Professor Ahmed White was recently awarded Princeton University’s Industrial Relations Section’s 2022 Richard A. Lester Book Award for his book, “Under the Iron Heel: The Wobblies and the Capitalist War on Radical Workers.” Each year, the Lester award honors the book making the most critical contribution toward understanding the problems of Industrial Relations, labor market policies, and the evolution of labor markets and public policies.
“I am, to say the least, honored that my book has been recognized with the Lester Prize,” White said. “Researching and writing a book like this is a lengthy and, in many ways, difficult and sometimes intellectually lonely undertaking that gives little confirmation along the way that you, the writer, are doing something good and important. To emerge from that and receive a prize like this is therefore especially gratifying.”
In “Under the Iron Heel,” White documents the torrent of legal persecution and extralegal, sometimes lethal violence that shattered the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In so doing, he reveals the remarkable courage of those who faced this campaign, lays bare the origins of the profoundly unequal and conflicted nation we know today, and uncovers disturbing truths about the law, political repression, and the limits of free speech and association in class society.
“I’ve been interested in the IWW since I was a young man, and I’ve written about the union and its members, the Wobblies, as they were called, on and off for over two decades,” White shared. “One thing that drew me to finally write this book about the Wobblies was the romance that inheres in their story. Something really captivates me about these people, who spent their lives wandering about, riding the rails, trying to change the world, and also the kind of work they did, which is quite familiar to me, given my own upbringing. “
White shared that there is another side to this story that also captivated him, which is about how these people suffered, yet met repression with such dignity and grace. This struck a familiar note for him, as White’s father was a civil rights lawyer and activist.
“He [my father] and other members of my family and community suffered for what they tried to accomplish, and received little validation from a society that, for all its preoccupations with racial justice, remains untrue to its commitments to equality.”
The perspective “Under the Iron Heel” adds to the legal field is vast and multifaceted. White hopes that those who read this book will find in it a tragic and cautionary tale about the realities of class rule in our society—one that makes clear the true character of our political and legal system. More broadly, though, White emphasized that this book is about law and the legal system. It brings to the surface uncomfortable truths about how our courts, politicians, intellectuals, and constitutional order have been captive to the interests of the wealthy and the manipulations of progressive reformers.
“In this light, and in light of what’s happening in our world today, I hope I’ve provided truly decent and well-meaning people ample grounds to worry, whatever their ideological commitments,” White said. “And maybe this worry will inspire better, more thoughtful work on topics like the First Amendment, where a lot of what scholars are writing these days is conspicuously short on any kind of historical consciousness.”
“Under the Iron Heel,” was also named a co-recipient of the International Labor History Association Book of the Year Award for 2022. White currently has two similar books in the works, including one that is nearly a direct spinoff of “Under the Iron Heel,” and another that explores an important but often forgotten rebellion among hard-pressed Midwest farmers in the early 1930s.
The University of Colorado Law School is grateful to have White—his scholarship and deep engagement—as a part of our community and look forward to the continued impact his work will have in the years to come. Congratulations, Professor White, on this remarkable achievement!