Skip to Content

Share

Labor Pains

By
March 15, 2010

With 15 million men and women unemployed, our writer argues that the first step to fixing the job crisis is reimagining what Americans should be working on in the first place.

laborpains300.jpgWhen the Ford Motor Company opened in 1903, “jack-of-all trades” mechanics were needed to build the first cars. This kind of labor still belonged to the craft tradition—“worthy work” that required skill, knowledge, and experience obtained through years of apprenticeship. The work was varied and interesting and carried with it, as William Morris once put it, “the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.” In the face of growing demand for the Model T, however, the knowledge and experience of mechanics were found to be expendable. To increase productivity, Ford’s managers broke up the craft of building cars into its constituent parts; highly skilled mechanics found themselves turned into mere assemblers, reduced to performing an ever more limited set of tasks.

By 1910, these once-independent craftsmen refused to accept what they experienced as the mind-numbing and degrading division of their labor and began to walk off the job. During the next few years, Ford took even more extreme measures to step up production, instituting the endless-chain conveyor system; car assemblies now moved past fixed stations where men carried out ever more simple, repetitive operations. Again, these men registered their revulsion at this systematic destruction of their knowledge and skill by walking off the job, this time in droves. “It was apparent,” writes Keith Sward in his The Legend of Henry Ford, “that the Ford Motor Co. had reached the point of owning a great factory without having enough workers to keep it humming.” For the year 1913 alone, the employee turnover rate reached 380 percent. “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system,” Sward reports, “that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

The near collapse of the auto industry and the way it was averted, by unionized workers accepting deep cuts in their ranks, hours, wages, and benefits, herald the end of the blue-collar occupations that afforded generations of working people secure, comfortable lives.

This crisis only intensified when the Industrial Workers of the World began a unionization drive of Ford workers during the summer of that same year. To put down both threats, Ford introduced his much-trumpeted five dollars a day. Harry Braverman, in his groundbreaking Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974), questions whether even this pay rate, which was almost double that of Ford’s competitors, would have kept the men on the job had there been any other viable options for skilled mechanics. But there were not; by this time, competing manufacturers, in an effort to keep pace with Ford’s increased output, had also forced the assembly line on their skilled mechanics, thus wiping out all alternative modes of work in the burgeoning car industry. Ford’s workers had no choice but to stay put and their union representatives began their long fight for concessions from management.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced with some urgency that, “jobs must be our number one focus in 2010.” But as I have been reading about how to create jobs for the fifteen million men and women who are currently without work, I have been struck by how much space is devoted to breast-beating about declining standards of living and fear-mongering predictions that America will be a “second-rate” power by the end of the decade, and how little is given to any serious consideration about what kinds of work people will be doing.

The near collapse of the auto industry and the way it was averted, in large part, by unionized workers accepting deep cuts in their ranks, hours, wages, and benefits, herald the end of the kind of blue-collar occupations that afforded generations of working people secure, comfortable lives.

It is an historical irony that in last two years’ public discussions about bailing out Detroit, what was once perceived as the death of dignified labor was portrayed by Republican lawmakers and reactionary journalists as a kind of overpaid, over-compensated worker’s paradise. This characterization of the reasonable wages, paid vacations and sick days, health insurance, and retirement packages that labor unions gained in exchange for workers relinquishing the skills required to build cars reveals a distressing loss of historical memory. What is more, this talk of pampered workers is an outrageous libel on the uneasy bargain to which middle-class workers—both blue and white-collar alike—eventually submitted, trading meaningful work for the promise of better working conditions, a higher standard of living, and increased leisure time.

For decades now, manufacturers have demonstrated their contempt for this trade-off. Claiming competitive threats from “the global market,” more and more manufacturers and associated industries have moved their factories outside the United States to take advantage of poor people who have no choice but to accept meager wages. As for the few remaining manufacturers that have kept their factories in the U.S., most notably, the automobile industry, last spring we heard their obscenely rich executives explain to Congress that the main reason their companies were failing was the extreme financial burden of their workers’ benefits.

As we know, President Obama has been intent on saving Detroit. Last year, in his address to Congress on February 24, he announced, “We are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it; scores of communities depend on it, and I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.” It is certainly not too much to expect that this “re-tooled, reimagined” auto industry, instead of manufacturing gigantic, polluting, profligate S.U.V.’s and light trucks, might produce fuel-efficient, “green” cars. But by what means? The old assembly line has largely been replaced by fully automated, robotic production, leaving many workers with the repetitious, one-dimensional job of tending machines. Will they continue to tend machines, but now with lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security so that, before long, their work will be indistinguishable from the dead-end, often demeaning jobs of the so-called service economy? And to what end? So that instead of drivers sitting for hours in traffic jams during their daily commutes to and from work in cars that pollute, they will now sit for hours in their plug-in, hybrid eco-cars? This is a matter of some urgency, as 90 percent of Americans drive to work and a staggering 76 percent of them drive alone.

Obama promised that American universities will turn out “the highest proportion of graduates in the world” by the year 2020. But what will these students study?

When oil prices surged dramatically in the summer of 2008, there was much talk—especially during the presidential debates—about the need to find alternative energy sources as well as about the compromised political situation in which America found itself economically hostage to oil-producing Arab countries that are actively hostile to American interests. (A nice turn on the old saying that capitalists will buy the rope to hang themselves.) Although it is well known that Americans count for only 5 percent of the world’s population but use up over 25 percent of the world’s energy resources, the moral dimension of our gluttonous appetites rarely enters any mainstream public discussions. Paul Kennedy, in his Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, published back in 1993, gave life to these statistics: “According to one calculation, the average American baby represents twice the environmental damage of a Swedish child, three times that of an Italian, thirteen times that of a Brazilian, thirty-five times that of an Indian, and two hundred and eighty times that of a Chadian or Haitian because its level of consumption throughout its life will be so much greater.”

It is this picture that we need to keep in mind as we imagine how we are going to move out of the world—ugly and shoddy, morally and aesthetically—created by the ideology of growth without end and the unrelenting piggish desire for more things that have become hallmarks of the American way of life. We must also keep sight of the historical fact that not only did monopoly capital and the division of labor emerge together in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but so, too, did those alarming “plague clouds” and a sun that was “blanched” rather than “reddened”—those first unmistakable signs of industrial pollution that John Ruskin decried in a lecture entitled “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884). To address one of these historical developments without the other two is to ensure that we will never move beyond the narrow confines of current thinking about our present moment or about what the future might look like.

In the same speech to Congress last year, President Obama made a more explicit connection between jobs and the environment than he did in his recent State of the Union speech. He rightly believes it is time to repair our disintegrating infrastructure and announced that over the next two years, the government “will save or create 3.5 million jobs. More than 90 percent of these jobs will be in the private sector, jobs rebuilding our roads and bridges, constructing wind turbines and solar panels, laying broadband, and expanding mass transit.” What is more, Obama promised that American universities will turn out “the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by the year 2020. But what will these students study? What kinds of work will their college educations prepare them for? Here President Obama seems unable to picture a world significantly different from the economically and morally bankrupt one that we now find ourselves in: “In a global economy, where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity. It is a pre-requisite.” I am sorry to have to notice that the President’s formulation of knowledge as “the most valuable skill you can sell” belongs to the technocratic world view of the professional-managerial class—the very “experts” who, from the time of the first factory line, have been repackaging once-complex sets of skills into simple instructions that can be mastered in a few days or even a few hours of “training.”

Instead of putting forward, as so many of our elected officials, policy analysts, pundits, and journalists predictably do, a picture of our world that is essentially the same, except that it is somehow “green” and somehow peopled with college-educated or better “trained” workers, we need to focus our attention on the more pressing and more basic question of what kinds of work people should be expected to devote their lives to doing. The last time this question—the question of meaningful, satisfying, dignified labor—got a public hearing was in the nineteen sixties and seventies, with Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital being the intellectual high-water mark. What Braverman convincingly demonstrated is that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our system of labor; that it came about through conscious decisions made by industrial capitalists in the name of profit for them alone; and, so long as there were living alternatives to it, that assembly line work was forcefully resisted by skilled craftsmen who walked off the job rather than submit to work that they felt demeaned them. William Morris spoke for those men when he declared the new factory work “worthless; it is slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.”

In this context, it is worth recalling the profusion of skilled practices that once existed. In the mid-sixteenth century, a book described ninety different crafts, including jewelers, metalsmiths, goldsmiths, coiners, tapestry makers, printers, musical instrument makers, dyers, potters, tanners, weavers, carpenters, bakers, and millers. Two centuries later, Diderot’s _Encyclopedia_ counted two hundred and fifty. By the middle of the nineteenth century, in a medium-sized town in England, over fifty crafts were still being practiced. Over the last century and a half, however, the social division of labor penetrated ever more dimensions of daily life, with the result that very few occupations requiring skill, knowledge, experience, and long apprenticeships have survived.

Thus it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how to revive what has vanished both from practice and from memory, let alone how a world might come into being where the greater number of things we use or, better yet—to suggest the enormous change in consciousness that is required—things we enjoy using in our daily life are made by people who enjoy making them. I have in mind here the kind of pleasure and pride that accomplished craftsmen at the Waterford Crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland, lost when their factory shut down earlier this year. Sean Egan, who worked as a crystal engraver for twenty-five years, spoke of his ten-year apprenticeship: “It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

We might also take a lesson from the movement for sustainable, organic, local farming. For decades, champions of this movement have been all but banished to the fringe of respectable discourse, but lately they have been getting a hearing, as evidenced by Michael Pollan’s lengthy “Open Letter to the Next Farmer-in-Chief” that appeared in _The New York Times Magazine_, in October 2008. It seems to me that a good starting point for how to bring about a similar revolution in thinking and practice when it comes to work is the principle that just as monoculture is disastrous for our health and security when it comes to food, lack of variety in work is just as disastrous for our well-being and happiness. The ideology of ceaseless economic growth, made possible by the division of labor that has filled our world with ugly things from the Styrofoam cup to smog in our skies, has always been vapid and destructive. Now, with the implosion of the global financial system, the American way of life as model for global expansion stands exposed as unsustainable as well.

G

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of Repeal Of Reticence. She is currently working on a book tentatively entitled _Of Time and Beauty_ and writes a monthly column about how the world looks and feels for _The New Republic Online_. Her essays on aesthetic and political matters have appeared in _The New Republic_, _Salmagundi_, _Raritan_, and other “little magazines.”

Writer’s Recommendations:

The Nature Of Gothic by John Ruskin.

Useful Work vs. Useless Toil” by William Morris.

The Myth Of The Machine: The Pentagon Of Power by Lewis Mumford.

The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by Christopher Lasch.

Photo via “Flickr”: http://www.flickr.com/photos/elgincountyarchives/4327203677/

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

4 comments for Labor Pains

  1. Comment by Uncle B on March 17, 2010 at 8:09 am

    The Great Hulking American Neanderthal, force bred by Capitalism. Corporatism, these past three hundred years, from the biggest, strongest European stock, for the express purpose exploiting the easy resources of America, now stands in “unemployables” lines awaiting the American Medical Cartel’s final solution: their “selection” by the medical insurance corporations for denial of medical services for the sin of “unemployment”, and final extinction. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann all are warmed in their graves by this atrocity, and the lights of Hell glow brightly for it! The “Dark Side” wins this one over Christianity and the “Eagle” flies high over the carrion. The noble American worker who’s strong biceps built the “Smoke Stack Era” won WWII and immortalized the Harley Davidson motorbike, the “Muscle Car” and built the skyscrapers of New York City. Witness: Detroit City in ruins, a monument left by successful corporations, for America to learn by. Socialist Obama may save lives with universal medical care but a broken Corporatist America can hardly afford it, and will give way to the Yuan from China and leave America in droves for greener pastures on Asian stock markets in Shanghai, Beijing, and the Hang Seng. America will dissolve into a “Third World” darkness with legalized “pot” in the streets to pay for past corporatist sins. The salted fields of California bear witness to Corporatist destruction and the people reject the Socialist assistance with religious fervor? Sad to see this greatness corralled by economic blackmail by the Capitalists, powerful propaganda machine, and democracy left by the road side to wither. America, a short, spectacular, blip in the history books.

  2. Comment by Villagejonesy on March 17, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I share wholeheartedly the writer’s dismay at the casting aside of skilled artisans like those at the Waterford crystal factory she mentions. The Economist, and many in the governments of the developed world that share its ideas, is fond of banging away against the bugbear of “protectionism.” Yet there is some artisanal work that NEEDS protecting. It will be a great shame if Waterford crystal, for Ireland, or in France, the artisanal bread-bakers, should be a thing of the past, for want of this protection. Not every plant should be a hothouse flower, and this is bad for some plants’ health; yet we still create hothouses, and gardens, and wall them off for protection against destruction.

  3. Comment by x on March 20, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    The author gives some fascinating historical background, and paints a lovely picture of the value of craftsmanship. I love craftsmanship, personally, so she had my attention. But then it fell flat; she had nothing to back up the pretty picture. Just jabs for those evil capitalists, a thoroughly worn-out bogeyman.

  4. Comment by Jedidiah Slaboda on March 28, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    This is a compelling article. Thank you, Rochelle Gurstein, for writing it and Guernica for publishing it. It is refreshing to ask about quality of work. I am a Christian that worships in the Reformed tradition which has long held to an emphasis on ‘vocation’–the belief that human work is inherently good and not a symptom of an exile from Eden. One of the ways we are like God is that we are makers. Alienation from the Maker and one another creates the potential for toilsome or vapid work, but work itself is very good.

    When our work becomes something we long to escape and we trade meaningless toil for regulated work-weeks, paid vacation and a pension we have traded in a vision of the good life that I hope we can recover as a people. (More could be said about how the promise of a pension is a central part of this sad exchange–give the most virile years of your life to the assembly line and we’ll give you several years of workless life at the end.)

    This article is not, as one comment stated, just another diatribe against the bogeyman of corporatized culture. It asks a deeper question and suggests that we need more than governmental protection from the bogeyman. An “enormous change in consciousness” is in order.

    Can we imagine a great walkout, not simply to gain a voice at the boardroom table, but to simply quit meaningless jobs?

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting