Workers and the State in the Progressive Era

One of the key themes of the Progressive Era was the growth of the state. The state increasingly intervened in ever more areas of society, from labor protective regulation to liquor control, from mother’s pensions and workers’ compensation to conscription. Some of these interventions—women’s suffrage, the nascent welfare state—appeared to increase democracy, while others—conscription, Jim Crow—seemed to decrease it. The democratic effects of other forms of intervention, like labor protective legislation and prohibition, were contested. But with all of these interventions, as the state grew, so too did opportunities for working people to interact with it.

In this panel, three historians will explore three sites at which workers interacted with the growing Progressive-era state. Justin Jackson starts by reminding us that the state grew not only through intervention in domestic society but also literally through colonial expansion. By linking the expansion of the state vis-à-vis labor and employment with American imperial expansion, Jackson will show how progressive ideology reached its apogee in the military labor required to rule American’s insular empire. Emily Pope-Obeda will then bring the discussion to American borders and puts the history of deportation into a labor context. By showing that the apparatus for deportation grew through state cooperation with employers and other coercive institution, she argues that we should understand deportation as a mechanism for labor control. Finally, Shelton Stromquist explores directly the question of democratic and anti-democratic reforms on a municipal level. Placing American electoral practice in comparative perspective, he will describe battles over class-based franchise restrictions and how workers succeeded and failed at accessing the electoral state in cities.

The following are the panel’s paper titles:

  • Justin Jackson, New York University — The Work of America’s Imperial State in the Progressive Era: Colonial Labor for the U.S. Army between 1898 and 1913
  • Emily Pope-Obeda, University of Illinois — The Systemization of Removal: Institutional Coordination, Efficiency, and the Growth of the Deportation State, 1907-1924
  • Shelton Stromquist, University of Iowa — The Municipal Franchise and the Fight for Urban Working-Class Citizenship in Comparative Perspective, 1890-1920

Sarah Deutsch will chair and comment on the panel.

About the Kalmanovitz Initiative

Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor develops creative strategies and innovative public policy to improve workers’ lives in a changing economy.