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The fall of the House of Labor: the workplace, the state, and American labor activism, 1865-1925.

The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925.

David Montgomery. Cambridge University Press, $27.95. Montgomery's study of labor is social history at its best. A former machinist himself, Montgomery, now a history professor at Yale, has amazing agility in moving from a shop-level focus to a panorama of the entire American system.

Most interesting is his explanation of what we today would call "workplace democracy.' Before the depression of the 1880s and the Homestead strike of 1892, workers usually exerted tremendous control over the production process, often imposing strict work rules on themselves. An 1891 convention of the Amalgamated Association in the steel industry, for example, ordered locals to ban overtime when people were out of work, cut out workers who were negotiating separate deals with management, and reduce the amount of iron that could be produced per person. As one chapter title suggests, the workplace was dominated by the "manager's brain under the workman's cap.' Workers felt they were running their own enterprises. The idea that an owner should enjoy total control over labor seemed downright odd.

The loss of these values, "the fall of labor,' came as management began using sophisticated systems of shop-floor control that ended the workers' monopoly on knowledge of the production process. "Taylorism,' pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor, author of Principles of Scientific Management, involved breaking down jobs into minute parts. At the same time, the increasing use of machinery and technology accelerated the loss of control; court rulings helped codify the notion that management could exclude labor from key decisions; and the hostile policies of Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, along with fluctuations in the business cycle, weakened labor's bargaining position. Finally the unions became divided over whether to push comfort or control of the process.

In a sense, Montgomery's lament about labor's fall is ironic. Rising membership and New Deal legislation created a period of unprecedented prosperity for workers after World War II. But Montgomery shows that workers' high wages ended up being part of a Faustian bargain. Prosperity, as usual, turned out to be fragile, and the workers had lost control over their own destiny.
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Author:Euchner, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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