Date Awarded


Document Type

Dissertation -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Cindy Hahamovitch


This dissertation examines the phenomenon of labor espionage from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1930s. Trade unionists coined the term to describe the use of undercover agents posing as workers to collect information for employers about their employees' opinions and activities. Labor spies sometimes identified union supporters and blocked organizing drives; other spies functioned more like surrogate supervisors checking on job performance.;I explore the origins of labor espionage in "spotting," undercover surveillance of railway workers by private detectives to catch theft. I argue that spotting began as a management technology to cope with large dispersed railway workforces, but managers soon saw that secret agents could also monitor workers' behavior and subvert collective action. Rail workers' unions were hamstrung by shame over worker theft and unable to exploit public sympathy to limit employers' use of undercover agents. Next, I examine the difficulties encountered by the American Federation of Hosiery Workers when they tried to systematically counter labor spies in their industry and find that the Hosiery Workers' campaign showed that no union could effectively counter labor spies, and that the union was further hampered by its inability to acknowledge that many spies came from its own ranks. Finally, I compare labor spies to Communists as undercover agents deploying similar strategies in attempts to infiltrate American unions. Unionists developed narratives of infiltration to denounce both labor spies and Communists but deployed them to different ends in the 1930s; progressives used the labor spy narrative to lobby for federal oversight of labor relations, and conservatives used the Communist narrative to attach progressives and fight expanded federal authority. Labor conservatives helped drive early American anticommunism and the rise of McCarthyism.;Trade unionists and historians have avoided a critical fact about labor espionage, that workers performed most secret surveillance. Labor espionage should be seen not just as a management tool, but as a manifestation of worker antiunionism. Rather than asking how labor espionage impaired the growth of American unions, we should ask why some workers chose to subvert collective action, and integrate worker antiunionism into our understanding of American working-class formation.



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