With apparent frustration, the machinist said something like, “The worst mistake our union ever made was red-baiting out guys like Dave. The only reason he went to graduate school was because he was forced out of the IAM. But it wasn’t particularly his desire to be an academic or to be associated with you. He didn’t belong to you all. He belonged to us.”

The machinist then slyly repeated a story Montgomery had told him once, a narrative from the early twentieth century that the historian had reconstructed: a scientific management engineer has come into a metal shop to time the workers and speed them up. And the workers, of course, are hassling this college boy however they can. Then, the engineer climbs up on a catwalk to look at something, slips, and tumbles into a vat of molten metal. Seeing him vaporized, the workers on the floor give up a cheer: “Hurrah for the time man!” When the punch line landed, half the chapel gasped; half erupted in laughter….