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Are Cheap Goods Possible Without Mass Human Suffering?

Joshua B. Freeman uses the history of the factory as a way to re-examine how workers are treated worldwide.
Factory worker

When the Bolsheviks emerged victorious after the Russian Revolution, they fought intensely about the best and least cruel way to modernize and prosper. It was a complex question. Factories were not simply a means of production, but also a means of remaking society. Henry Ford didn't just build cars—he built a whole era of Capitalism. How the Bolsheviks ran their factories would be a major determinative factor in the shape of their empire. As historian Joshua B. Freeman shows in his new book, Behemoth: The History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, the questions that obsessed the Bolsheviks have enduring relevance, even for those who aren't building a communist empire. At the heart of these questions is an imperative to achieve a level of production that satisfies society's need for cheap goods without commensurate mass human suffering—and without violent resistance to collective bargaining from above. In other words, is it the profit-seeking of factory operators that creates dangerous environments, or does the volume of production demanded by the populace require an inherently cruel management style? Freeman's answer is complicated.

Consider U.S. Steel, where the force of the state and the resources of some of the world's richest men like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan came down with fury on workers who pushed back to improve their standing against brutal working conditions. "Between 1875 and 1910, state troops were called out nearly 500 times to deal with labor unrest, and at least several hundred persons died in strike-related violence," Freeman writes. Eventually, antitrust action by the Department of Justice and deteriorating public opinion brought on by accounts from journalists, alongside persistent but often-squashed worker action, forced U.S. Steel to offer concessions like a six-day workweek.

Around the same time, in 1913, the Ford Motor Company achieved major productivity gains with the assembly line, often lauded for its efficiency. And while it's true that some of those gains were the result of a better division of labor, Freeman explains where the bulk actually came from: "...the sheer intensification of work, the elimination of the ability of workers to wander around looking for a part or tool, to slowdown while a foreman wasn't watching, or to store up finished parts to allow resting later on."

An increased interest in organizing followed the establishment of the assembly line. To appease its workers, Ford Motor Company offered shorter hours and a pay raise, though the latter came with a lot of strings attached. Besides discriminating based on gender and age, the company wanted its workers to adhere to a cultural program outside the factory, a program that they policed rigidly.

For many years afterwards, Ford Motor Company and its competitors made cheap cars and a bunch of money as their workers suffered. The factories went from large to massive. Finally, in the 1930s, with an economic recovery and support from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, United Automobile Workers began making headway organizing the workers of General Motors. They knew, because of how General Motors' supply chain functioned, that it was "vulnerable to a militant minority." When the time came to strike, with about half the workforce on board, they were able to halt operations. As Freeman explains, "[t]he efficiencies and strategic advantages of the giant factory had come back to haunt the company, as a minority of workers, by seizing key choke points, leveraged power far beyond what one might expect from their modest numbers."

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.

Their successes, which resulted in better working conditions and better pay, kicked off a wave of successful action, bolstered by Franklin Roosevelt's pro-labor White House and a number of pro-labor state governments. Even U.S. Steel acquiesced to the emerging Steel Workers Organizing Committee. The smaller steel companies were resistant, as was the Ford Motor Company. It wasn't until World War II began that the tightening of the labor market created conditions advantageous enough for those to dominoes to fall. By 1941, a combination of legal challenges and strikes caused the smaller steel companies to cave, and a massive strike at the Ford Motor Company’s plants, which included better strategies for preventing replacement workers entry, earned them union recognition and a generous contract.

It was an inspiring moment in an interminable saga, and Freeman strikes a triumphant note in recognizing that the UAW's success proved factories could be made more ethical and democratic—that the workers could shape the industrialists as much as the other way around.

It's perhaps a more useful and uplifting lesson than the more difficult one that comes next: that this wisdom only holds true until the rich and powerful figure out something cheaper. In this case, the something cheaper was union-busting by proxy through moving operations to smaller factories in the South, where labor organizers had less power, and contracting companies in China and Vietnam to do what domestic factories no longer could. "Like the largest and most advanced factories in the past, today's industrial giants embody the possibilities and horrors of large-scale industry," Freeman writes. "But they do so largely out of the spotlight, hidden rather than celebrated as factories once were." Foxconn, owned by the Chinese company Hon Hai Precision Industry, which produces the goods for Apple, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard, operates in a distinctly dystopian mode. In 2010, they responded to a rise in worker suicides not by changing "a production regime that was leading young men and women to jump off buildings," but instead by installing netting "to try to catch them before they hit the ground." Freeman goes on to note that hoards of Americans passively support this company in one way or another, if not by owning products they manufacture than by owning a stake of the company itself in a retirement or savings account. Global capitalism's dense entanglements find a way to implicate everyone, eventually.

Giant factories in the United States today can sometimes feel like ghosts. The cheap goods that they used to create still appear on shelves, even if they're now coming from Mexico or Taiwan. Many of the cities that were essentially built by companies to support massive production facilities, like Flint, Michigan or Gary, Indiana, have been abandoned. And this is not just true in the U.S. The social and economic costs of industrial decline have been devastating worldwide, and the results can be seen "in the depressed industrial centers of the American Midwest, northern England, northern France, Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and northern China, with their plagues of unemployment, poverty, contaminated earth and water, drug and alcohol use, and despair," as Freeman notes.

Within this frame, Behemoth can feel like a book about a disaster that's always happening yet always impending. In some ways, it is. But as Freeman demonstrates, progress has been won before and can be won again. More than that, this world and its consequences were chosen by the powerful people of the time. That means that, with enough will and enough democratic power, the world can be remade once more.

The next phase of change could emerge in any number of ways. Strong unions, the bedrock of early 20th-century progress, have dwindled. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, just 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers were members of unions. Compared to the 1945 rate, with "roughly one in three non-agricultural [workers] carrying a union card," that's a small percentage. And with automation, outsourcing, and continued capital investment in a burgeoning so-called gig economy, many workers seem to be marching toward a more precarious situation, not less.

Unionization and regulating Uber-type contract companies are two essential parts of protecting workers, but free health care at the point of service and universal basic income, among other social programs, should also be seen as necessary planks of empowering workers and disempowering ownership. As Freeman consistently demonstrates, one of the main powers employers have over employees is that workers risk destitution without a job. A more robust safety net would mitigate that. Exercising influence on worker treatment abroad is more difficult, but, regardless, it will be vital to find ways to dissuade other companies from continuing to profit from the cruelty of outfits like Foxconn. What Behemoth shows is that, as long as owners can make more money by treating workers poorly, they will. And though the means will change, the workers will keep fighting back.