The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History

The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History

The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History

The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History

Synopsis

IIn 1907, pioneering labor historian and economist John Commons argued that U.S. management had shown just one "symptom of originality," namely "playing one race against the other."In this eye-opening book, David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch offer a radically new way of understanding the history of management in the United States, placing race, migration, and empire at the center of what has sometimes been narrowly seen as a search for efficiency and economy. Ranging from the antebellum period to the coming of the Great Depression, the book examines the extensive literature slave masters produced on how to manage and "develop" slaves; explores what was perhaps the greatest managerial feat in U.S. history, the building of the transcontinental railroad, which pitted Chinese and Irish work gangs against each other; and concludes by looking at how these strategies survive today in the management of hard, low-paying, dangerous jobs in agriculture, military support, and meatpacking. Roediger and Esch convey what slaves, immigrants, and all working people were up against as the objects of managerial control. Managers explicitly ranked racial groups, both in terms of which labor they were best suited for and their relative value compared to others. The authors show how whites relied on such alleged racial knowledge to manage and believed that the "lesser races" could only benefit from their tutelage. These views wove together managerial strategies and white supremacy not only ideologically but practically, every day at workplaces. Even in factories governed by scientific management, the impulse to play races against each other, and to slot workers into jobs categorized by race, constituted powerful management tools used to enforce discipline, lower wages, keep workers on dangerous jobs, and undermine solidarity. Painstakingly researched and brilliantly argued, The Production of Difference will revolutionize the history of labor and race in the United States.

Excerpt

Mr. block, the cartoonish antihero of radical comics in the early twentieth century, had plenty of troubles. the thick-headed Block suffered constant indignities based on his mistaken belief in the good intentions of capitalists, politicians, cops, conservative union leaders, and labor contractors. Ernest Riebe, cartoonist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), created Block to be stupid in an instructive sort of way, the prototypical unthinking white worker who had to learn about class to survive. But in supporting an organizing drive among Louisiana timber workers, Riebe not only had to make Mr. Block learn about race but also had to imagine that the antihero might not always be white. in the 1913 Mr. Block strip “He Meets Others,” Riebe shows workers in the Louisiana Piney Woods region as a most diverse group, a fact not lost on the boss. a suit wearing manager circulates among a group of workers, drawn with slight variations to identify them as being of varied races and nationalities—Anglo-Saxon, Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Polish, and black. These various others are easily set against one another by the manager. the boss threatens and cajoles them to compete by appealing to masculinity, to fears of joblessness, and especially to their willingness to believe in racial and national differences among themselves. Management-by-race proceeds individual by individual in the comic . . .

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