Dana M. Caldemeyer, author of Union Renegades: Miners, Capitalism, and Organizing in the Gilded Age answers questions about her influences, discoveries, and common misconceptions while writing her book.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
I started researching this project because I was curious about why workers might not have been interested in joining a union. I had read lots of labor history books that described successful movements and how those movements faded, but nothing really looked closely at the workers’ opinions. I wanted to add something to the literature that would shed light on the individuals who didn’t always go to union meetings or pay union dues. I hoped it would give insight into workers’ conservatism today.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
My biggest influences were my family. Growing up, most of my family was what would be classified as “blue collar.” My dad told me stories about how he’d work in the summer to put up hay—he and his brothers were always cobbling incomes together. Even today I have relatives who still farm and work in the coal industry on the side. So, my family really gave me a way to understand how working class families in the nineteenth century viewed job opportunities and this was something that wasn’t really explained in the labor history books I read. When it came to researching and writing, historian Herbert Gutman had a huge influence on me. I was introduced to his work as an undergraduate and his deep research style was a great guide as I tried to answer my questions regarding rural work in the late nineteenth century.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
I think for me the most interesting discovery was just how much you could learn from the workers by the letters they wrote. These letters really helped me to envision how they saw the world, what made them angry, what worried them, and what they thought was funny. The letters provided a kind of richness to the research process that I really wasn’t expecting.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
I hope readers will have a clearer picture of labor organizing after reading my book. It’s tempting to think that folks back then were more likely to follow unions than today, but that’s not quite the case. My book also shows how common it was for individuals to work in multiple occupations throughout the year. We often think of occupations as a job that a person works year-round, but since a lot of jobs in the nineteenth century were seasonal, people moved between occupations frequently.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
One of my main goals of writing this book was to show some of the challenges labor organizers faced when trying to build up their unions. I think the experiences back then can help shed light on present-day conservatism among the working class. The occupations might be different, but many of the problems organizers faced back then are still relevant today. I hope readers will use my book help understand trends in working-class conservatism and radicalism.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so when it comes to reading and watching things for fun, I kind of gravitate to that genre. My guilty pleasure reading would have to be anything by James Rollins. His stories are always entertaining and, often, history saves the day.