Book Review


The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (1987), by David Montgomery, has been compared with E. P. Thompson’s masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, in that, to paraphrase Thompson, it is essentially a biography—an extraordinarily rich one—of the U.S’s working class in its formative years. It is, therefore, a work of synthesis. However, like Thompson’s book, it goes beyond mere synthesis to provide a specific, and powerful, framework within which to interpret the fortunes of this class in its political and economic battles. In fact, Montgomery’s account is arguably more focused than Thompson’s: Montgomery sees struggles at the workplace over who will control work—the employer or the employee—as the crux of early industrial labor history, the most important source of conflict between workers and capitalists, and he emphasizes that the worker’s worldview was formed above all at the point of production. Analytical continuities thus help to cohere what might otherwise have been an apparently arbitrary and bewildering discussion of a huge range of topics. Instead, the product is simply a monumental testament to scholarly rigor and capaciousness of thought.


The book is loosely divided into three parts of three chapters each. In the first part, Montgomery recreates in vivid detail the world and the work of three categories of workers in the late nineteenth century: skilled craftsmen (especially iron- and steelworkers), common laborers, and female factory operatives in the garment and textile industries. In the second part, he traces the rise of scientific management, which was a key component in employers’ struggle to wrest control of the work process away from employees. The book’s final three chapters are devoted to the explosive labor unrest that preceded, accompanied, and followed World War I—and business and the state’s reactions to this unrest—as well as the creation of a conservative welfare-capitalist regime after 1922 characterized by a quiescent labor movement. The capitalism of the 1920s was the apotheosis of that social order whose construction had begun with the decline of competitive capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century and the rise of corporate capitalism: it saw the final victory of management’s attempts to control production and degrade the worker’s conditions of work (while compensating him with ‘welfare’). Only with the coming of the Great Depression would this form of capitalism, too, collapse—at least in part—thus providing America’s labor movement with the opportunity for a new beginning.


Several noteworthy themes emerge in the course of Montgomery’s analysis. As already stated, a particularly important one is the progressive degradation of work as management took over more and more productive functions and deprived workers of what autonomy they had once had. In the 1870s, many craftsmen had “exercised an impressive degree of collective control over the specific productive tasks in which they were engaged and the human relations involved in the performance of those tasks” (p. 13). They developed a group ethical code around their work relations, the most important component of which was the “stint,” or “the collective definition of a reasonable day’s work” (p. 17). That is, they restricted their output—unilaterally, not in negotiations with their employer—for the sake of maintaining regular employment, higher piece rates, and relative comfort in their work. Employers, understandably, could not abide such behavior that went on behind their backs; hence arose, eventually, Taylorism and scientific management, which entailed, for instance, “centralized planning and routing of the successive phases in fabrication [of a product]” (p. 217), as well as the standardization of work practices and the detailed supervision of workers. These developments, in addition to the rise of mechanization, contributed to an “epidemic of strikes” in the early twentieth century as workers rebelled against being reduced to machines.


An even broader theme, illustrated by the concept of the stint, is that an ideology of mutualism was fostered among workers by their relations with each other at the point of production—an ideology quite opposed to the acquisitive individualism engendered by competitive relations between businesses. On the other hand, the racism and nativism that persecuted black and immigrant laborers tended to vitiate working-class mutualism. Montgomery paints the harassed lives of these laborers in poignant detail, illustrating in the process his point that “laborers’ struggles bore the clear imprint of their rural origins and continuing ties to the land” (p. 87). Indeed, this is one of the great strengths of the book, namely that it places American labor history in the context of international capitalism and its devastating effects on the agricultural ‘periphery’ of the industrial ‘core.’ Developments in the former influenced tendencies in the latter. For example, the increasing mobility of rural people due to railroads and steamships allowed them to travel to industrialized countries by the tens of millions, among the effects of which in the West was the slowing-down of the improvement (due to high demand) in laborers’ wages after 1878 (p. 70). By thus taking an international perspective, Montgomery avoids the parochialism of much labor history.


Being a social history, the book might have benefited from greater attention to the role of gender in conditioning behavior. Gender is by no means completely absent, however, for instance in Montgomery’s account of the ethical code that governed machinists’ behavior. “The moral imperative of a ‘manly bearing,’” he notes, appeared often in machinists’ discourse, as in that of other craftsmen. “The workers’ code celebrated individual self-assertion, but for the collective good, rather than for self-advancement” (p. 204). Manliness was defined, therefore, not in relation to the individual but in relation to the group: if an individual upheld the code of the group and acted in solidarity against the common employer, he was prized as a man. Norms of femininity, on the other hand, appear even less often in the book than norms of masculinity, although Montgomery does devote many pages to the experiences of female factory operatives.


The Fall of the House of Labor is far too rich to be reproduced even in outline in a book review, but hopefully the foregoing has at least given the reader a small sense of its richness. The theoretically minded reader might appreciate the work for its substantial, though implicit, validation of Marxist historical methods and concepts, given Montgomery’s constant return to the importance of production relations in shaping workers’ experiences, hopes, and ideologies. In this respect, as in others, the work is very traditional. Whether that is a weakness is debatable; in fact, one might argue that the book proves the continuing value of traditional concepts and theoretical programs. For it remains a classic, almost thirty years after its publication.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright