Philip Taft (1902-1976), professor of economics, was born in Syracuse, New York, on March 22, 1902. He was very young when his father died. His mother moved to New York City and supported him by doing housework. One day, at the age of thirteen and dissatisfied with his life, he simply left home. He dropped out of sixth grade and did odd jobs to earn enough money to pay twenty cents a night at a youth hostel and to have something to eat. After hopping a freight train one day, he began to pursue the long list of occupations which would be compiled in his obituary in the Providence Journal, “an errand boy, a factory worker, a stable boy, a laborer in a utility plant, coal passer on the ore boats of the Great Lakes, harvest hand in the Midwest, potato picker, roustabout and pipe liner in the oil fields of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, mule skinner on construction jobs, longshoreman, swamper in the woods of British Columbia and Washington, and brakeman and switchman on a railroad in Chicago.” In due time he resumed his education, finished high school at night, and entered the University of Wisconsin, from which he graduated in 1932. His first job was working with Professor Selig Perlman of Wisconsin as co-author of the fourth volume of History of Labor in the United States. Taft earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in 1935 and worked as an associate economist for the Social Security Board, before coming to Brown in 1937 as assistant professor of economics. He was promoted to associate professor in 1944 and professor in 1947. He was chairman of the Economics Department from 1949 to 1953.
Taft was a well-known and respected labor historian. He was the author of numerous articles and fourteen books on the labor movement, among them, The Structure and Government of Labor Unions in 1954, The AFL in the Time of Gompers in 1957, Organized Labor in American History in 1964, and Labor Politics, American Style in 1968. In 1949 he became a consultant to the Department of Employment Security. In 1950 he was named by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors to a committee of experts on the New England economy, and in 1961 he was a member of a committee on labor-management reports set up by the U. S. Department of Labor. He retired in 1968, but kept an office in Robinson Hall and continued as before to work long hours on his research. As he said, “I’m like any workman who has a skill and enjoys using it.” He was acquainted with and respected AFL-CIO President George Meany, who he said had “a mind like a steel trap.” A letter from Meany written about two months before Taft’s death in Providence on November 17, 1976, mentioned Meany’s friendship for him and added, “Generations of students will continue to benefit from your scholarship and understanding of the economic, social and human aspects of the world of work.”