Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

Forty Years of Labor 12

Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

Forty Years of Labor 12

Article excerpt

On July 2, 1974 I began my 11-month stint as a machine operator at Allied Corporation, a pseudonym for the engine division of the multinational corporation, Allis Chalmers. By an extraordinary chance I had landed in the same factory studied by the great Chicago ethnographer, Donald Roy, in 1944-45.3 Manufacturing Consent (Burawoy 1979) examined the changes that had taken place in the intervening 30 years. In 2004, after another 30 years, I returned to my old stomping ground in Harvey, Illinois on the South Side of Chicago.

The physical plant was still there. Its grounds were overgrown with weeds, its buildings were dilapidated and it had a new owner. In 1974 Allis Chalmers was the biggest U.S. corporation producing agricultural equipment after Caterpillar and John Deere. Soon thereafter it entered dire financial straits and was eventually bought out by K-H-Deutz AG of Germany in 1985. The engine division in Harvey shut down and became a warehouse for a local manufacturer of steel tubes - Allied Tubes. Thus, in yet another quirk of sociological serendipity the alias that I gave Allis Chalmers turned out to be the actual name of the company that bought it up. In 1987, Allied Tubes was itself taken over by Tyco - the scandal-fraught international conglomerate. Marking the times, in 2003 Tyco's two top executives were charged with securities fraud, tax evasion and looting hundreds of millions of dollars from the conglomerate.

Warehousing, conglomeration and corporate looting effectively capture the fall out of the Reagan era that had begun in 1980, five years after I left Allis. South Chicago had been the home of thriving blue collar ethnic communities, famously around its steel mills, described by Bill Kornblum (1974) in his Blue Collar Community - a book that appeared just as I was beginning to work at Allis. The whole South-side of Chicago became an industrial morgue as plant after plant closed down. Allied Tubes was one of the last hold outs. Instead of a working class suburb we now have a ghetto, largely populated by African Americans. Many were evacuated from the celebrated and controversial Robert Taylor Homes, located to the South of Chicago's inner city. When this "housing project" was completed in 1962 it was said to be the largest public housing development in the United States. The story of the rise and fall of the Robert Taylor Homes has been richly portrayed in Sudhir Venkatesh's (2000) American Project. The homes have now been torn down and turned into "mixed-income" housing, while many of the erstwhile residents have been warehoused into the wastelands of South Chicago, to communities like Harvey.

The landscape of Harvey is not what it was but the suburban strip where I used to live was still recognizable in 2004 despite signs for the sale of real estate at "very cheap" prices, despite empty lots, gutted buildings, broken windows, currency exchanges for pay day loans, fast food outlets, auction signs, African American churches, and run down bars. What happened to Harvey took hold of much of the South Side. Indeed, it is a story that can be recounted time and again in America's rust belt as industry shut down or traveled abroad to be partially replaced by a service economy and the revolution. The state denied any responsibility for social and economic dislocation, giving rise to deepening inequalities, escalating crime, and poverty. Now it's hard to find a union office in this heartland of historic and heroic labor struggles. Such are the legacies of the Reagan era.


I anticipated none of this in Manufacturing Consent. I paid no attention to the surrounding community and instead focused on, what I called the hegemonic organization of work as though it were the end of history. For all my insistence on "the extended case method"4 and the contextualization of the ethnographic site, for all my critique of Donald Roy's treatment of the workplace as an enclosed and unchanging community, I must confess my own study suffered from similar limitations. …

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