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Dissertation by James Robinson – 2020

While completing his masters work on American Communist connections with sports in the 1930s-1940s in New York City, James became interested in this topic. Robinson explained, “I believed it was a much larger phenom on but did not have time to go into it. But, I slowly unraveled the string and uncovered a massive subculture that has been largely overlooked by American historians, with connections to the Worker Sport movement in Europe.”

James says that his dissertation exposes the hidden history of how left-wing activists in the United States engaged with sports as a participatory activity for building organizational strength, morale, and outreach/influence over potential members and allies. He argues that sports programs were an essential part of successful leftwing socialist and labor organizing during the interwar period in the United States.

“My basic argument is that the Worker Sport movement in Europe not only influenced American radicals to try to imitate it in the United States in the 1920s, but inspired the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to set up Labor Sports programs by the early 1930s,” shares Robinson. “They then transported that knowledge into the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which served to explode the Labor Sports movement in the 1930s through member unions like the UAW, UE, ILWU, USA and more by the end of the 1940s.” He then looks to how the Red Scare and McCarythist attacks on the labor movement helped destroy and defang the militancy of Labor Sports.

Utilizing resources like the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archive at NYU for its collection on Communist and Socialist publications and records and immigrant History Research Center at University of Minnesota, James explored “the connections between diaspora communities, sports, and labor organizing.” James also traveled to the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at University of Michigan for connections between leftist organizers, sports, and the transition to CIO organizing. In the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University, James was able to make the connections between the Socialists and the garment workers unions in the ILGWU and ACWA. He went to the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University for its “impressive collection on the UAW and the papers of Olga Madar.” James researched the UE Records at University of Pittsburgh and the United Steelworkers Records at Pennsylvania State University. Traveling across the pond, James’ research took him to the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam for its collection on the Worker Sport movement.

James hopes that his research will inform about the long connections between social change and sports from the bottom up. Historiographically, James believes that the arguments explore an aspect of the interwar subcultures that has been underexplored. With his dissertation, James sought to demonstrate how these movements were destroyed by first fascism and later the Red Scare.

As he plans to move back to his home city of Philadelphia upon earning his PhD, James also hopes to get involved with the adjunct union there. He also has plans to start a neighborhood tour company and publish his dissertation into a book.