Nelson was born in the state of New York and raised on Long Island. He graduated from The Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut and in 1962 from Princeton University with a degree in religion.
After graduation, Nelson moved to California where he received his master's degree in history from the University of California, Berkeley. He left academia for nine years, working as an auto worker, machine operator, warehouseman and longshoreman. Returning to Berkeley, he received a Ph.D. in 1982.
Nelson taught at Dartmouth from 1985 to 2009, where he became a full professor.
Nelson's research focuses on the formation of the concepts of class, race and nationhood in the United States and Western Europe. Most of his published research has examined these issues in the context of the American labor movement, particularly dock and steel workers' unions. In the last five years, Nelson's work has examined themes of race and class in the Irish American experience. His published works are written from the "new labor history" perspective.
Nelson's 1988 book, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930s, was widely praised as a breakthrough in the labor history of the influential West Coast dock workers' unions. The work, based on Nelson's Ph.D. dissertation, was praised as the "best analysis" of the 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike. It was cited as "an excellent example of the kind of research that is both needed and possible..." and for documenting "clearly and carefully the use of anti-communism as a subterfuge for anti-unionism." The book received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians (awarded to an author publishing his or her first book).
Nelson's second major work, Divided We Stand, expanded Nelson's interest in the formation of various concepts of "working class." The book focused again on longshoremen but expanded its scope to include workers in New York City, New Orleans and Los Angeles as well as steelworkers in the Midwest. The book was called "a landmark study of race and trade unionism":
Bruce Nelson, in line with David Roediger and others, argues that "the history of the white working class, in its majority, was one of self-definition in opposition to an often demonized racial Other [sic] and intense resistance to the quest of African Americans for full citizenship". What makes Divided We Stand unique is that, unlike heavily cultural whiteness studies that have used scant literary evidence to support sweeping theoretical claims, Nelson digs deeply into archival sources and oral interviews to describe real workers and their shop-floor experience in compelling detail.
In more recent years, Nelson has turned his attention away from labor unions and toward Irish Americans as a means of examining shifting concepts of race and class.
Nelson's book, Workers on the Waterfront, received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians in 1989.
Nelson has been named a fellow by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Dartmouth College bestowed its Distinguished Teaching Award on him in 1988, and he won the Dartmouth Class of 1962 Faculty Fellowship for excellence in scholarship and teaching.
Nelson is a member of the United Association for Labor Education and the Organization of American Historians, and the editorial board of Labor History.
Solely authored booksDivided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-691-01732-8
Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930s. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1988. ISBN 0-252-01487-1
Solely authored book chapters"'CIO Meant One Thing for the Whites and Another Thing for Us': Steelworkers and Civil Rights, 1936-1974." In Southern Labor in Transition, 1940-1995. Robert H. Zieger, ed. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1997. ISBN 0-87049-990-4
"Class and Race in the Crescent City: The ILWU, from San Francisco to New Orleans." In The CIO's Left-Led Unions. Steven Rosswurm, ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8135-1769-9
"The 'Lords of the Docks' Reconsidered: Race Relations among West Coast Longshoremen, 1933-61." In Waterfront Workers: New Perspectives on Race and Class. Calvin Winslow, ed. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998. ISBN 0-252-02392-7
Solely authored articles"Class, Race and Democracy in the CIO: The 'New' Labor History Meets the 'Wages of Whiteness'." International Review of Social History. 41 (1996).
"Irish Americans, Irish Nationalism, and the 'Social' Question, 1916-1923." boundary 2. 31:1 (Spring 2004).
"Organized Labor and the Struggle for Black Equality in Mobile during World War II." Journal of American History. 80:3 (December 1993).
"The Triumph and 'Tragedy' of Walter Reuther." Reviews in American History. 24:3 (September 1996).
"The Uneven Development of Class and Consciousness." Labor History. 32:4 (Fall 1991).
"Working Class Agency and Racial Inequality." International Review of Social History. 41 (1996).
"Zieger's CIO: In Defense of Labor Liberalism." Labor History. 37:2 (Spring 1996).