BY BARBARA EHRENREICH
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 by Cambridge University Press, $27.95..
FOR SCHOLARS OF the left, American labor history poses one large and plaintive question: Why was the American working class so inept—at least by European standards—at shaping the history of its nation? Not only did the American working class fail to fulfill its Marxist mission of overthrowing capitalism and ushering in a new social order but it also neglected the more mundane tasks of organizing a labor party and creating a decent welfare state. Worse still, it seems to have lost its memory. In the past decade and a half good union men—men whose grandfathers may have sung the “Internationale” and taken up arms against soldiers and scabs— have voted, in appalling proportions, for “the party of the bosses.”
The conventional, centrist answer is that, one, there never was an American working class and, two, it got what it wanted anyway. In this account American workers never assembled themselves into a proper European-style class but remained an immiscible brew of ethnic groupings, each bent on its own agenda of upward mobility. If they neglected to transform society, it is because capitalism did that for them— eventually providing each sober, industrious workingman with a tract house, a car, and a pension. And this account is true as far as it goes, although the tombs of the working people massacred at Ludlow, Colorado, at Homestead, Pennsylvania, and in the Little Steel strike of 1937 suggest a very different answer: that there was an American working class in the hard-edged, Marxist sense; that it put up a good fight; and that it was beaten.
Just in the past decade or so a more complex and surprising picture has begun to emerge. Dozens of young scholars, many of them graduates of the movements of the sixties, have generated a huge and dauntingly detailed new body of empirical research into our working-class antecedents. A glance at my own bookshelves, which are by no means complete in this department, shows recent studies of millworkers in Manchester, New Hampshire; Chicago meat-packers; Brooklyn longshoremen; West Virginia miners; early-ninetcenthcentury New York factory “girls"; and metalworkers generally. Much of the new scholarship simply adds color and detail to Philip Foner’s classic seven-volume labor history, but new themes have also opened up. For example, some of the recent social history highlights the role of the old working-class neighborhoods as incubators of class consciousness (and suggests, by implication, the decisive impact of the suburban diaspora of the 1950s and 1960s). Equally important, the new scholarship has begun to uncover the previously neglected“politics of the shop floor": the decades-long struggle between workers and employers over how the work should be done, how fast it should be done, and who, in principle, had the right to decide.
David Montgomery—a Yale professor who is, incidentally, not a former student activist but a former machine-tool operator—both exemplifies and transcends the recent trend toward painstakingly detailed social history. For one thing, he has undertaken a far vaster project than most contemporary labor historians would attempt: American labor activism of all varieties and locales, from the time when American workers organized the first tentative but recognizable trade unions, in the mid-nineteenth century, to the emergence of the working class as an insurrectionary force during the first two decades of the twentieth century, to its humiliating defeat in the years following the First World War. But, like a pointillist confronted with a mural-sized canvas, Montgomery fills in his story with minutely detailed cases: the iron rollers of Columbus, Ohio; the longshoremen of New Orleans; the female light-bulb assemblers of Toledo; and many more. The result may be the closest thing we have—in sweep, if not always in daring—to E. P. Thompson’s monumental book. The Making of the English Working Class.
WAS THERE, IN FACT, anything that could be called an American working class in the Marxist sense—that is, a social grouping that occasionally perceived and acted on its collective self-interest? Montgomery weighs his answer carefully. On the one hand, American industry drew on a global labor supply— Welsh miners, Chinese railroad workers, Afro-American laborers, Slavic meatpackers, Russian-Jewish factory operatives—and pressed it into an industrial hierarchy headed by craftsmen of British and German descent. The latter, who also dominated the craft unions, never fully accepted the more recent immigrants as brothers in the cause. Neither the American Federation of Labor nor the Socialist Party, which held the allegiance of hundreds of thousands of working people in the teens, ever conceived of a “working class” that would include the black woman laundry worker or the Chinese track-layer. At best, black workers could join the festivities on Labor Day, but only if they were willing to march at the end of the parade.
Yet again and again—in strikes from Turtle Creek Valley, Pennsylvania, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to bloody Ludlow, Colorado—America’s polyglot work force stood together. Hence Montgomery’s conclusion that “although it was made up of millions of individuals, dozens of nationalities and religions, several races, and two sexes, the working class was a formidable fact of American life.” It was, moreover, a class animated by “a new desire . . . a sense kindled by an unprecedented awareness of their ability to change the circumstances of their lives. . . ” At its most radical, the American working class dreamed not only of higher wages and shorter hours but also of transferring control of the factories to workers’ councils, the railroads to the railroad men, and “the mines to the miners.”
According to The Fall of the House of Labor, that dream died for many reasons—including the divisions within the working class and the increasing sophistication of employers at enlisting the power of the state. But, along with David F. Noble and other young labor historians, Montgomery locates a crucial battle on the shop floor. At one point American workers did, in a very real sense, control the factories. Skilled craftsmen understood the production process; their employers did not. So it was left to the craftsmen to organize the work, setting the pace of production at a level that would not push them to exhaustion. As Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, observed ruefully in 1911, in the nineteenth century “the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses.”
The story of how scientific management, combined with the system of mass production, reduced the American working class to a race of machinetenders and wrench-turners has been told many times, but Montgomery adds a new dialectical twist. Taylorism was introduced to break the power of the crafts and create a pliable, ignorant work force, but its effects, Montgomery says, were not so straightforward. For one thing, as Montgomery argues, the rule of the stopwatch and the slide rule meant that every step in the production process was measurable, hence negotiable and (with a union around) capable of becoming a grievance. In a sense, Taylorism did not resolve the old tensions over speed and quotas, it institutionalized them.
Furthermore, the transition to a work force of machine-tending operatives had its own, unexpected costs for employers. Compared with craftsmen, operatives were expensive to train and replace, precisely because they were ignorant of the production process. They were also hard to hold on to, because, understandably, they lacked the “manly” pride in work that had characterized the artisan tradition. “The men do not value their jobs as they should,”an Elwood, Indiana, newspaper commented in 1913. “One man recently laid off for two weeks that he might go on a fishing trip. Others have stayed home for several days at a time that they might make a garden or help with the house cleaning.”It was in response to the growing fecklessness of the work force, Montgomery suggests, that employers undertook to control the minds as well as the bodies of their workers, launching “Americanization” drives, promoting Prohibition (saloons being notorious centers of working-class sedition), sponsoring religious revivals, and developing the techniques of manipulation we have come to know generically as “management.”
The tragedy, as the labor analyst Stanley Aronowitz has argued and Montgomery’s work strongly suggests, was that the leadership of the working class was so unwilling or ill prepared to contest the employing class on the issue of power. The craft unions narrowed their demands to wages and hours without seeming to notice that the crafts were being cut away from under them. And as the unions sought to enforce their end of the contract on a footloose working class, they, too, came to affirm the virtues of stability and “Americanization” over militance and class solidarity. The result was not that the working class was “tamed” but that it came to accept the workplace as a dictatorship disconnected from American democracy: a place where the soul withers as the body tires, and where one dreams not of the coming utopia but of the end of the shift.
I WOULD HAVE LIKED Montgomery to be more forthcoming about his own conclusions, but, for all his modesty, The Fall of the House of Labor is a propheticbook. The story leaves off, in 1925, in a situation in some respects like today’s: with union membership declining, wages stagnating, and conservatism ascendant in the political realm. But the story was not over. In less than a decade labor had regrouped for the tremendous insurgencies of the thirties, when industrial workers by the tens of thousands once again struck, occupied factories, declared general strikes, and revived the dream of a better world. And perhaps this is the real answer to the mournful old question about the American working class: The story is not over yet.