An authority on the history of New York City’s labor unions, Joshua Freeman has taught at Queens College since 1997. He is also on faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center and at CUNY’s Joseph A. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.
Dubbed “the dean of New York labor historians,” Joshua B. Freeman says, “I like explaining things.” He does so with a scholar’s care and a storyteller’s flair. In epic histories, the professor of history compellingly explains social movements from local to global.
Freeman’s first solo book, In Transit (1988), chronicled New York’s TransportWorkers Union from its radical birth in the Depression to the crippling 1966 transit strike. Working-Class New York (2000) attests to the enormous influence of everyday workers in shaping a world-class city. American Empire, published in summer 2012 as part of the Penguin History of the United States, considers how a postwar nation that rose to the peak of its power now faces the need for re-invention. American Empire is “so broad and aimed at such a broad audience,” Freeman relates. “The Wall Street Journal slammed it; the Boston Globe loved it.”
Freeman joined QC’s faculty in 1997. A former coordinator of QC’s Labor Studies Program, he teaches not only on campus but also in Manhattan at the CUNY Graduate Center and at CUNY’s Joseph A. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. Many of his students there are public sector employees, and “unions have transformed their lives,” he notes.
At QC last spring, Freeman invited his students to talk about war’s impact personally. Their stories poured forth: having a father who is a Vietnam veteran . . . siblings serving in Iraq . . . fleeing a war-torn land. Teaching, Freeman says, opens “windows into worlds I otherwise would not experience.”
The working-class milieu is one Freeman knows well. He tells of growing up in Little Neck with “extraordinarily well-read parents who were examples of what a public university made possible for children of working people.” As a physiological psychology major at Harvard University, he came to realize that lab research “wasn’t my cup of tea.” After graduating in 1970, he “scuffled along” for six years: “I drove a cab, worked at a plastic pumpkin factory, did computer programming” before earning a history PhD. In the mid-1980s, Freeman assisted renowned labor historian Herbert Gutman on a social history project at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Union groups, media, museums, and documentary-makers readily call upon his expertise. Freeman also has been a resource for QC student groups “involved with the plight of exploited workers.” He observes, “It is really admirable that students at Queens can project themselves into a situation of workers making baseball caps overseas under terrible conditions, and use whatever leverage they have to improve those conditions.”
For Americans, “One of the great achievements of the labor movement and social reform is that we get to retire,” Freeman notes. At 63, he is in no hurry to join this movement. Energized by his students and colleagues, he enthusiastically labors on.
Book he’s reading: Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, “a great classic.”
Musical tastes: Handel, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane. “Late in life I have become a serious opera fan.”