Rachleff reviews Milkman's Farewell to the Factory

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Tue Jun 30 16:05:31 PDT 1998

Peter Rachleff's review of Ruth Milkman's _Farewell to the Factory_ may be of interest to lbo-talkers, since we have a thread on the UAW now.


Date: Tue, 30 Jun 1998 14:04:09 EDT Sender: H-Net Labor History Discussion List <H-LABOR at H-NET.MSU.EDU> From: "Seth Wigderson, University of Maine-Augusta"

<SETHW at MAINE.maine.edu> Subject: Rachleff reviews Milkman's Farewell to the Factory

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Labor at h-net.msu.edu (June, 1998)

Ruth Milkman. _Farewell to the Factory: Auto Workers in the Late Twentieth Century_. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xiii + 234 pp. Tables, appendices, notes, and index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-520-20677-0; $14.95 (paper), ISBN 0-520-20678-9.

Reviewed for H-Labor by Peter Rachleff <rachleff at macalester.edu>, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota

"Adieu" or "Au Revoir"?

This book is much more complex than it appears at first glance to be. On one level, it is a detailed, carefully researched and constructed case study of a single factory--the General Motors assembly plant in Linden, New Jersey--and its workforce--mostly male, mostly white--as they face the overwhelming challenges of the 1980s: plant closings, the whipsawing of locals, the rise and fall of internal union dissident caucuses, concessions, buyouts, and the reorganization of production away from the long-established Fordism of the post-World War II era. On other levels, however, _Farewell to the Factory_, confronts such ongoing discussions as the decline of identification with work and the rise of leisure-based identity, the crisis of the U.S. labor movement, and notions of the "end of work" as we have known it. Milkman is to be congratulated for having taken on such a complex and important set of issues, and to have grounded her study in a specific, concrete milieu.

During the fat years of the auto industry and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union--1945-1970s--workers at the GM Linden plant produced large luxury cars (Cadillacs, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles), enjoyed increasing incomes and benefits, used seniority to move from more arduous, dirty, and difficult jobs within the plant to less unpleasant ones, counted on job security, and looked forward to an economically-stable retirement. They took the monotonous, routinized character of their work as a given, but they chafed under the discipline exerted by frontline supervision. They filed grievances and went on occasional strikes. While most identified with the union (UAW Local 595), only a few became activists.

As the fat years drew to a close, this world changed, suddenly and thoroughly. In the 1970s, a new generation of workers began to question the local union's willingness to defer to plant management on such shopfloor issues as the intensity of work, the application of seniority rules, and management harassment. The Linden Auto Workers (LAW) caucus challenged the leaders of the local as they tried to change its direction. They faced determined opposition not only from the established union leadership but also from the plant management, and caucus activists were disciplined, suspended, and even fired. But the model of militancy they put forward grew in popularity among the workforce, and caucus leaders gained the leadership of the local in 1982.

By the early 1980s, autoworkers faced more than a pushing, hostile local management. The Chrysler crisis and bailout of the late 1970s signaled that the entire industry had entered a period of profound change. The gains made over two generations were suddenly at risk, as the national managements of Ford, GM, and Chrysler threatened to close plants which were "less productive" than others, a threat made real by industry-wide overcapacity, a threat which all three companies acted on often enough to impress workers that they were serious. Management's demands for concessions were far-reaching: wage freezes, reduced wages for new hires, the rewriting of work rules and job descriptions, increased work loads and mandatory overtime.

While Local 595's new leadership was eager to resist these demands, they received no support from the UAW national leadership. Much to the contrary, they allowed the Big 3's management to whipsaw locals against each other. Concessions became the order of the day, plants were closed, the UAW lost tens of thousands of members, and the union's power was markedly diminished.

But the changes went even further, especially at Linden. In 1985, the Linden plant was closed for a complete makeover, involving a change in product lines from luxury cars to small ones, the introduction of automation and new technologies, and the reorganization of production with a much smaller workforce. The plant was closed for more than a year, during which time workers collected unemployment and "SUB" (supplemental unemployment benefits as per the union contract) benefits. As GM made ready to reopen the plant, it offered a "buyout" program to encourage workers to leave altogether.

These are the issues that most interested Milkman. She carefully explores who took the buyout, who didn't, and why. She relies on considerable demographic data from employment and union records, along with surveys, focus groups, and oral interviews that she conducted with the workers. It is from this part of the project--the exploration of choices made around the buyout--that she derived her title, _Farewell to the Factory_.

Her findings, while hardly earthshaking, are interesting. Younger workers with less seniority were much more likely to opt for the buyout than older workers with more seniority. Women took the buyout at nearly double their percentage in the workforce, while African-Americans largely preferred to stick with GM than try to re-enter the workforce elsewhere. Milkman enriches these findings with research on the workers who stayed at GM, focussing on their expectations of worklife in the "new" plant. GM made many promises about the reorganization of production, the new roles that workers would play, and the new status that they would enjoy. Workers' responses to Milkman's surveys and interviews suggest that those who turned down the buyout opportunity had some hope that work itself would get better after the changeover and that supervisors would treat workers differently. Reality, as we all might have guessed, fell far short of these expectations, and work in the "new" plant was little different than it had been under the Fordist regime of an earlier era, save for the skilled trades, who increased in number and enjoyed more interesting work assignments. There were, after all, more machines to repair and maintain in the new plant, and these machines were more complex and valuable.

Drawing on her findings about those who chose the buyout and those who put their faith in a "new" GM Linden plant, Milkman argues that both groups shared a deep distaste for the organization of factory work, particularly the frontline supervision, of the Fordist factory. For these workers, leaving the factory altogether by accepting a buyout or placing hope in management to reorganize production and labor relations in a new way amounted to different ways to say "farewell" to the conventional factory.

This is an interesting argument, one that provides academics with a bridge to today's industrial (and office?) workforce. Milkman's generation of information from surveys, focus groups, and interviews provides useful material for all readers. Her argument also explicitly engages those who argue that new technology is a panacea, that labor-management cooperation is a sham, that work itself is no longer central to workers' identities, or that work as we have known it is disappearing from the U.S. economy. These side discussions are often animated and worthwhile, and they serve, at the least, as a useful entree into these controversies.

There is one area that Milkman seems less willing to delve into head on, however, which I think is of considerable importance, that of the conflict between the militant local union leadership and the UAW national leadership in the early 1980s--and of the consequences of the outcome of this struggle on the choices made by workers in the later 1980s. I don't want to suggest that Milkman has swept these issues under the rug, as she has provided considerable useful and interesting information about them throughout the book. But she has chosen to treat them as marginal to her central argument, about why workers made--and, by implication, will make--the choices they do.

Milkman provides ample evidence that ensuing events bore out the local leadership's analysis far more than that of the UAW national leadership. While we cannot know if a struggle against concessions could have succeeded, it is clear that granting concessions, allowing locals to compete with each other, relaxing work rules and job descriptions, and promoting labor-management cooperation did not save jobs in the U.S. auto industry. It also weakened the union, at local and national levels, and contributed to the overall crisis of the labor movement.

The demonstrated ineffectiveness of the union should have been explored as an important factor in the choices of the workers to accept the buyout offer or even to give management a relatively free hand to reorganize work and labor relations. An exploration of this topic might have led Milkman to question whether there was a "farewell" to the union as well as the factory implied--if not expressed--in the workers' choices. As disturbing as this topic might be, it deserves to be tackled head on.

I don't want to end on a totally negative note, about this book, the UAW, or autoworkers in 1998. Recently, I heard Richard Feldman, the co-author of the late 1980s book, _The End of the Line: Autoworkers and the American Dream_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), speak at a labor conference. A critic of the UAW national leadership's strategies since 1971 and of his own local's venture into labor-management cooperation, Feldman was elected a year ago to the shop chairman's position (the top workplace union office) in Ford's Wayne, Michigan, truck plant, where its hot-selling Navigator and Expedition are made. In his comments, Feldman noted that one-third of the workforce at the Wayne plant--which accounts for one-half of Ford's total U.S. profits--has less than three years' seniority, and that this group was his primary base of support within the local. He has found them willing to oppose increased workloads, to fight for more jobs, and to resist Ford management's "lean and mean" late 20th century agenda. He--and they--are preparing for a possible strike over these issues this coming fall.

Maybe Milkman's "farewell" should be translated as "au revoir" (until we meet again) rather than "adieu" (good-bye forever).

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