Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution

By Yehouda Shenhav | Go to book overview

5
Engineers, Labor Politics, and American Exceptionalism before 1900

In no other country in the world are the relations between employers and employed as uniformly pleasant as in the United States. Nor is there any other country in which both proprietors and workmen are as jealous of their well known rights. Strikes often occur, but it is seldom that one of them is virulent.

( American Machinist, 26 January 1884: 8)

There is no such thing in this country as a working 'class' . . . Except it be a distinction between reputable citizens and loafers.

( American Machinist, 16 January 1886: 8)

We will not use the hackneyed and obnoxious expression 'the working classes'.

( American Machinist, 18 December 1886: 8)

Beginning in the 1870s, severe industrial unrest shook the United States for more than fifty years. This period roughly coincided with the period known as 'labor homogenization' ( 1890-1930) ( Gordon, Edwards, and Reich 1982), so called to denote the forging of a homogeneous proletariat from the heterogeneous pre-industrial workforce. 'Labor homogenization' represented employers' desire to achieve control, order, and stability in industry. In retrospect, the introduction of management systems was congruent with that goal. The translation of systematization from the technical to the social realm strove to subject the 'workforce' to the same pattern of standardization and routinization that was applied to instruments. The notion of the 'human element' was thus instrumentally appropriated by the engineers. The systematizers might have phrased their intentions as 'individualizing' the job and 'rationalizing' the firm, but the more important implication of that rhetoric was the fragmenting, serializing, and deskilling of jobs to the greatest extent technically possible. The unspoken promise to the employers was evidently not only about efficiency, but about control. Systematization strove, and to a large extent succeeded, to turn the organization into one 'closed system', subject to engineering manipulation.

Organizational systems were expected to rationalize employment relationships,

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