Posted by: kokoro | 27th Jan, 2009

Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor

Montgomery discusses how the organizing action and social goals of labor unions require deliberate human action; working class activists foster unity through various activities, like strikes, meetings, reading circles, dances, clubs, and stores. In his examination of unions Montgomery studies the human relationships created by wage labor in the workplace, the structural changes in political and economic power as the competitive industrial capitalism of the 19th century declined into 20th century imperialism, and finally, the diverse styles of thought and activity that the working class used to understand and improve their society.

Montgomery starts with a study of the iron and steel industries. Skilled craftsmen were able to exercise collective control over the productive tasks they engaged in, as well as over the human relationships involved in the performance of those tasks. These working class leaders drew strength from workers’ autonomy on the job, from a group ethical code developed around work relations, and from the organizations they created to protect their interests.

For instance, the ethical code set how long a craftsman should would daily, which was called a “stint.” Anyone who went over the hours determined appropriate by the union was ostracized. The code also expected workers to support each other’s grievances, which the executives fought against with inside contracting.

Organization was not an easy task, and consolidation proved difficult. The Amalgamated Association was mostly concerned with skilled trades and their helpers rather than the interests of common laborers. Also, common laborers often had different backgrounds than skilled workers, as they were often rural, blacks, or immigrants. Other tensions were due to blacks often being brought in as strikebreakers. However, in 1882, eligibility became based on occupation, not race.

Montgomery argues that class conflict is inherent in industrial life. For instance, the rapid development of the iron and steel industries involved the accumulation of both capital (for the firms’ partners and shareholders) and knowledge (for the workers). Accumulation involved social conflict because of the division of a product between wages and profits, as well as because the social nature of production clashed with the private nature of ownership. Executives sought to stop workers’ collective control over operations and to cut workers’ power by removing craftsmen of their accumulated skill and knowledge.

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