SOC 266 A: Introduction to Labor Studies

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Meeting Time: 
TTh 11:30am - 12:50pm
EEB 125
Joint Sections: 
POL S 249 A, HSTCMP 249 A
Michael Beyea Reagan

Syllabus Description:





Instructor:      Dr. Michael Reagan       

Teaching Assistants: Grace Reinke

                                     Mike Brown


Course Description: Welcome to Intro to Labor Studies and the University of Washington. This course is designed to introduce you to both field of historical sociology as a discipline including specific critical thinking skills, and the content of labor history and political economy; the people, events, and ideas that produced our world today. More specifically, we will be looking at the material and cultural constructions of work and labor, through the frame of “class” studies.

The content of the course will cover the varieties of modern labor systems from slavery, to the origins of industrial capitalism, and on to our own structures of work and labor. This is a big expanse, and we will not be able to cover everything. Instead, we are going to focus on particular moments, themes, and ideas. This interdisciplinary course therefore focuses on work and workers, with particular attention to the way politics, law, and collective action shape how work is performed and compensated. The focus is primarily on the United States, but some attention is also given to conditions in other countries. The class offers perspectives on the formation, internal organization, and influence of worker organizations in different industries, national settings, and historical periods. The course puts current conditions in historical perspective by considering changes over time in technology and labor processes; international political economy; the racial, gender, and skill composition of the labor force; state repression and state tolerance of collective action; and employer opposition to unions and workers' rights. The course concludes by looking at some current efforts to resist unfair working conditions and assert worker voice in the workplace.


Learning the methodology of historical sociology is important. Interrogating sources, developing analysis, and crafting your ideas are skills that take practice. We will also work on developing arguments of historical and sociological causation. Above all we will be in a constant process of reading, writing, and asking questions. These are the building blocks of critical thinking, and this will undoubtedly help you in your future course work as a university student, but more than this, the process of history helps us develop essential skills that are broadly applicable. Ultimately, the process of historical discovery is also a process of self-discovery. It is a process of discovering your own ideas about our world, about how we got here, and what we can do to make it a better place. Therefore my hope is that as better historical and critical thinkers, you’ll be happier, stronger, and more engaged social and historical agents.

In addition to a substantial reading load, you will be writing essays based on primary and secondary source materials. Participation and engagement in class discussion is vitally important; the expectation is that every one of you has something to contribute, and the more you engage in the work of the class, the richer the class discussions will be. There will be a midterm exam and a final exam, occasional in-class writing assignments, and weekly reading responses. There will also be three essays due throughout the quarter.


Finally, if we are to succeed in our goals for this course we must work together to create a collaborative, inclusive and respectful learning culture. This course necessarily involves discussion of controversial and sensitive political and economic issues. It is important that discussion be open to a wide range of perspectives. It is important for everyone to feel comfortable participating in discussions. Learning will be facilitated if all class participants work to engage in class discussions with respect and empathy for our colleagues. Contradictory views are encouraged, and can contribute to learning as long as everyone remains open to new information and willing to learn from people with different perspectives and life experiences. It is essential to avoid inflammatory, derogatory and insulting words and personal attacks. Such conduct inhibits learning and prevents the free exchange of ideas. I look forward to getting to know you and working together this year.




  • To develop strong writing and critical thinking skills
  • To develop the practice of asking productive, conceptual questions
  • To learn how to participate effectively and contribute meaningfully to class discussion
  • To practice and develop reading comprehension
  • To understand the work of historical and sociological scholarship
  • To develop effective study habits and to learn how to ask questions and get help
  • To be an independent scholar and yet to be collegial with others
  • To develop a basic introductory understanding of Labor Studies



  • To come to class each day prepared and ready to engage in the work
  • To turn in all work complete and on time
  • To provide fellow students with helpful feedback and constructive criticism
  • To take responsibility for one’s own learning, and our collective learning environment
  • To be respectful of others’ views even if profoundly different from your own



There will be three essays over the course of the term. These will range in length from around three pages to up to six. All work must be typed, double-spaced, with standard margins.

Please use Chicago Style Format for your essays; there is a tutorial on the Chicago Style on the class Canvas site (via the UW Libraries tab).


You have two options regarding your essay assignments. In both options, you are required to write your first two essays as argumentative, scholarly articles based on the reading material from the class. These essays will be at least 3 pages in length each. The main emphasis in these papers will be to develop your own unique argument and interpretation of the materials from class.  For your third essay you will have a choice. 


Your first option is an 8 page research paper on a topic of your choice from the themes of the class.  In this paper you will have to engage with at least three scholarly sources on the topic of labor and again develop a unique argumentative essay on your topic. This project will require significant research and time at the UW library on your part. You should begin this assignment in the first weeks of the quarter, and we will ask you to turn in preparatory assignments in advance including your topic choice, a paper outline with your sources, and an introductory paragraph with your thesis. Your other choice is to participate in a service learning placement this quarter and write a 3 page reflection on your experience.


SERVICE LEARNING OPTION: Students have the option of participating in service learning through the Carlson Center. Students who pursue this option will volunteer with a local labor or social justice advocacy organization. Students choosing this option will complete an alternative (shorter) Third Written Assignment. To pursue this option, students need to:

1) Sign up for one of the service learning positions for this course through with the Carlson

Leadership and Public Service Center by Thursday, January 11.

2) Work 30-35 hours with an organization during the quarter.

Students choosing the service learning option will substitute a different assignment for the regular Third Written Assignment. The substitute assignment will be explained in more detail in a prompt. It will involve:

  1. a) Three 1-page logs/descriptions of your service learning work. One will be due before

the midterm, a second due by the end of February and the third by March 8.

  1. b) One 3-page paper that reflects on the service learning experience and analyzes the experience in relation to course material.

There are a limited number of service learning positions available. More information about the

service learning option will be presented on the first day of class.


Weekly Reading and Discussion Assignments

A central component of this course is discussion. It is important that our conversations revolve around your own questions and not just mine. As you are reading the material, not only should you be sorting through the ideas in the text, the way in which those ideas are expressed, and in general coming to an understanding of the text, but you should also be asking questions: what is the central argument or idea from a text? How does this writer’s ideas compare with another’s? What does the author’s argument reveal about the values and attitudes of the time? What is confusing about this text, what is problematic, what is beautiful? How does this text inform our understanding of the historical period we are studying?


Asking questions is the scholar’s most fundamental task. Bringing one or two of those questions to the table in class discussion is your responsibility as a member of our community of scholars. To help facilitate this process, you will have weekly reading and discussion assignments.  These assignments will be on the Canvas site, and you will be expected to turn yours in on Canvas; there is no need, with the reading responses, to provide me with a physical copy. Finally, there will also be occasional ungraded in-class writing assignments.



The midterm exam will be 90 minutes in length. You will be given study questions one week before the exam to help you organize your review; there will also be an in-class exam review. The exam will consist of short answers and an essay question, with some choice. This is an in-class exam. You will need to bring a “blue book” with you to write in. These are sold in many cafes and kiosks on campus. Let me know if you have documented test-taking anxiety or any other impairment that might affect your ability to take in-class tests, and we will work together to figure out a solution.


Plagiarism and Academic Integrity

The process of learning is hard, and sometimes students are tempted to take shortcuts in the form of plagiarism. However, any student who uses words, ideas, or sources without proper citation will be given a failing grade and reported for further action in line with the University’s policies. We will talk more about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. See the University’s policy here:

Use of the Canvas site

We will be making use of Canvas, an on-line system that allows for easy transmission and organization of assignments and other materials. You will be sent an invitation to join the site, and thereafter will have access to the Intro to Labor Studies site.  You will turn in work and check the site for information. However, most of our communication will be via email or in person.


Assignments and Grading Policies

Within our class I will be using an evaluative tool, the UW’s decimal grading system

(0.0-4.0), for much of your assigned work. Exams and major papers will receive such a grade.

The weekly reading responses will not – they will receive a plus, check, or minus, with comments.  Late work is not accepted for a grade. If you need to ask for an extension of a due date, you must see me before the due date and make your case. Additionally, no electronic devices are allowed in the classroom, including phones, laptops, tablets, or other devices except by special permission.


We will not accept late work without documented medical or personal emergency.

If you miss one major assignment, exam or essay, you automatically fail the class.


I encourage students to make use of the Political Science Writing Center. Information about the writing center is available at:




Course Packet (available at Professional Copy and Print, on the Ave)


Class Schedule and Assignments


Week 1 Jan 4

Course Introduction: From Labor to Class

Central Question: What is labor, work, and class?

Readings: Poetry from the Foxconn workers, Xu Lizhi and others

E.P. Thompson, excerpts from The Making of the English Working Class

Active Reading and Notation Handouts

Assignment: Due Thursday, Jan 4th  – Weekly Reading Response


Week 2 Jan 8

The Labor Theory of Value & Liberalism: Indigeneity, Empire, Conquest, and Colonialism

Central Question: What defines liberal capitalism in theory and practice? Why?

Readings: John Locke, excerpts from Two Treaties on Government, (Course Reader)

Alexis de Tocqueville, excerpts from Democracy in America, (Course Reader)

Wilhelm von Humboldt, excerpts from The Limits of State Action, (Course Reader)

Assignment: Due Thursday, Jan 11th – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 3 Jan 15

Slavery as System of Labor

Central Question: Why did chattel slavery develop?

Readings: Edmund Morgan, excerpts from American Slavery . . .  (Course Reader)

Olaudah Equiano, excerpts from An Interesting Narrative, (Course Reader)

John Harrower, excerpts from his diary, (Course Reader)

Assignment: Due Thursday, Jan 18th – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 4 Jan 22

Gender and the First Industrial Revolution

Central Question: Why were women the first industrial workforce?

Readings: Michael Reagan, excerpt from Band of Sisters, (Course Reader)

Gould, Schieder, and Geier, What is the Gender Pay Gap?, (Course Reader)

Assignment: First Paper Assignment Due: Tuesday, Jan 23rd

Due Thursday, Jan 25th – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 5 Jan 29

Workers Movements: Origins of a Critique

Central Question: What were the emerging views of Industrial Capitalism? Why?

Readings: Pierre Joseph Proudhon, excerpts from What is Property?

Karl Marx, excerpts from The Communist Manifesto and The Critique of Political Economy

Assignment: Due Thursday, Feb 1st – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 6 Feb 5

Class Violence and the State: Haymarket and the Paris Commune

Central Question: Why have labor struggles proven so violent? Is there a “permanent antagonism?”

Readings: Carolyn Eichner, excerpts from Surmounting the Barricades: Women in The Paris Commune

Lucy Parsons, biography and selected writings

Assignment: Midterm Exam: Tuesday, Feb 6th  

Due Thursday, Feb 8th – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 7 Feb 12

New Deals: Social Democracy and a New Direction for the State

Why was unionization successful during the Great Depression?

Readings: Boyer & Morais, excerpts from Labor’s Untold Story (Course Reader)

Mike Davis, excerpts from Prisoners of the American Dream, (Course Reader)

Assignment: Due Thursday, Feb 15th – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 8 Feb 19

Labor, Race, and Gender

Central Question: Why did civil rights and women rights become major domestic issues in the post-war period?

Readings: Silvia Federici, excerpts from Wages for Housework , (Course Reader)

Mai Ngai, excerpts from Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Martin Luther King, Jr., excerpts from All Labor Has Value,

Assignment: Second Essay Assignment Due Tuesday, Feb 20th

Due Thursday, Feb 22nd – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 9 Feb 26

40 Years a Neoliberal

Why did the New Deal consensus begin to fall apart in the 1980s?

Readings: Peter Rachleff, excerpts from Hard Pressed in the Heartland, (Course Reader)

Lewis Powell, Confidential Memorandum: Attack of American Free Enterprise System

Assignment:  Due Thursday, Mar 1st  – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 10 Mar 5

Work and Class in Modern America

Is class still a relevant category of analysis?

Readings: Pew Research, “How Wealth Inequality has Changed,”

Keeanga Yamhatta Taylor, excerpts from From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,

Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism

Assignment: Final Essay Assignment Due Tuesday, Mar 6th

Due Thursday, Mar 8th  – Weekly Reading Response Paper


Week 11: Final EXAM date TBD



Resources and Opportunities

Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies

The Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies promotes the study of labor by supporting research, teaching, and community outreach. The Center is also a resource for students who are looking to learn more about the study of labor, or who are looking to find ways to become involved in the labor movement. Please consider utilizing the Bridges Center as a source of help, feedback or information as you plan your final papers and/or participate in service-learning.

For more information, resources, and upcoming events in Labor Studies, feel free to visit the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies Office in Smith Hall, Rooms M266 and M268, or visit the Center website: .

You may also sign-up for the Bridges Center e-mail newsletter, “Labor Talks,” sent once a month with the latest Labor Studies news, events, grant and scholarship opportunities, and more. To receive the newsletter, e-mail with "join e-mail list" in the subject.

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Labor Studies Minor

The Labor Studies minor brings together a series of courses on labor in core social-science departments. It provides students an interdisciplinary program of study focusing on the importance of labor to the economic, social, political, and cultural evolution of modern societies.

To complete a Minor in Labor Studies, students must complete the following requirements:

  1. HIST 249/POL S 249/SOC 266: Introduction to Labor Studies (This class!) or HISTAA 353: Class, Labor, and American Capitalism
  2. 20 additional credits in courses relating to labor studies, with no more than 10 credits in any one department. For a full list of classes that qualify, visit:
  3. A minimum 2.0 grade in all classes applied towards the Labor Studies Minor.


Best Undergraduate Paper in Labor Studies Prize

Papers written for this class can be submitted for the Best Undergraduate Paper Prize awarded every year by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, which recognizes the best paper written on a labor-related topic during the current academic year (2017-2018). Each winning paper will garner its author a prize of $500. The papers must have been written during the current academic year (2017-2018) at one of the University of Washington campuses.

Papers may focus on any dimension of United States or international labor, including class relations, social conditions, working-class culture or politics, work and gender, work and race/ethnicity, unions, and comparative labor relations. They may be e-mailed to .

Deadline: End of Spring 2018, although papers may be submitted at any time.


Catalog Description: 
Conceptual and theoretical issues in the study of labor and work. Role of labor in national and international politics. Formation of labor movements. Historical and contemporary role of labor in the modern world. Offered: jointly with HSTCMP 249/POL S 249.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 9:11pm