: 1st Conference of the European Labour History Network (ELHN)

Within the framework of constructing a  cultural history of the worlds of work "seen from below", this workshop suggests studying workers' writings on the European level. 

By "workers' writings", we mean the body of texts produced by working men and women: those writings produced in the heat of political and/or trade union action such as leaflets, weapons for action which reflect (often, though not always) the appropriation of political or union cultures, but which are also cries of revolt against "the factory order" and/or the political regime, as well as texts written in retrospect, such as autobiographies, memoirs, personal diaries and factory journals, literary and poetic texts.  These are so many "memories of work" made up of gestures, places and practices of solidarity, but also the desirefor liberation or at least an empowerment which is not only collective but also individual. 

Through diverse case studies, we propose three axes of reflection for discussion:  

  • Studying workers' writings as responses to a range of discourses employed by the powerful about workers, most often of a degoratory nature or aiming to stigmatise their alleged behaviour.  Worker writers who have read or heard these judgments reject these discourses in various ways, even in an implicit fashion.  In this way, these writings may also constitute "political acts" in themselves and means of empowerment.

  • Understanding the reasons and conditions for working men and women to engage in writing.  In other words, it will be important to consider how these individuals, carriers (or not) of a workers' culture transmitted by their social and familial world, armed (or not) with an ideological and "romantic" baggage typical of political and trade union  requirements, and with ideas "poached" from more personal reading, moved from a political/trade-union workers' culture to a "literary" workers' culture.  How did they move from writing pamphlets and speeches to other forms of writing? What books and authors who can be considered as "models" or points of reference? Can we identify any "cultural smugglers"? 

  • Taking account also of writings by working men and women who did not engage with or support political parties or trade unions.  What do these texts suggest about the limits of the reach and appeal of the organised labour movement?  What experiences and values were shared between militant, "engaged" workers and their non-militant, "apolitical" fellows, and what differentiated them?  What role did writing play in the lives of the latter group?

  • Starting from thematic and formal analyses of workers' writings, to proceed to comparisons on a European level.  We can pose the question whether the European labour movement has built a common universe of militant workers' writings.  We can also examine the autonomy of the writings of skilled workers of the generation of 1968 in relation to the labor movement: is the emergence of the emancipatory 'I' limited to these years, and is it a widespread process in all workers' communities in Europe.

These approaches also allow discussion of the effects of these experiences of writing on individuals and therefore on the evolution of worker and/or militant identities at the European level (in the 19th and 20th centuries) 

Workshop languages: English and French. 

We invite you to send an abstract of your contribution (200 words maximum) to the organisers: 

Timothy Ashplant, Centre for Life-Writing Research, King's College London, t.g.ashplant@kcl.ac.uk 

Nathalie Ponsard, Université Blaise Pascal de Clermont-Ferrand, nat.ponsard@wanadoo.fr 

Deadline: 30 June 2015