Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1927, David Montgomery was a Marxist labor historian who served many years as co-editor of the Journal of International Labor and Working Class History, which he founded in the 1970s.
Montgomery served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, including a stint with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was first developed. Following his military tour of duty, he attended Swarthmore College. There, Mongomery joined the campus chapter of Young Progressives of America, became a member of its executive committee, and eventually graduated in 1950.
Montgomery joined the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in 1951 and remained a member until 1957. As he would later recall in a 1980 interview with the _Radical History Revie_w, Montgomery left the Party, in part, because of its “stifling” intellectual atmosphere. But in the same interview, Montgomery lauded the CPUSA for having made it possible, “more than any other organization of the time [the 1950s] … to link Marxist analysis to effective daily action.”
Montgomery spent all of the 1950s as a shop-floor labor organizer, working with the United Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, and mostly (1951-60) the International Association of Machinists in St. Paul, Minnesota. Because of his Communist connections, the FBI surveilled Montgomery’s activities and caused him to be dismissed from several machinist jobs.
Even after leaving the Communist Party, Montgomery remained deeply influenced by the Marxist practice of analyzing history through the prism of class. Viewing the very existence of labor unions as a rebuke to free-market capitalism and as evidence of workers’ class-consciousness, he became convinced that “most of what was written in academic literature about the inherent conservatism of American workers … was simply untrue.”
In the late 1950s Montgomery returned to school to study history, earning both an M.A. and Ph.D. (in 1960 and 1962, respectively) from the University of Minnesota. He subsequently taught for a year at Hamline University in St. Paul, before serving on the University of Pittsburgh faculty from 1963-79. During his years in Pittsburgh, Montgomery actively supported the city’s labor unions. He was also a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies during the Vietnam War era.
Montgomery left Pittsburgh in 1979 and subsequently taught at Yale University until his retirement in 1997. During that 18-year period, he continued to be active in local labor politics. For example, he helped organize the Yale clerical workers strike of 1984 as well as other campus and union actions.
In addition to his work at Pittsburgh and Yale, Montgomery also held several teaching appointments in other countries. Specifically, he served as a senior lecturer at the University of Warwick in England (1967-69); a Fulbright lecturer at the State University of Campinas in Brazil (1986); a professor of American History at Oxford University (1986-87); and a professor of American Studies at American Institute University of Amsterdam.
Montgomery was president of the Organization of American Historians from 1999-2000, and was among the most prominent and outspoken members of Historians Against the War, which was established in 2003.
Over the course of his professional career, Montgomery authored five books: Workers’ Control in America (1979); Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872 (1981); The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (1987); Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States with Democracy and the Free Market during the Nineteenth Century (1993); and Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham (2004).
Montgomery died suddenly, of a brain hemmorhage, on December 2, 2011. In the spring of 2012, the Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians approved a new book award in the field of Labor and Working Class History, to be named after Montgomery.