Do Capitalists Matter in the Capitalist Labor Process?

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The New York Times, July 26, 1987, section 3, p. 2). More generally, unions are seen as sabotaging direct cooperation between employees and management for fear of being cut out of industrial relations altogether. The ideal of flexibility is turned against unions in another way. Much as the Democratic Party is the party of big government, bureaucratic regulation, and red tape, so unions are the source of rigidity in workplace governance. In a remarkable fit of historical amnesia, managers attribute narrowly defined job categories, due process employment protections, and formalized grievance procedures to union demands. Contractual regulation of labor relations is incompatible with flexibility; the flexible workplace, accordingly, must be union free (Amberg 1991; Kaus 1983). “A web of rules,” Kaus argues, “is often the enemy of economic progress. . . . It was only by defeating the skilled workers at Homestead, alas, that Andrew Carnegie was able to introduce the technology that . . . made American steel manufacturers the most efficient in the world.”

These comparisons between the late 19th and 20th centuries are merely suggestive. A self-standing study of capitalist class formation and the labor process today would require a closer look at the social networks and collective identities through which political movements and the workplace interact. It seems clear, however, that changes in capitalist class solidarities and political alignments remain relevant to employer ideology and practice within the factory gates.
Students of the capitalist labor process need to pay more attention to capitalists, the better to understand the labor process. We have long since abandoned the theoretical fiction that a worker's consciousness can be inferred from his or her place in relations of production. Employers deserve the same courtesy. Their policies at work are not structurally determined in detail, either by competitive pressures or by some essentialized capital-labor conflict. Employer policies also reflect their definitions of "the labor problem" and their understanding of what options are available to deal with it. Those definitions and perceptions, in turn, are mediated by employers' social ties and collective identities. Although these ties and identities are forged largely outside the workplace, they have direct implications for the inner sanctum of the labor process.

The parallels in identities and discourse between polity and workplace that I have illustrated here are not what either Marxist or liberal sociologists would lead us to expect. Both have long argued that a separation of political and economic authority helped sustain capitalist democracy. The legal and ideological walls between polity and economy kept democratic states from attacking the power of capital and kept citizens -- in their 9 to 5 roles as wage labor -- from invoking democratic rights on the job. Historians have traced the construction of these walls in labor laws (such as legal doctrines of conspiracy and liability [Tomlins 1993]) and in statutes of incorporation (whereby socialized capital freed itself from public control [Roy 1997]). A closer look at the late 19th and 20th centuries, however, suggests that in other respects the boundary between authority at work and in politics is quite porous. In both periods, ideals of efficiency held up as goals for managers or justifications for management practices drew on ideals of government reform. And in both cases, those ideals may be traced to broader political and class realignments. If movements for municipal reform or deregulation did not cause employers to advance new agendas for workplace governance, they at least created opportunities for employers to publicly legitimate their authority in new ways.

Whether in the late 20th or the late 19th century, those tools for legitimation have also served as weapons against labor. Looking back to the period examined most closely here, the grounds on which employers forged more encompassing identities, and the lines along which they distinguished themselves from employees, put craft control at odds with the rights of individual employers and the interests of the business community. This paper stressed how class realignments in industrial cities generally fostered a redefinition of interests and solidarities. That influence also ran in the opposite direction: a new rhetoric of management prerogatives and freedom from outside interference provided a common rallying cry for employers otherwise divided by competition and industrial setting. In this way, redefined interests also enhanced collective capacities. The collective lives of capitalists thus matter a great deal more than the literature on the labor process would suggest.

I should emphasize again that proprietors and managers had many and varied incentives for repudiating craft regulation and union representation. The relative weight of employer class formation and of economic constraints impinging on individual employers is neither fixed nor quantifiable. At the very least, however, the ways in which class formation reconstructed interests and identities accounts for most of the language and much of the vehemence with which employers mounted their offensive. The importance of anti-unionism to American employers' identities and collective organization, in turn, may help explain why alternative approaches to regulating production and representing workers were adopted, if at all, only grudgingly and as a last resort. In this respect, at least, the differences in political and managerial rhetoric between the 1890s and 1990s are less striking than the continuities.

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