Spectacles of Labor: Performance and the Working Class

NEXT FRIDAY, October 2  |  1PM
Humanities Center (602 CL)

In recent years, legal attempts to limit the rights of labor unions have resulted in bills such as Wisconsin’s Act 10, which restricts the collective bargaining of public-employee unions, and “Right to Work” laws in Michigan and Indiana. The demonization of unions and workers’ rights continues to propel legislation restricting and weakening worker protections, including child labor laws, rights to sick leave, and safety protections.

Although labor’s struggle against these legislative, social, and cultural efforts is not new, the recent reenergized attacks against labor warrant an opportunity to revisit, reimagine, and theorize the ways that spectacles of labor exist as contested spaces and performative interventions in the battle for laborers’ rights. 

Labor’s struggles are particularly resonant in Pittsburgh. Its communities have engaged in some of the most famous labor disputes in our nation’s history, such the Homestead Strike, and Pittsburgh’s workers continue to fight for jobs, worker protections, and bargaining rights. Our symposium will bring together an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars from across the Pittsburgh and the US who wish to reexamine spectacles of labor on stage, screen, and the streets, the historical narratives of labor and working class culture that they create, and their resonances in this present moment of labor activism.

The symposium will examine critical questions about the ways that spectacles of labor function as sites of negotiation, revolution, and containment. Approaching labor and performance from an interdisciplinary perspective, we seek to explore how performance intervenes in working class culture and labor struggles as well as in the tensions surrounding race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the workplace.

Sites for investigation include labor unions’ performance strategies in their public demonstrations, plays and films written and performed by workers, popular culture representations of labor, and anti-labor performances, both theatrical and in every day life. How have workers and labor unions used performance to further their social, political, and cultural goals? How do these representations reveal or reconcile conflicting politics and ideologies surrounding labor? How can we use performance to locate the frequently silenced stories of laborers? What do these performances tell us about laborers as performers and the labor of performance? In what ways does a reassessment of the historiography surrounding spectacles of labor help us rethink the current problems and conflicts facing labor today?

Funded by the generous support of the Humanities Center, Year of the Humanities, Center on Race and Social Problems, Department of Theatre Arts, Department of English, and Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh and the American Society For Theatre Research.