Hometown: Knoxville, TN

Major: History

Senior Study Title: Hallelujah, I’m a Bum: Industrialism, Progressive Reform, and the Role of the Industrial Workers of the World as a Home for Migrant Workers

Advisor: Dr. Doug Sofer

Thesis Abstract

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” seems like an unlikely title for a serious piece of historical scholarship, but that’s exactly what Randall Puckett ’15 of Knoxville titled his senior study. The name was taken from the title of a folk song by Harry McClintock that quickly became an unofficial anthem for the Industrial World Workers of the World (IWW).

The full title of Puckett’s thesis, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum: Industrialism, Progressive Reform, and the Role of the Industrial Workers of the World as a Home for Migrant Workers,” is a mouthful, but it summarizes exactly how large and complex the scope of his project is.

“The genesis of this project was about a century long crisis in American society – industrialization. My project was to view that crisis through the lens of the least advantaged workers including itinerate miners and industrial workers,” he said.

Puckett did not know from the start that he would be focusing his studies on the IWW, but he did know that the labor movement would be a key topic in his research.

“As a child of the working class and an avid student of intellectual history, I was interested in such issues as political dissent, resistance movements, and the efficacy of collective action,” he said.

Refining focus

After studying anti-capitalists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx, and Peter Kropotkin in school, Puckett found that his interests most closely aligned with the labor movement and the working class.

Puckett’s advisor, Dr. Doug Sofer, associate professor of history, suggested such a large and complex topic makes it difficult to construct a cohesive scholarly argument that can be contained within the scope of one research project. Together they narrowed the focus to specific issues around which Puckett could focus his work.

“One of the hardest parts about writing a thesis is gauging a manageable scope for the project. One of the adviser’s most important roles is to help students ask open-ended questions that they can research and answer based on strong historical evidence over the course of two semesters,” Sofer said.

“Randall started first with a question that would have required a full-sized book—or a series of books—to answer, but after a little back and forth, he ended up getting the scope just right,” he added.

The topics Puckett and Sofer settled on were complex issues such as as resistance movements and collective action through the framework of the IWW and the Progressive Era. This allowed Puckett to explore the issues about which he is passionate without creating an overwhelmingly large project.

The IWW was founded in Chicago in 1905 as a radical labor union focused on “the emancipation of the working class from the ‘slave bondage’ of capitalism,” Puckett writes in his thesis abstract. The union was known for radicalism that attracted unskilled and migrant workers behind the banner of a unified goal and collective action, such as strikes. Though the union still exists today, the IWW peaked in power and size around 1917 when membership reached 150,000.

The questions Puckett attempted to answer center around how the IWW was viewed in society and why it appealed widely to migrant and unskilled workers.

“Social unrest became an endemic feature of industrial society, and the Progressive Era represents the first large-scale efforts to combat this crisis. Leaders of government and business often referred to these upheavals as the ‘labor problem.’ However, my thesis asserts that there were significant limits to progressive reformism. The IWW and migrant workers embody these limitations. The IWW is significant as the only labor organization in American history to seriously and consistently challenge the capitalist mode of production. It found the stratum of workers least invested in the capitalist system and least influenced by bourgeois values and aspirations,” Puckett said.

“In more practical terms, the IWW often functioned as the sole advocate for migrant workers and (through its locals and union halls) a source of social cohesion on the industrial frontier,” he added.

Scholarly contribution

Sofer pointed out that the task of researching such a complex topic and at the same time taking a full-course load requires self-discipline.

“Tackling a large research project like a thesis can be daunting. You have to write a few pages at a time, zooming in on smaller sub-topics while keeping the overarching theme of the thesis in mind the entire time. Randall met this challenge head on, chipping away at the thesis until it all came together,” Sofer said.

According to Puckett, confidence in one’s ability to handle such a project can also be a difficult part of the senior study process.

“My greatest challenge and trepidation was the pervasive concern that I was inadequate to the task. Much of labor history is, unfortunately, regarded as an obscure passage in the American experience. I hoped only to do the subject a measure of justice,” he said.

Though Puckett was at times unsure of himself, Sofer pointed out that his work advanced scholarship in the field.

“Randall’s thesis is extremely articulate and well researched. He got a very strong sense of the scholarly literature on this topic, not only by reading the books and articles that are already out there, but also by corresponding with professional historians of labor around the country. His study also brings in a wide range of primary sources, meaning that this is a genuinely original piece of historical research,” said Sofer.

Puckett, whose passion for the history of the labor movement continues, is currently applying to graduate schools where he will further pursue his research.

By Peggy Carouthers '11