Do Capitalists Matter in the Capitalist Labor Process?



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Community Standards versus Managerial Prerogatives
Proprietary capitalists in much of the 19th century were constrained by two sorts of communities, those of the town and those of the trade. Status honor in their local communities might reinforce rational economic strategy in encouraging employers to meet union representatives. The president of New York City's Typothetae justified his decision to confer with International Typographical Union officials on the grounds that "the simplest rules of good breeding . . . would compel us to give a respectful hearing and answer" (Tichenor 1980, 182). Late 19th century Pittsburgh iron masters took a similar tact for more complex reasons. As part of a long-standing urban elite, they regarded honorable dealing with local unionists as both a social obligation to their men and as a reprimand to low-born outsiders like Carnegie (Ingham 1991).

Within the trade, a variety of vertical ties continued to link "master and men," ties that persisted longer in medium-sized and diversified manufacturing cities than in one-industry factory towns or the largest metropolitan centers. Case studies emphasize different factors bringing owner and employee together despite their presumed economic antagonisms. These include "Christian capitalism" in the 1840s-50s (Wallace 1972); the crusade for free labor before the Civil War (Steinfeld 1991); a persistent 19th century republicanism (Faler 1981; Ross 1985; Licht 1995); and post-Civil War ethnicity (Zunz 1982), fraternalism (Clawson 1989), and machismo (Bensman 1980). Such interpretations are generally designed to explain the limits of working-class solidarity and militancy. But the same ties constrained employers, too. Owners often fought with their men over wages and working conditions. Even the strikes and lockouts that sometimes ensued, however, were recognized and ritualized parts of an ongoing work relationship (Ingham 1991). Employers were reluctant to sever relations with men who were not only familiar and skilled employees but also fellow Masons, Swedes, and citizens of the Republic. More important, the producer ideology associated with these class alignments endowed mechanics with some acknowledged (if not welcomed) rights both to control their work and to participate in workplace governance (Bensman 1980; Hoffecker 1974; Eggert 1993). When machinists petitioned a Connecticut manufacturer of cutting tools for higher wages in 1833, he declined to pay them more but commended their collective action. The machinists' "candid manly course" is "worthy of yourselves and the high character you have always sustained as a community," and it confirms both "the prospects of our Republic" and the wisdom of hiring "none but Americans" (Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 18, no. 5 [November 1944]: 135). The language of republicanism was much fainter by the 1880s, but in many workplaces some sense of shared membership in a common community of producers persisted (Trachtenberg 1982, 73-76, 97; Salvatore 1982; Licht 1995, 108).

Late 19th century class formation shaped the construction of employer interests by realigning community solidarities, thus both altering employers' reference groups and redefining membership and rights in the workplace community. The grounds on which employers distanced themselves from employees and constructed a broader business community of proprietors, professionals, and executives, I would argue, favored a more belligerent assertion of management prerogatives as against craft rules and union interference. And developments at both the community level and within the labor process fueled this realignment.
Class Distinctions, Business Communities, and Workplace Governance
By the early 1920s, the Employers' Association of Detroit was broadcasting its views on industrial relations through a mailing list of 6,000 businessmen, school teachers, professionals, and bankers. Few manual workers, however, received the Association's Industrial Barometer (Klug 1993, 832-833). The demographics of its mailing list suggest that the EAD had ties to a broad coalition of middle and upper class groups and made little effort to cultivate even the skilled employees of its own member firms. These priorities typify a more general class realignment -- underway in many manufacturing centers in the late 19th century -- which frayed lingering vertical ties and broadened horizontal ones. Both dimensions of this process were important for reorienting employers' thinking about workplace control and unionism.

The severing of ties involved what Bourdieu might describe as the cultivation of distinctions (Bourdieu 1984). Owners and craftsmen had often seen themselves as sharing membership in a community of producers, with craftsmen's skills and voice entitled to some measure of respect. Class reformation emphasized instead the differences in character and value between management and labor and between brain and hand. The change is mirrored in the post-Civil War decline of mechanics' institutes, associations that combined proprietors and craftsmen in a common commitment to "progressive" industry (Gilkeson 1986, 95; Kornblith 1983). It appears as well, Kasson suggests, in the nostalgia of late-19th century utopian novels for lost republican bonds between employer and workman (Kasson 1976, 233). This social realignment seems to have diminished employers' scruples and provided a rationale for more uncompromising claims to unilateral management rights as against craft control and union representation.

A wider fellow feeling among employers of different trades, extending to professional and managerial elites, complemented vertical differentiation. Here too, the ideological side of class formation had direct implications for industrial management. First, highlighting attributes that united employers across trades simultaneously underscored what set them apart from wage earners. This included, of course, the ownership and rights of private property, an increasingly strident theme of late 19th century employer discourse (Thimm 1976). It also included the division between brain and hand. This vertical division was reinforced from within the new business community by professionals' glorification of mental labor (Gilkeson 1986, 100-101). These ideological lubricants for broadened employer solidarity thus provided a favorable setting for more generalized assertions of a "right to manage" shared by proprietors and managers throughout industry.

Second, a particularly important arena for the cultivation of local solidarities and organization among employers at the turn of the century was civic reform (Sturges 1915, 354; Schiesl 1977). The pursuit of more "efficient," nonpartisan government had obvious practical benefits for employers. But it also helped bring employers, professionals, and white-collar workers into a common civic community, one with a very different center of gravity than the old producer community. The respectable citizenry defined by civic reform, Rotaries, philanthropy, and local boosterism was nearly indistinguishable from "the business community." It conferred neither membership nor rights on craftsmen, at least not in their roles as practitioners of a trade. It is this reorientation that helps explain the close links drawn by "Law and Order Leagues" in the 1880s and 1890s between anti-unionism, the promotion of local industry, and the public good (Bonnett 1956, 248-259; Ross 1985, 272). "Give to the world the assurance that here labor and capital, which are mutually dependent upon each other and essentially the same, are fully protected," announced St. Louis's League, and "that enterprises of all kinds can be safely entered on, because every opportunity for success will be offered, and immediately the stream of immigration that is spreading over the great West will flow to St. Louis as surely as the magnet turns to its pole" (Bonnett 1956, 249-251; see also Jaher 1982, 505-507). In this framework, unions did more than violate the ideal of nonpartisanship. They also appeared as outsiders subverting the community interest. Extirpating them became a civic responsibility. According to International Harvester managers in 1903, it was "a duty for this company, as a large employer of labor, to take some action [against unions] which may be . . . an example for the community" (Ozanne 1967, 57). Freedom from union interference, a 1907 National Association of Manufacturers' report emphasized, is not a matter of "capital against labor, nor employers against employees, but . . . of good citizenship against bad citizenship" (quoted by Brady 1972 [1943], 278).

All of these ideological supports for class formation among local elites, then, (1) provided a cultural setting favorable to more strident assertions of generalized employer rights and (2) excluded skilled workers from the communities -- of civic reformers, brain workers, or property owners -- entitled to control or voice.11 Redrawing the lines of collective solidarity was crucial for the redefinition of employers' interests at work in the late 19th century. Labor process theories that treat employers as individual cogs in a particular mode of production miss this source of capital's offensive against craft control.
The Contributions of the Labor Process
Thus far I have emphasized the links between the labor process and employer class formation in only one direction: from realignments in employers' social networks and collective identities to individual employers' industrial relations policies. Might these links also be traced in the other direction? At first glance, it appears reasonable for labor process theory to make this connection only for workers, not employers. A single firm, after all, includes few "employers" but many employees, so we can easily follow the effects of production methods, supervision, or employment systems on worker solidarities and ideology. The influence of these variables on employers as a group is not so clear.12 It is possible, of course, that similarities in the roles played and challenges faced by late 19th century capitalists engendered common "feelings, purposes, traditions, and hopes" (Livingston 1986, 246). There is another way that workplace arrangements shaped employer ideology, however. Changes in the labor process complemented community realignments in constructing new boundaries between labor and capital. And these social distinctions, in turn, helped redefine employers' collective interests. Understanding the turn-of-the-century offensive against craft control thus requires that we consider the impact of the labor process on employer class formation.

Historians such as Daniel Nelson (1976; Jacoby 1985) have documented common changes in relations between management and men in the four decades straddling 1900. These shifts included a much lamented loss of "the personal touch" and the accretion of intermediate layers of management separating (and increasing the social distance between) owner and employees. Although changes like these developed furthest in large corporations, they also affected the proprietary firms that dominated mid-sized manufacturing centers and that spearheaded the open shop movement. The experience of other countries and of New Deal industrial relations reminds us that more bureaucratized workplace management is not incompatible with craft production or union recognition. But changing workplace administration may have complemented class formation outside the factory gates in realigning employer identities.

Two sorts of workplace-based realignment deserve a closer look. First, the decline of direct participation in industrial management by proprietors, together with new career paths insulating managers from the shop floor (Noble 1977), helped replace the rhetoric of "our trade" with the language of "our business." The former, like republicanism, included craft employees in a common community of "iron makers," "potters," etc. Thinking of production activities as "my business" surely favors, instead, a preoccupation with unilateral control and an opposition to outside interference. Certainly by 1900, when W.J. Chalmers testified before the U.S. Industrial Commission, employers were harping on the theme that they would never "allow any walking delegate . . . to come into our shop and . . . tell a person how wide or how deep his cut shall be . . . or what wage we shall pay him for doing a specified amount of work" (United States Industrial Commission 1901-1902, vol. 8, p. 7). Second, there was a redefinition of just who qualified as an "outsider." Case studies of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Wilmington, among others, find late 19th century proprietors defining outsiders as those foreign to the local community (Scranton 1989, 23, 207; Ingham 1991, 130-137; Mapes 1973, 157-158, 163-165). During an 1886 dispute at a Wilmington railroad car works, the owner denounced not unions in general but the fact that "the local Knights had invited a committee of Knights from Philadelphia to meet with him. Jackson regarded this step as unfair and objected to outside interference" (Hoffecker 1974, 129). The aversion to outsiders might even include outside capital, which proprietors sometimes blamed for upsetting harmonious labor relations (Mapes 1973, 77; Hoffecker 1974, 134-135). By the end of the century, the circle of insiders had narrowed: non-employees or external organizations speaking through employees had no legitimate standing in workplace governance. In the characteristic rhetoric of early 20th century open shop employers, Norton's director insisted that the company would not permit "any outside person or interest to interfere with its business, tell us how to run it, or interfere with our honest endeavor to have a happy working family of all of us employed by the company" (Crawford 1995, 102). Here again, the redrawn boundaries of the workplace community justified a vigorous repudiation of "externally" imposed craft standards and representatives.
Contemporary Parallels
In the late 20th century, too, the political ideologies around which business leaders rallied are clearly echoed within the workplace. The differences in political rhetoric are striking, as are the calls for change in the labor process. What has sometimes been called “populist conservatism” (Phillips 1983; Rieder 1989; Kazin 1995) repudiates both the bureaucratic model and the activist role for government championed by late 19th century reform movements. This is now a familiar story. The immediate targets were New Deal and Great Society programs. One charge was that the government had undertaken regulatory tasks (e.g., preserving endangered species) or social programs (e.g., providing housing for the poor) that were none of its business. Even if the goal were worthy, conservatives rejected the state as an appropriate means to achieve it. Government bureaucracies, by their very nature, could do little good. Federal agencies were too big, too distant, and above all too encumbered by red tape to respond quickly and effectively. The national government should instead leave many of its customary tasks to state or local governments or, better still, to the private sector’s “thousands points of light.” This redefinition of “efficiency” in the public sector thus involves not only a critique of bureaucracy but also a celebration of market alternatives. The prospects of market rewards for innovation, together with the harsh discipline of market competition, would yield more effective solutions than government could provide, whether in running prisons, teaching children, or employing welfare recipients.

All of these themes, of course, stretch far back in American political history. Indeed, anti-statism and a preference for market solutions are sometimes considered the defining elements of American exceptionalism (Shafer 1991). Two additional features of populist conservatism are more novel and especially important for capitalist class alliances. First, the themes of anti-statism and individual freedom based on the rights of property have for most of the 20th century been championed by small business, often in opposition to (among others) “corporate liberals.” During the 1980s, corporate capital, represented by such formidable organizations as the Business Roundtable, rejoined smaller businesses on a laissez-faire platform (Akard 1992; Edsall 1989). Indeed, along with the political preference for market solutions went a new celebration of entrepreneurship. Small firms, we were often reminded, contribute most of our economy’s job growth and innovation. And in an echo of gilded age Horatio Algerism, scrappy entrepreneurs and startup companies (along with the occasional maverick CEO) once again became the idols of economic progress. In George Gilder’s paean to unfettered capitalism, the heroes were even reassuringly multicultural. “Immigrants in every American city -- Cubans in Miami, Portuguese in Providence and Newark, Filipinos in Seattle, Koreans in Washington, D.C., Vietnamese in Los Angeles, to mention the more recent crop -- have performed . . . feats of commerce, with little help from banks or government or the profession of economics” (Gilder 1981, 52).

Second, the movement combines conservative goals with populist politics, and this too helped rally together capital of different types and scale. Prior to the 1970s, America’s populist impulse tended to use democratic government as a popular weapon against economic elites. The Republican Party in the 1970s succeeded in making business values the core of an electoral realignment that encompassed a substantial majority of the white middle class. Building on the economic frustrations and racial resentments of a declining middle class, the GOP redrew political dividing lines. On one side stood business and hard-working white Protestants, mad as hell. On the other stood big government, liberal elites, and racial minorities. The demographics were not this neat, but the political rhetoric did help bring together a remarkable coalition of middling income whites and capital, large and small. With Reagan’s 1980 victory, downsizing government and liberating the private sector seemed to have become popular crusades (Phillips 1983; Rieder 1989; Kazin 1995; Edsall and Edsall 1991).

The political strategy and the rhetoric of reformers thus gave different factions of capital common ideological ground. They also highlighted a common enemy in organized labor, albeit in different ways than in the late 19th century. The GOP’s political strategy was to put together an electoral majority based on southern and western states, where Democrats were least able to rely on support from organized labor (Phillips 1970). And in appealing to the “Reagan Democrats” -- white, male, often ethnic, working-class voters who had been a bastion of both unions and the New Deal Democrats -- the GOP’s campaign rhetoric further marginalized union labor. Organized labor became a “special interest,” a resonant populist term for groups with power and access but with neither regard for the public interest nor a wide base of support among “the American people.” During the 1984 presidential campaign, for example, Walter Mondale was repeatedly attacked for being a “captive” of the AFL-CIO (Edsall and Edsall 1991, 202-204). GOP political rhetoric also sought to discredit organized labor by associating unions, with some historical accuracy, with the “big government” programs, bloated public sector employment, and extortionate tax policies of the New Deal Democrats. These electoral appeals reinforced the more general message that downsizing government not only improved efficiency but also returned power to ordinary Americans.

Management rhetoric in the realm of work echoes this populist conservatism.13 The flexible workplace, like the revamped welfare system, is said to be more efficient by virtue of its decentralization. A global marketplace requires firms nimble enough to adapt quickly to shifting demands and opportunities; this, in turn, requires less specialized job categories and less fat in middle management. Enlarging lower-level workers’ authority to monitor quality or streamline production methods makes fuller use of employee skills and, like block grants, allows them to adopt general policies and techniques to local conditions. “‘Customization’ is a watchword here: economic changes . . . allow business to personalize their products and services to the identities of specific groups of people” (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996, 28). In order to customize a firm’s products, skills and authority also have to be placed on the front line. “You just can’t manage a fast-growing, fast-moving organization in detail from the top,” a Digital Equipment vice president told Gideon Kunda (1992, 62), “so we’ve continually tried to push decision making functions down inside the organization.”

Advocates of flatter management hierarchies and more flexible deployment of workers, like champions of lean government, also invoke the wisdom of the market to legitimate changes. Much as welfare reformers recommend the lash of the market to encourage independence and hard work among AFDC (now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) recipients, so it is for the benefit of the company as a whole to expose employees or corporate units to the competitive struggle. “One hundred percent of employees turned into ‘business people’ is . . . no mere pipe dream,” exults Tom Peters. “Every job can become an entrepreneurial challenge. Letting go [i.e., decentralizing responsibility] means letting the person alone to experience those Maalox moments -- that is, true, genuine, no-baloney ownership in the gut” (quote by Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996, 30) Loyalty to the firm and security of employment, we are told, are virtues for a (diminishing) core of valued employees. And even for these employees, an increasing proportion of pay is based on performance-based bonuses which sometimes add up to zero (“You can’t count on it,” one employee notes, “but that’s business. Stockholders don’t always get dividends, either” [The New York Times, October 27, 1996, section 3, p. 10]). Beyond this charmed circle of valued employees, work must incur the lowest cost and the least encumbrance. Those requirements are usually taken to mean some combination of temporary employees, subcontractors, and foreign operations, all of which can be reassigned or discontinued on short notice (Shostak 1996).

In celebrating decentralization and market principles as the keys to flexibility, contemporary management publicists find no greater role for unions than did late 19th century advocates of bureaucratic governance. And today, as then, indictments of unions echo prevailing political rhetoric. At work, as in public governance, unions appear as an egregious “special interest” using their entrenched power at the expense of the common good. Flexible firms are said to rely on teamwork and a willingness to put in extra effort or make occasional sacrifices to give the company a competitive edge. Most employees, in this view, are willing to make concessions on wages or work rules; they understand, after all, that their own fortunes rise or fall with the firm’s. Unions are demonized for blocking these concessions. Their “philosophy of ever-shorter hours, narrow job classifications and artificial workload limits is at odds with the work ethic and drags down the nation in its fight to stay competitive” (William Peterson in
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