Solidarity and Fragmentation: Workers' Social Dynamics on the Shop Floor
Relationships between workers, as well as between labor and management, were the foundation of social dynamics in the industrial order. These relationships were shaped by a variety of factors: occupation, experience, skill, age, gender, and ethnicity all affected how operatives worked with one another on the factory floor. Even the most seemingly homogeneous labor force was usually divided into a wide variety of specialized jobs. And every factory work force was filled with cross-currents of mutuality, deference, tension, friendship, self-interest, and other emotions which coursed through individual operatives. 1
Workers, even as they saw themselves growing increasingly distinct from their employers, also saw themselves becoming increasingly differentiated within their own ranks. Although a sense of class-consciousness was emerging among some workers, there was also the possibility that many different working groups would form without any real unifying concept of class solidarity. Workers often found that class was not the single dominant focal point in their lives. Their sense of personal and group identity could be based on their occupation, age, gender, or ethnicity just as readily as on their understanding of their class position in the factory system. Each particular group of workers could nurture a sense of belonging and solidarity within its own ranks. Yet forging links across divisions created by differences in age or gender or ethnicity was often more difficult, though certainly not impossible.
One of the primary social divisions in any work force was between newcomers to the factory regime and experienced operatives. Most factories saw a constant influx of new workers struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar environment and its social dynamics. At the same time, veteran employees had to deal with the impact of these new workers on their established social order. Recent arrivals often presented a strange appearance to their more established co-workers. For example, in the late summer of 1847, John MacDonald, an eighteen-year-old apprentice met-