The Story of Reo Joe: Work, Kin, and Community in Autotown, U.S.A.
Scholars, like everyone else, inevitably respond to their cultural milieu. Lisa Fine's excellent study of the workers at Lansing, Michigan's Reo Motor Car Company reflects this tendency. Over the last generation most labor historians lived through an era where progressive politics and popular insurgency most visibly revolved around questions of gender and race. While class tensions certainly influenced political life, no organization, movement, or cultural tendency with an explicit self-consciousness of class had a mass following. Indeed, as Fine notes, the archtypical proletarian heroes of the New Deal-Popular Front era--white male factory workers--and their children were depicted in both popular and scholarly discourses as part of "George Wallace's popularity in the North in 1968, the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, the Ross Perot phenomenon of 1992, the so-called 'angry-white-man' congressional election of 1994, and the importance of working-class members of the National Rifle Association during the 2000 presidential election." (9).
Reo employed an overwhelmingly white male work force with rural and not infrequently southern roots. Although they joined the CIO, few of them appear to have had any sympathy with radical politics. Indeed, despite a sometimes combative union local, a significant proportion of them endorsed the company's paternalistic "we're all one big happy family" ideology. The author interviewed many retirees for whom memories of the factory's family atmosphere remain decades later. Fine is careful not to claim that these REO Joe's are more representative of American working people than the Popular Front children of the immigrants that loom so large in twentieth century labor historiography, but the implication is clearly there that understanding these folks should help labor historians better understand the recent trajectory of American workers. And Fine argues quite explicitly that understanding how racial and gender identities shaped their world view is at least as important as understanding the influence of class.
The author deftly interweaves the story of the firm and the story of its workers through six chapters. She traces the history of the company from its founder Ransom E. Olds (who had earlier founded Oldsmobile) through the depression and New Deal, a 1940s transition from making cars to making Diamond Reo Trucks, and the company's demise in 1975. She follows with an epilogue about the memories of former Reo workers who still met regularly in retiree organizations and social clubs.
A Lansing-bred tinkerer, Ransom Olds' life experience and world view resembled his more famous contemporary, Henry Ford. Like Ford, also a midwestern, Protestant, Republican advocate of what today would be called traditional family values, Olds detested unions and federal regulation. He could treat his workers fairly without intervention. Olds consciously built a corporate culture reflecting his views. Although the company's workers joined the CIO in the 1930s and waged a virtual guerrilla war on the company's shop floors in the 1940s, Fine argues that the company culture did not change fundamentally as a result. The retirees she interviewed in the 1990s sounded a lot like the 1920s editions of the company's public relations magazine Reo Spirit. Although she describes in detail how company officials worked to foster this culture, she argues that its durability suggests it was not simply imposed. People liked working at Reo because they shared the roots and values of its managers.
Fine is right that this story is not just peculiar to one factory, and she is right that it is a useful antidote to the heroic celebrationism characteristic of some versions of CIO era labor history. Yet a historian writing in a different era might have taken the same evidence she presents in a different direction. Here is a labor force composed of recently rural folks living in a small midwestern city with few immigrants, black folks, lefties or iconoclasts; a place where the Klan thrived in the 20s; in other words the farthest one could imagine from a cosmopolitan incubus of progressive thought. One would expect these people to be culturally and politically conservative, yet they voted for the New Deal, participated in a general strike for union recognition in 1937, and fought the company so insistently in the mid-40s that Fine titles one section "the Long Wildcat Strike, 1943-1947." She even presents evidence that at least a few Reo workers flirted with the Wobblies during the wildcat era. Fine sees this era of conflict mainly as a temporary aberration, a function of the gender conflicts from an increasing female presence in the factory and the impatience of a cohort of returning war veterans. But an alternative reading of Fine's evidence might stress that such strong indications of conflict in such an unlikely place demonstrate just how profoundly the CIO influenced working-class culture in the United States.
Her 1990s interviews could also be read differently. Many of her interviewees were former managers or secretaries and assistants of managers. Some of the organizations that linked her interviewees socially were legacies of managerial initiatives. Perhaps most importantly, groups of people united by loyalty to a Reo legacy might be expected to embody disproportionately the corporate culture. Were these the same people who staged the wildcats or corresponded with the IWW?
That I have suggested that Fine's evidence could conceivably be marshaled around a different story is not a criticism of her interpretive judgment but rather a testimonial to the quality of her research. Any book with enough thick description of the lives of working people that it could credibly be used to sustain multiple interpretations is a scholarly achievment. Even readers who see the story differently from the author will find this a vivid and thought-provoking narrative.
University of Pittsburgh
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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