Rough Manhood: The Aggressive and Confrontational Shop Culture of U.S. Auto Workers during World War II

By Meyer, Steve | Journal of Social History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Rough Manhood: The Aggressive and Confrontational Shop Culture of U.S. Auto Workers during World War II


Meyer, Steve, Journal of Social History


Ever since the publication of David Montgomery's classic essay on "Workers' Control," the notions of "manly bearing" and "manliness" have captured the attention of American labor historians. In this seminal essay, Montgomery described how skilled production workers asserted a "'manly' bearing toward the boss" and "'manliness' toward one's fellow workers." These proud forms of male posturing expressed a confident independence from authority and a mutualist sense of collective identity and responsibility to fellow workers. A manly posture toward the boss contained "connotations of dignity, respectability, defiant egalitarianism, and patriarchal male supremacy." Toward fellow workers, it involved a "mutualistic ethic" which established common union rules to defend and to protect the collective interests of all workers. This respectable manhood of skilled artisans bore noble and heroic overtones. (1)

As I have suggested elsewhere (2), Montgomery's formulation is incomplete since it neglected the rough culture of manhood which is arguably as important as the respectable for understanding of gender relations of the American working class. Working-class manhood engendered both respectable and rough dimensions, derived respectively from the social, economic, and cultural traditions of skilled craftsmen and unskilled laborers. Seen as two ideal types, Montgomery's craft workers best typified the respectable masculine working-class culture, whereas Peter Way's canal workers best exemplified the rough tradition. For mass production workers, the respectable and the rough forms of male culture were in constant tension. They often coexisted, wherein the respectable worker might exhibit a vice of the rough culture such as drinking or the rough worker might express a virtue of the respectable worker such a responsibility to family. Indeed, many mass production workers possessed this complex mix of respectability and roughness, often respectable in their union behavior and rough in their interpersonal and social relations. To be sure, individually and collectively, American workers possessed and expressed many different masculine identities that emerged or vanished according to their varying social and cultural situations. For this reason, both the rough and respectable dimensions of male behavior require a more detailed and nuanced examination, especially since the tendency to heroicize working-class struggles has limited a thorough examination of the more savage, violent, and sexist forms of gendered behavior at the workplace. (3)

Through most of the twentieth century, the automobile industry furnishes an ideal locus for the study of the rough and respectable manhood of American workers. Once labeled "capitalism's favorite child," (4) it was an important site in the development of scientific management, the system of industrial mechanization known as mass production, and the transformation of work processes. It furnished the pattern for modem industry and for much of the social history of workers and work in industrial America. Although the majority of male auto workers manifested a collective respectability and responsibility in their shop-floor relations, this essay emphasizes the unrefined underside of male working-class culture. In his discussion of the "vigorous subculture" that existed among "working-class youth," Peter N. Steams cited an anonymous worker who recalled the broad outlines of his regressive manhood: "When I was eighteen I knew it took four things to be a man: fight, work, screw, and booze." (5) This statement sugges ts three important elements of the rough working--class male culture--fighting, womanizing, and drinking. This essay focuses on one of those elements-fighting-the individualized aggressive and swaggering postures that men exhibited toward each other and towards their shop-floor supervisors. This was the not-so-noble and not-so heroic manliness where men individually or collectively cursed, threatened, and fought with each other and with their shop foremen and supervisors. …

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Rough Manhood: The Aggressive and Confrontational Shop Culture of U.S. Auto Workers during World War II
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