Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990
The Fall of the House of Labor By David Montgomery Cambridge University Press, 1987 (494 pages), $13.95 paperback.
THE PUBLICATION OF David Montgomery’s latest book, The Fall of the House of Labor, has quite properly been treated as a major event. Montgomery is the preeminent historian of American labor both for his own work and the growing accumulation of the work of his students. With David Brody and the late Herbert Gutman, he helped to form and give direction to the “New Labor History,” abandoning the overwhelming concern of older labor historians with the institutions of the labor movement and moving in the direction of writing the history of the class, rather than its institutions and leaders.
Some of the new historians emphasized working-class culture, others ethnicity and race, others the life of workers in production Montgomery’s great strength was that, although he did not exclude other aspects of working-class life and struggle, his work was solidly grounded in the process of production, where after all, the class is created.
The subtitle of the book is “The workplace the State and American labor activism, 1865-1925.” Montgomery makes it clear, however, that he does not intend a comprehensive history of the period. He has deliberately left out major struggles and events that have been widely treated: Haymarket, the Knights of Labor, the massive strike wave of 1877, and so on. But he has begun in this book the necessary work of consolidating and informing the studies of new aspects of working-class history that have begun to appear in monographs in recent years.
Montgomery begins his study at the workplace. He shows the changing character of workplace struggles, as the nature of work and class structure and practice of industry change. He indicates the importance of ethnicity, of gender, of race, although his treatment of these themes is far from definitive. And he relates the changes in managerial practice and working- class activity to underlying economic developments.
The Fall of the House of Labor will be a new point of departure in the discussion of the American working class, but it has certain problems and limitations.
The economic analysis is less than convincing. Basing himself in large part on the analysis in Segmented Work, Divided Workers by David M. Gordon, Richard Edwards and Michael Reich, Montgomery says:
“In this final stage in the development of competitive industrial capitalism [1874 to 1899], ever larger inputs of human toil failed to generate corresponding increases in output. Second, chronic deflation and staggering cycles of boom and bust forced employers to undertake an intensive search for labor that was cheaper and could be more tightly controlled. In that quest they encountered a working class that was becoming not only steadily larger but also more articulate and self-assertive.” (51-2)
To describe the last quarter of the nineteenth century in this way requires a lot more analytical support than Cordon, Edwards and Reich give it. This is the period of huge technological advances in steel, electricity, chemicals. This is the period that historians have labeled the Gilded Age because of the growing size and affluence of the middle and upper classes. And this is the period in which Montgomery refers to the steel industry’s “rapid development” (44) and “such ‘prodigious’ profits as had made Carnegie ‘ashamed’” (45).
The huge strike waves of 1877, the 1880s and 1890s and the continuing struggle for control on the shop floor seems to me to be more than adequate explanation for the attempts of employers to gain control over their workers. I think, also, there is a general problem in using national average statistics in a period in which new industries are appearing, some industries are growing and others are stagnant or in decline.
Workers’ Activity, Managers’ Science
Working-class political activity is an integral part of Montgomery’s tale, as he observes that “the intellectual dichotomy of reformism versus revolutionary activity obscures, rather than clarifies, the ideology of these workers” (389).
The use of the term “ideology,” rather than, say, activity, makes me uneasy, but the point is most important. First, workers do not think or act in terms of such intellectual abstractions. Second, revolutionary activity is, ultimately, not possible unless workers have gained the experience of attempting to reform the system.
One continuing theme in this book is the development of scientific manage mont Montgomery shows that Taylorism was not universally successful and was eventually replaced by other management practices involving the professionalization of labor relations and, most importantly, the increasing involvement of the state in suppressing working-class solidarity.
The attempts of employers to respond to new levels and forms of working-class struggle is implied throughout, but the analysis tends sometimes to be simplistic. For example, Montgomery sees a new stage of management involved in the auto industry’s incorporation of supervision in the technology. Implied, of course, is that the moving assembly line controls workers in ways that foremen alone could not.
The problem is considerably more complex than that. It is on the basis of the new technology that Ford introduced the most horrendous labor-relations system then known, including foremen with absolute power to hire and fire, goons and the Sociology Department it is clear that technology was not enough to control workers.
Another element in the Ford system was abandoning piecework for higher day rates, which raises questions about what is meant by the search for cheaper labor. The idea of the management as “scientific” needs to be taken with a few grains of salt or a corrective such as Tom Juravich’s Chao on the Shop Floor (1985).
Montgomery has been criticized for ignoring racism in his work. Of this book that cannot be said. There are references to Black workers turning to their communities for strength and solidarity in the face of white racism on the job. But there are still gaps. While Montgomery notes the importance of ethnic solidarity as a component of working-class consciousness, his discussion of the equivalent in the Afro-American community is too superficial.
In particular, there is missing any reference to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro improvement Association that to this day is the largest organization ever created by Black Americans. In the violent period around World War I, Garvey’s movement provided a haven and a source of strength in the new and growing Black communities in the northern industrial centers.
Montgomery’s discussion of women workers is valuable in the chapter on operatives—the new semi-skilled machine operators—he emphasizes the importance of women in the changing factory system. Gender is not relegated to a separate and token treatment. Women workers are seen as an integral part of the working class, workers who, despite discrimination against them by male workers, by unions, and of course by employers, are an essential component of the resistance to capitalist domination.
A Pessimistic Account?
There is more of the organized union movement in this book than in Montgomery’s earlier work. It becomes quite clear that the role of unions and, more importantly, union leaders, is not always progressive. Time after time workers win victories in opposition to the policies of their leaders; often struggles are carried on outside the framework of unionism. That is, unions are not an essential precondition of workers’ struggles and, while unions often organize victories, they also organize defeats.
There is a puzzling contradictory element to this book. Montgomery indicated he was surprised by the charge of some reviewers that this was a very pessimistic book. On one level it is not pessimistic, it simply records the various stages of working-class history, the victories and the defeats. But I don’t think it can be left at that.
What does the title mean? On the one hand it indicates a greater concern for the official labor movement than was evidenced by Montgomery’s earlier work. That implies that the ups and downs of unionism determine the ups and downs of the class. That is only partly true.
But there is also the decision on the time period to be covered. An author can deal with whatever period he sees fit but if the period is limited, for one reason or another, it can reduce or alter the significance of the book.
Why does the book end in 1925, clearly a low point of the American labor movement? In his conclusion Montgomery notes:
“In the tight repression of the Coolidge era, all but a radicalized handful of workers reported quietly to whatever jobs they managed to hold, discarding their wartime aspirations as the folly of youth and directing their hopes and energies toward their homes, their children and the esteem of their neighbors.” (464)
Montgomery should know better than that. If unemployment and government and employer and repression forced workers to be quiet, that does not justify the assumption that they discarded earlier assumptions. Extend the period covered by the book for ten years and the time would have to be the Rise of the House of Labor. That would have been the same class and mostly the same workers.
It is more important to note that the struggle is continuous and that as long as capitalism remains, there will be more defeats than victories and that victories will tend to be incorporated into the system. But even when the large public forms of struggle are diminished, other forms remain–sabotage, absenteeism, job turnover and so on. Employers are aware of this, and so should we be.
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March-April 1990, ATC 25