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Lordstown and “Work in America”

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With the announced closure of GM’s Lordstown plant, now is as good a time as any to revisit the moment when that facility played an outsized role in the labor politics in America. As you might expect, Erik has written about it as part of his labor history series. As Erik notes, the 18 day 1972 Lordstown strike produced what would under most circumstances be treated as a solid victory for the workers, but managed to fail to address some of their core concerns. Additionally, the Lordstown strike was also the proximate cause of a study to be commissioned by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which produced a truly fascinating document. Several years ago I contributed an essay to an online academic journal on the interrelationships between work, freedom, and democracy in which I discussed this report, and its implications for thinking about the freedom/work/democracy relationship. Excerpt:

In the early 1970s, in the midst of de-industrialization, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare conducted a major study on the state of working America today. This study was in part a response to the growing unrest known in the popular media at the time as the ‘blue collar blues’—workers frustrated not merely with wages, hours, or more traditional labor concerns, but with their lack of control over a variety of the details of the work itself. An impetus for this report, and a symbol of the politics of the moment, was the labor unrest and eventual strike at the Lordstown, Ohio Chevy plant in 1972. Management was eager to launch a new assembly line model in this plant that was 40 percent faster than workers were accustomed to, but more mechanized and less labor intensive. For years prior to the strike, labor strife had been simmering here, but the unusually young and racially diverse workforce had a different set of “surprisingly non-economistic” complaints and issues than GM management were used to dealing with: “in a majority of cases the fundamental grievance was the petty despotism of the workplace incarnated in the capricious power of the foreman and the inhuman processes of mechanized production lines.” Ironically, the three-week strike won a number of major concessions for the union, but they were virtually all concessions of the traditional sort, relating to hours, pensions, benefits, and pay. However, the new kind of complaints at least briefly got the attention of the US government, as work dissatisfaction and alienation became a significant concern. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare study found significant evidence that the complaints of Lordstown were hardly unique:

What the workers most want, as more than 100 studies in the past 20 years show, is to become masters of their immediate environments and to feel that their work and they themselves are important—the twin ingredients of self-esteem. Workers recognize that some of the dirty jobs can be transformed only into merely tolerable, but the most oppressive features of work are felt to be avoidable: constant supervision and coercion, lack of variety, monotony, meaningless tasks, and isolation. An increasing number of workers want more autonomy in tackling their tasks, greater opportunity for increasing their skills, rewards that are directly connected to the intrinsic aspects of work, and greater participation in the design of work and the formulation of their tasks.

The political agenda set forth in the study never gained much traction, and the ensuing acceleration of de-industrialization the wake of the 1973 oil crisis made the demands associated with it seem inconsequential as the disappearance of the jobs themselves accelerated. Nevertheless, the concern remained—an economist at the time proposed that the practical limit worker alienation placed on the capacity to increase efficiency by increasing the division of labor was a law of economics, expressible as a formal model.

If the brief appearance of issues of worker dissatisfaction and alienation didn’t remain on the political agenda for long, it’s not because the problem went away. One of the most thorough surveys of American workers suggests a significant unmet desire for greater control on the part of workers:

American workers want more of a say/influence/representation/participation/voice (call it what you will) at the workplace than they now have…because they think it will improve the quality of their working lives….Workers want more cooperative relations with management….and believe that management resistance is the primary reason they do not have the desired level of influence on their workplace.

Workers were more likely to give an essential or very high ranking to the importance of respect from their employers than they were for a living wage or job security. Follow-up research suggests similar conclusions across the Anglosphere countries. The research emphasizes that no single strategy for voice and representation, such as unions or particular workplace democracy schemes or constitutional rules, is likely to be broadly sufficient for meeting the demand for voice, and that satisfying employee demand for voice calls for greater flexibility and innovation in institutional structures to deliver it. Furthermore, the more empowerment workers experience, the more enthusiastic they become about acquiring more; few things increase the popularity of workplace democracy than its experience.

Citations removed but they’re all there at the link. I had planned to revisit the report in a bit more detail in this post, but I’ve been unable to locate my copy and reluctant to try to do it from memory. If I manage to find it, I’ll update or do a new post. I’ll just close by observing that before the process of researching and writing this paper, I was more or less agnostic in the great “UBI or jobs guarantee” debate that’s been coming up again lately. The research pointed me more clearly in the “jobs” direction. Two reasons: First, it became more difficult to dismiss the the satisfying work experience–well-being connection as merely an artifact of a malignant ideology, and second, it became clear that the nature of the work did not have to be ‘meaningful’ or ‘interesting’ (in the sense people like me might define make such a designation) to provide the ‘meaningful work’ benefits to well-being.

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