Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural Industrial Workers in West Virginia

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural Industrial Workers in West Virginia

Article excerpt

Lou Martin, Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural Industrial Workers in West Virginia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2015)

HANCOCK COUNTY, sandwiched between the Ohio River and the Pennsylvania state line in northern West Virginia, provides the backdrop for Lou Martin's fascinating study of 20th century rural-industrial workers. Pottery and tinplate manufacturing firms were introduced into this Appalachian landscape in the 1890s as industrialists "searched for places where they could tap pools of low-wage first generation" workers. (5) The resulting interplay between industrial and preindustrial traditions and practices formed the basis of a distinct rural working-class culture, wherein a developed sense of localism worked against the establishment of more traditional forms of class consciousness. Unlike their urban counterparts, industrial workers in Hancock County remained largely opposed to the goals of the New Deal coalition, such as the expansion of the welfare state and national trade unionism. Martin traces the contours of their rural-industrial culture into the 1980s, when restructuring prompted crises for rural and urban industrial workers alike.

The international processes of capital mobility, industrialization, and deindustrialization feature prominently. While the reader is treated to a rich tableau of working-class life, movingly captured through a combination of oral history and archival research, Martin is clear: we are witnessing but a brief moment in a much longer story of Schumpterian creative destruction. Industries that once thrived in cities and towns throughout North America and Europe have moved to areas of the globe with depressed labour costs and lower rates of unionization. "Meanwhile, in places like Chengdu, China, a new generation of factory workers is emerging and developing a new rural-industrial culture." (12) Martin's work will be of particular interest to scholars examining the history of global capitalism.

Several factors influenced the rise of the "rural-industrial worker." Industrialization brought immigration; labourers from Europe, poor sharecroppers from the South, and dispossessed farmers from the Appalachian hollers streamed into Hancock County between the 1890s and 1930s. Importing their folkways, these rural migrants established practices for supplementing the necessities of life. Establishing small plots of arable "common land" (74) outside of the city limits offered some measure of self-sufficiency--and allowed for the development of a family economy model that contrasted with the breadwinner ideal exhibited by skilled craft workers.

Intra-union tensions during the 1930s set the stage for the entrenchment of anti-labour attitudes that marked a significant divergence from the radicalism of many urban workers. In 1933, shortly after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, ten thousand unorganized workers at the Weirton Steel Works walked out in protest of the company union and sought affiliation with the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers (AAISTW). Michael Tighe, AAISTW president, immediately denounced the strike--fearing rank-and-file militancy. Meanwhile, private security at Weirton enacted a campaign of systematic violence against union organizers--supported in the courts by sympathetic judges. The failure of conservative unionism, the viciousness of private employers, and the apparent ineffectual legalities of the New Deal prompted the rural-industrial workers of Hancock County to turn inward and pursue non-confrontational "older strategies for improving their quality of life." (91)

Martin's comparative analysis of these strategies during the 1940s and 1950s is stark. While their urban counterparts sought collectively bargained contracts on a national level, pottery and steel workers in Hancock County relied on entrenched localism to shape labour negotiations through smaller independent organizations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.