When people first met him, they were sometimes confused or fooled. Surely this mild-mannered, shy, even a bit socially awkward man couldn’t be the great David Montgomery, the towering figure at the top of US labor history? I remember once in 1985 I got a ride to a labor history conference in Vancouver from a retired union carpenter. On the way home he told me he’d had a nice unassuming chat with David over breakfast. He’d been completely stunned when that same man later emerged as the conference’s fire-breathing keynote speaker, knocking everyone’s socks off with a tale of workers’ activism that made you feel down in your bones that working people could, in fact, run the world.
Born in 1927, David Montgomery was part of the generation of Communist historians that included E.P. Thompson and many others, who left the Party in 1956 and `57 but refused to turn anti-Communist. Instead, they turned to writing labor and working-class history as a way to proclaim their ongoing faith in working people. Rejecting the orthodox notion of workers as mere mechanical vectors in the inevitable march forward of Marxist history, they plunged into the rich and contradictory lives and aspirations of actual working people.
In the US that project, eventually known as the "New Labor History," expanded to include other pioneers including David Brody, Herbert Gutman, and Alice Kessler-Harris, and then blossomed as generations of labor and social historians took to the field in the 1970s, 80s and beyond. It seems obvious or even boring to say it now, but they blasted apart the earlier notion that labor history could be reduced to studying collective bargaining contracts or the machinations of labor leaders. Today we take it for granted that "labor history" encompasses a vast range of working people and their collective actions of every sort.
Of all those who shared that intellectual and political project, though, David Montgomery was in a class by himself. For so many of us–and not just his former graduate students such as myself–he was the deep moral center of the whole project of reviving and celebrating labor history in this country. To confer an official title from the Knights of Labor, the ubiquitous social movement of the late nineteenth century that David loved so much, he was the Grand Master Workman.
Two deep strands wove together at his core. First and foremost was his extraordinary passion for history. It was stunning quite how much he had packed into his head, how voracious his sheer accumulationist enthusiasm for whatever he, or any of us, might be currently researching. He’d hand out lists of possible paper topics full of unknown figures or organizations the enticing but obscure importance of which only he could fathom: "Who was Father McGlynn?" "What was the Home Club?" When I got my first real job in Binghamton, New York, he informed me jauntily in a letter: "You will now be living in the country’s second-largest Carpatho-Ruthenian community."
Dan Letwin, a fellow student who served as Assistant Editor of International Labor and Working-Class History, the journal David edited for many years, remembers he would read a manuscript that had been submitted for publication and think, "What a mess." Montgomery, though, would arrive exulting, "Isn’t this fascinating!?!," riveted by whatever nugget of historical information or insight he’d extracted from it.