BLS and Florence Kelley

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Sat Mar 4 17:57:51 MST 1995


Re Doug Henwood's remarks in defense of the Bureau of Labor
Statistics:

Far be it from me to denigrate the BLS.  Sometimes flawed,
sometimes messed with from above, their figures on labor and the
work force are one of the few handles we have in understanding
what's happening to us.

In fact, the very existence of the BLS is a curious historical
footnote about one of the tiny victories of the socialist
movement in the U.S.

Florence Kelley was the daughter of a former Jacksonian Democrat
turned Republican congressman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who
was called "Pig Iron" Kelley for his devotion to the tariff needs
of the iron and steel industry.  Florence K. went to Switzerland
to study at the University of Zurich, which at the time (the
early 1880s) was the only university in Europe which accepted
women students.  (That's why all those Russian revolutionaries
went there, too.)  In Zurich, which was a hotbed of radical
politics, she married an exiled Polish revolutionary and was
converted to Marxism.

Kelley did the first English translation (after four decades!) of
Friedrich Engels' _The Condition of the Working Class in England
in 18(42?--don't have it in front of me)_.  That task done, she
thought it would be nice to do a work on "The Condition of the
Working Class in the United States in 1884".  When she returned
to this country, however, she found that she couldn't write her
planned book because no statistical information existed.  She
spent several decades lobbying state by state, mobilizing labor
unions, etc., to create bureaus of labor statistics, beginning
with one in Massachusetts and culminating with the national one.
Because of her work, we have the ability to track "The Condition
of the Working Class in the United States in ....", but she never
did get her own book written.

Kelley was also a pioneer "social worker" and an early consumer
advocate, and it's in those two roles that she gets her tiny
mention in the history books, but the creation of the BLS was far
more important.

Tom Condit


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