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American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900-1941.

American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900-1941. By Daniel Nelson Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. xi + 339 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliographical notes, and index. $32.50.

Reviewed by Stephen Amberg

Daniel Nelson's study is a generally excellent work that explains unionization by linking it to developments in technology, industrial organization, business strategies, and politics. He discounts the influence of ideology and government. It will become the definitive study of the unionization of the rubber industry and will take its place beside studies like Ronald Schatz's The Electrcal Workers (1983) and historically informed industry analyses as diverse as Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.'s The Visible Hand (1977) and Michael Piore and Charles Sabel's The Second Industrial Divide (1984). Nelson covers the era from the coming of mass production to the rubber products industry at the turn of the century to the establishment of the United Rubber Workers Union as the dominant agent of collective bargaining. He presents a thoroughly documented and exhaustingly detailed account of workers' persistent efforts that focuses on the big tire companies based in Akron, Ohio.

Nelson is particularly good at tying the early union organizing efforts to the later successful unionization. Rubber workers repeatedly organized unions during the first three decades of the century, but the history of their efforts shows how the character of organizing changed as the labor force was shaped by the transformation of the industry. Nelson provides a fascinating discussion of how the older workers' culture broke down before experiencing a partial revival in the 1930s. In the years before the First World War, Akron rubber workers were part of a broad labor culture that included widespread membership in the American Federation of Labor AFL) (but not in the rubber plants), support for the Socialist party, and middle-class tolerance of unions. Nonetheless, an early rubber workers' union was unsuccessful, in part because the rubber products industry was undergoing transformation in response to the newly burgeoning automobile tire market.

Firms began to specialize in rubber tire manufacture, to increase the scale of production and seek new technologies to eliminate hand budding, to standardize plant operations and employ personnel management, and to integrate backward into raw materials and forward into marketing. By 1905 tire production surpassed all other rubber products combined (p. 15). By the First World War, tire manufacturers relocated to the Midwest to be near auto centers. U.S. Rubber moved production to Detroit, but Akron, already the largest pre-tire rubber center in the Midwest, became the nation's tire capital, the home of B.F. Goodrich, Goodyear, Firestone, and General Tire. The introduction of mass production methods in tire manufacturing led to astronomical rates of labor turnover and the appearance of the machine operator's veto" of excessive production standards. Employers responded with high wages, harsh discipline, time study, and intransigence to unions. The AFL's organizing efforts came to nought because of its preoccupation with skilled workers and the popularity of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). But a combination of disastrous IWW and local Socialist party leadership, uniform company hostility, and the eventual loss of middle-class support led to a collapse of the union effort.

Working-class life was further substantially changed by the tripling of employment in Akron's tire plants during the First World War. So many of the new recruits piled into Akron from Appalachia that it became known as the capital of West Virginia. Living conditions deteriorated, ethnic divisions were more pronounced, the new workers were younger and more impressed with the high wages that the tire companies paid, traditional social clubs and societies were eclipsed, saloons were closed because of Prohibition, and Socialists and older union organizers were unable to increase their levels of popular support. Yet Nelson argues that continued labor organizing in the 1920s belles the image of quiescent workers and proves the continuity of the 1930s with the experiences of the earlier decades.

He presents three episodes that support the claim that workers continued to act to promote their "business unionist" interests (p. 109). Nelson argues was borne out by U.S. Rubber's avoidance of industrial turmoil. By 1941 all of the major rubber companies had adopted Ching's realistic" labor management strategy. By then the war in Europe had stimulated demand for rubber products, and the URW had launched an aggressive organizing drive. The companies realized that the URW leaders were pragmatic fellows who also believed in meeting production schedules.

Stephen Amberg is assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Anton W. He is the author of "The Triumph of Industrial Orthodoxy: The Failure of Studebaker-Packard" in On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work, ed. Nelson Lichtenstrin and Stephen Meyer (1989). He is preparing for publication a work titled "Liberal Dentocracy and Industrial Order.- The Autuworkers under the New Deal, 1936-1980."
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Author:Amberg, Stephen
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1989
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