Lives of Labor: Work in a Maturing Industrial Society

Lives of Labor: Work in a Maturing Industrial Society

Lives of Labor: Work in a Maturing Industrial Society

Lives of Labor: Work in a Maturing Industrial Society

Excerpt

This is a study of work, and workers' reaction to work, from the 1890s until World War I, in four countries: Britain, Belgium, Germany and France. The topic is obviously not unprecedented. Earlier studies of industrialization commonly discussed the outlines of the work situation, stressing such elements as hours of work, safety conditions, and employment of women and children. More recently, scholars such as E. P. Thompson have attempted to get at the nature of the industrial work experience, the psychic as well as material aspects that would strike a worker entering factory employment for the first time.

Studies of this sort are immensely valuable and form an important precedent for the present effort. But with rare exceptions they have focused on the first stage of industrialization, when it seems reasonable to assume that the encounter between traditional concepts of work and the pressure of the factories was most abrasive. Relatedly, the emphasis has been on difficulties of adaptation, on the compulsion under which workers were placed to convert them to effective instruments of industrial labor.

Far less attention has been given to the more mature period of industrialization that opened up after the 1870s. Some outlines are familiar, of course. The growing size of the unit of employment presumably heightened impersonality at work and encouraged a more rigorous supervision of the labor force. New technology intruded even into the artisanal trades, converting some, such as shoe manufacture, into factory operations and reducing or altering skill levels in others. In all branches of manufacturing, this was a period of speed-up, in which human arrangements were changed, beyond the requirements of machines themselves, in an effort to increase productivity. At the same time, some of the problems that have preoccupied labor historians during the earlier period now had a reduced impact; notably, the standard of living rose, though its extent can be debated, particularly for the years of inflation that opened up after 1900. Yet with rare exceptions the details of this framework have not been filled in. Economic historians have dealt only fleetingly with the workers, while labor historians have been consumed by a desire to trace the intricacies of rising socialist parties and trade unions.

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