The Fall of the House of Labor

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

In 1904 the German sociologist/economist Werner Sombart visited the United States to observe the functioning of American capitalism. The question he posed in his 1906 book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? had a formative impact upon subsequent scholarly attempts to understand the working class and working-class consciousness (or lack thereof) in this country. For Sombart, American “exceptionalism” was explainable in terms of social mobility, high living standards, and political democracy, which he summed up at one point: “All Socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.” Though replete with many observations that later proved less than accurate and some omissions—he neglected the importance of immigration as a major factor in the study of conflict between labor and management—Sombart’s work did try to examine workers as active agents in creating their own lives.

For the next fifty years, American labor historians, mostly ill-equipped intellectually to use Marxist methods of class analysis, studied the subject from the lofty vantage point of the great leaders and institutions. In the 1960’s, New Left historians influenced by the groundbreaking work of E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), began to study “history from the bottom up,” that is, from the viewpoint of the laborers themselves. From this dialectic there emerged the new labor history led by such scholars as Herbert G. Gutman, Alan Dawley, David Noble, and David Montgomery.

David Montgomery, a professor at Yale University, came to the study of history only after his political activities as a machinist and union organizer resulted in his being blacklisted. He was thus forced out of the workshop and into the university. In a 1981 interview he emphasized that his studies of shop-floor struggles “underscored . . . that the working class has always formulated alternatives to bourgeois society in this country, particularly on the job.” “When you come right down to it,” he concluded, “history is the only teacher the workers have.” To understand the labor process, the historian must explain the workers’ activities in the workplace, their activities to secure “a democracy, industrious and political, based on enduring justice,” and the role of the state in hindering or assisting them in obtaining their goals. This is an ambitious task, but the one that Montgomery sets for himself in The Fall of the House of Labor.

In this work he attempts to do for American labor history what E. P. Thompson had accomplished for English labor history. Where Thompson studied the development of a working class and a corresponding class consciousness in the years leading up to the Reform Bill of 1832, Montgomery traces the similar development in the United States from the Civil War to 1925. With astonishing detail he describes the day-to-day toil of iron rollers, puddlers, machinists, longshoremen, coal miners, textile workers, light bulb assemblers, and many others within the context of a nation in the process of rapid technological change and industrialization. As craftsmen and journeymen sought to defend their traditions, privileges, and ways of work, the new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and the enduring questions of race and sex created problems which hindered organization along class lines. The ensuing struggle between worker and management for control of the workplace is the core of Montgomery’s study. As management sought to exploit workers’ skills and knowledge, the worker, bound by tradition, resisted; it was they who had “the manager’s brain under the workman’s cap.” Master metal workers in some instances were contracted to plan the work process and subcontract the hiring of laborers to assist them. Labor here had complete control. On their side the factory owners had Frederick Winslow Taylor and scientific management to wrest this skill from labor.

With their stopwatches, measuring tapes, and slide rules in hand, Taylor...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Atlantic. CCLX, September, 1987, p. 100.

Library Journal. CXII, June 15, 1987, p. 68.

The Nation. CCXLV, September 5, 1987, p. 201.

The New Republic. CXCVIII, February 8, 1988, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, November 29, 1987, p. 30.

The Washington Monthly. XIX, November, 1987, p. 59.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, August 30, 1987, p. 1.