Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Workers and Community: The Case of the Peat-Cutters and the Shipbuilding Industry in Saint-Nazaire, 1881-1910

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Workers and Community: The Case of the Peat-Cutters and the Shipbuilding Industry in Saint-Nazaire, 1881-1910

Article excerpt

In February 1901 in the French town of Saint-Nazaire, a port and shipbuilding center in western Brittany, the Penhouet shipyard reinstated its spring schedule of lengthened work days and an extended midday break of one and a half hours. About one-third of the workforce, all of them skilled shipwrights who resided in the nearby rural community of Saint-Joachim, immediately went on strike to keep the shorter midday break. The remaining workers, however, residents of Saint-Nazaire's working-class quartiers, refused to sanction this strike and even lobbied management to institute the extended lunch period. The local press was quick to note that the strike, which was "not about a salary increase," had a "very different character" from many previous shipbuilding strikes.(1) Indeed, this strike illustrates how loyalties and affiliations shaped by community and culture could function at the workplace to counteract workshop identities and issues. By examining the origins and operation of these associations within the shipbuilding workforce, this paper underscores the importance of community and culture in shaping workers' identities and demonstrates how these issues played a significant part in both fostering and limiting labor solidarity and labor conflict. The findings will suggest how the study of residential settlement patterns, diverse cultures, community affiliations, and the role of part-time occupations are all issues important in understanding labor history in the nineteenth century, as in the present.

Historians have repeatedly warned against characterizing the development of the European working-class as an identical, linear process that began with the first signs of factory smoke and culminated in the formation of an urbanized, industrial workforce that held similar political objectives and shop floor agendas. They have questioned the conceptualization of industrialization as an inexorable process that slowly yet steadily built an urban industrial workforce while dissolving the cultural patterns and kinship ties that had defined traditional rural communities. Such a view assumes that urban residential patterns and industrial work settings quickly replaced both family networks and rural culture in determining occupation, household organization, politics, and social relations among the uprooted. It further supposes the working class somehow responded to urban settlement and work by sharing a particular set of dispositions about their world and then acted collectively to alter their place within society. Recent research has challenged these rigid models from several angles and historians now recognize that the process of industrial transformation did not always proletarianize workers nor create a homogeneous working class with a unified labor agenda. Focusing on the social and cultural context of the transition to industrial work, some historians have demonstrated that many communities of peasants newly dependent on industrial wages created alternatives to both urbanization and proletarianization.(2) Moreover, we might add that industrialization also failed to create a single political product, that is, a labor agenda held in common by all workers.(3) As Jean Quataert has noted, proletarianization was not "the final social product" of industrialization for all workers. Instead, the "outcomes" of the transition to industrial work and urban settlement for workers were varied and diverse.(4)

Yet other historians have suggested that the diversity of these outcomes can best be understood by shifting from a concentration on workplace struggles to the broader identities arising from community affiliation and association. Many historians of American and European labor have begun to investigate workers' communities, demonstrating that the strategies and identities embedded in residential communities, shared consumer concerns, and cultural associations are essential components in workers' adaptation and activity. In this vein, James Cronin argues for the salience of settlement patterns and neighborhood social institutions in the urban revolts immediately following World War I. …

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