Scandinavia and the USA are often portrayed as contrasts, characterized by separate historical developments. Scandinavia seems to differ most from American society with its post-war development towards regulated capitalism and a large welfare state. The Scandinavian countries’ strong labor movements are often credited for this. The contrast between the USA and Scandinavia, however, overshadows significant contact and exchange that took place between labor movements on either side of the North Atlantic in the decades after the Second World War. In fact, the emergence of the Scandinavian societal models cannot be fully understood without considering the powerful impulses that flowed to Scandinavia from the US during this period. And the inspiration was mutual.
Labor Entanglements across the Atlantic (LEA) sheds new light on the important connections between the organized labor movements in the United States and Scandinavia from the end of the Second World War to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as American president in 1981. LEA examines a transatlantic network of labor leaders who actively exchanged ideas, expertise, and capital in the context of the Cold War. A particular spotlight is directed at the labor movement’s formulation of a distinctive transatlantic identity and vision – a Labor’s West.
In the first decades of the post-war period, trade union work was dominated by men. Despite this, female labor leaders and activists were influential in the international arena. LEA therefore focuses on the role of female labor leaders in international gender politics in workplaces and homes on both sides of the Atlantic. LEA will examine an interwoven transatlantic labor history marked by diplomacy, cooperation and mutual exchange of societal visions and political solutions between influential American and Scandinavian labor leaders. Consequently, LEA fills significant knowledge gaps and contributes to the fruitful and diverse transnational turn in international labor history.
Within modern Scandinavian political history, organized labor routinely plays a foundational role in establishing the political structures and values today described as a Scandinvian model. Nonetheless, large gaps remain in our knowledge about Scandinavian labor’s transnational history and influences during this period, in particular its connections with the United States, the dominant western superpower of the mid-twentieth century. This project aims to expand the boundaries of both US and Scandinavian labor history by investigating the networks that Scandinavian and American labor leaders forged from 1944 to 1981 and the way that this served to affect societies on either side of the Atlantic. By using a digital map to explore the nodes, edges, and structures of Scandinavian-American connections, this project demonstrates that labor actors, more than just concerned with domestic affairs, were crucial to transnational reciprocal exchanges that facilitated ideational transmission and helped establish common visions of the future. Engaging in hitherto ignored comparisons of Scandianvian labor movements' transnational contacts with the US labor movement, including examining the role of women as participants and founders of their own labor networks, we unravel the agency of unions and labor officials to push global social change within a Cold War system. The project draws upon a rich and largely untapped pool of material to expose a complex system of exchange, cooperation, and rivalry that led to both solidarity and misunderstandings, as labor networks transferred ideas and images in the context of diverse situations and audiences. Understanding the dynamism and fluidity of transatlantic networks presents the opportunity to re-examine narratives of the Cold War and high modernity while at the same time highlighting their centrality in the development of unique transnational visions of Labor’s West.