Expanding the study of labor history

Leon Fink

Leon Fink: traveling through time with research. Photo: Grant Therkildsen

This year, UIC honors 10 outstanding researchers with the Researcher of the Year Award, a $5,000 cash prize. Five established faculty members were named Distinguished Researchers and five early career scientists were honored as Rising Stars.

Leon Fink
Distinguished Researcher

“Research is a poor man’s way to travel, both figuratively and literally,” said Leon Fink, distinguished professor of history.

“You travel in time, space and to new worlds. That has been part of the fun for me.”

Over his 41-year career as a labor historian, Fink has produced five authored books, four edited or co-edited books, nearly 50 articles and many book reviews.

His reputation comes “not just from the amount and high quality of his research and publication, but from the expansiveness of his definition of the field of labor history and of the significance in American history that he gives to the study,” wrote Michael Perman, professor emeritus of history and research professor emeritus in the humanities, in nominating Fink for the award.

Fink’s research expanded labor history with the groundbreaking 2011 book Sweatshops at Sea: Globalized Industry from 1812 to the Present.

Fink, a native of the landlocked city of Indianapolis, joked that a life-long affinity for the sea was inspiration to explore maritime and transnational labor.

“More seriously, I saw it as the first global industry and occupation,” he said.

“It’s an industry that almost by definition crossed borders and connected people from different parts of the world together, including the labor force.”

The Gilded Age and Progressive Era continues to interest Fink, who is working on a book tentatively titled The American Way of Class War: Labor Capital, and the Thwarting of the Progressive State, 1880-1920.

The volume, part of the Princeton University Press series America and the World, compares labor governance and conflict resolution in countries around the world.

Fink, who joined UIC in 2000, is founding editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. He created a graduate concentration in history, Work, Race and Gender in the Urban World.

“We’re really interested in the relation of ordinary people to the larger politics of the nation and to the key institutions of the country,” he said.

“The study of labor history still involves an engagement with the importance of worker organizations, particularly labor unions and legislation that affects working people, but it also involves the whole question of democratic access to power and general welfare of ordinary people.”

Other Researchers of the Year

Natasha Devroye: Rising Star, Natural Sciences & Engineering 

Xiaoping Du: Distinguished Researcher, Basic Life Sciences 

Stacie Geller: Distinguished Researcher, Clinical Sciences 

Rachel Havrelock: Rising Star, Humanities 

Seungpyo Hong: Rising Star, Basic Life Sciences

Bing Liu: Distinguished Researcher, Natural Sciences & Engineering 

Ben Superfine: Rising Star, Social Sciences 

Krista Varady: Rising Star, Clinical Sciences 

Maria Varelas: Distinguished Researcher, Social Sciences 

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Faculty, Research