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Where Is Our Responsibility? Unions and Economic Change in the New England Textile Industry, 1870-1960

Author(s):Hartford, William F.
Reviewer(s):Mullin, Debbie

William F. Hartford, Where Is Our Responsibility? Unions and Economic Change in the New England Textile Industry, 1870-1960. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996. x + 256 pp. $35.00 (cloth). ISBN: 1-55849-022-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Debbie Mullin, Research Associate in Economics, Oberlin College .

Like the textile workers whose history he writes, William Hartford practices the weaver’s art in Where is Our Responsibility? Themes of culture, technology, and enterprise braid together in this descriptive account of organized labor’s role in New England’s textile industry. Hartford’s scholarship as an historian is evident in the way he assembles evidence from Congressional testimony and reports, union documents, statistical studies, and other archival resources to write an engaging, informative narrative chronology. He captures the important historical landmarks of the textile unionists’ experience and introduces us to labor leaders, industrialists, and social activists who played a role.

Hartford documents many of labor’s troubles and triumphs during these years, but three struggles dominate. The first of these is the series of conflicts within the union, sometimes simply personality differences, at other times harsh conflicts over strategy. In the nineteenth century, textile unions were organized on a craft basis under the United Textile Workers, with boundaries drawn so that all operatives within one union had the same job skills. This gave way to the industrial unionism of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA), in which the bargaining unit encompassed an entire mill. But as Hartford makes clear, there were always some craft-oriented pockets of resistance to industrial unionism. Interestingly, some employers preferred the industrial orientation of the TWUA, because they felt that craft-based unions would be more resistant to the implementation of labor-saving technologies.

A second of these persistent struggles was the problem of the interregional wage differential. Lower wages in the South were an initial attraction for the relocation of some textile manufacturing, and Hartford describes how inertia developed for even more of a concentration of the industry in southern states during the 1950’s. At its lowest, the north-south wage gap in cottons was twelve percent, and New England union leaders were vigilant with regard to this figure, as they realized there could be no long-term equilibrium with two different geographic centers of the same industry paying different scales. Although the anti-union stance of large southern firms prevented nationwide unionization, TWUA leaders pursued alternative strategies. Agitation campaigns that threatened to organize nonunion firms led managers at these southern enterprises to boost compensation levels. Some New England mill owners who hoped to maintain their operations in New England cheered for the union in its efforts to bring southern and northern wage standards into convergence.

And thirdly, labor never escaped its struggle against labor-saving machinery. Naturally, union leaders wanted to deliver generous wages but also to preserve, if not expand, employment levels. The only way to sustain high compensation levels is to ensure that workers are productive, which is best achieved with a capital-intensive production process. The inherent conflict between wage-related productivity boosts and employment levels remained unresolved throughout the history of textiles. In the 1940’s, detailed job descriptions were instituted along with restrictions on how tasks within classifications could be modified. Workloads and machine assignments were an issue of labor-management negotiation. The result was, in effect, that firms had to acquire permission from workers before implementing new technologies.

The early chapters provide richly detailed descriptions of the lives of the nineteenth-century textile workers and the communities in which they lived. The text in these sections is vivid- one can almost feel the hum of fibers and machinery at work in reading about the tasks performed by spinners, weavers, and loom fixers. These descriptions are valuable to economic historians in that they explain why each craft faced a different set of economic incentives.

Like any book with an interrogative title, Where is Our Responsibility? promises to address the question it poses. In this regard, Hartford disappoints. One problem is that the question itself is not well defined until it is found among the social concerns dominating the last chapter. From this context, I gather that the question asks what unions should do to protect their members when the industry in which they work is declining. Even after getting this far, the reader is no more equipped to answer this question than before starting the book. The preceding chapters discuss none of the broad principles, either philosophical or economic, that would help one grapple with such a broad issue. What those chapters do, however, is provide the reader with the history of organized labor in one industry. Consequently, one is prepared to deal with a question considered as a cousin to the one posed in the title: Where is the blame to be placed for the decline of this industry? Hartford informs us of the interdependence of the many players in this story, so we can judge contributions and faults of each. For example, with regard to technology, it is true that firm owners were slow to modernize, but the cumbersome job description system put in place by unions increased the costs of introducing new machinery. Yet, much of the story lies beyond either greedy workers or complacent management. Plastics and paper had intruded on the turf of the textile industry by the 1960’s, and other factors ensured that what remained of the textile industry would likely be in the Carolinas and Georgia.

In interpreting the events he chronicles, Hartford talks a lot about the responsibility of capital. Given the frequency with which this theme arises, it is unfortunate that he doesn’t define the term capital as he intends the reader to use it. In some instances, it appears that he views capital simply as shares of financial ownership, and in other cases as the actual managers of the firm. Most readers will likely resort to doing as I did, trying to interpret the meaning in each case from its context. But even so, one will be puzzled by Hartford’s sense as to what capital is responsible for, especially because he expects more from capital than from labor. He is critical of firm owners who closed New England operations to pursue more profitable opportunities elsewhere, yet he does not criticize textile workers who migrated to better-paying jobs after World War II.

In addition to enslaving itself to one location, what else would Hartford have “responsible capital” do? We get some idea of an answer by seeing the high esteem in which he holds Seabury Stanton, head of Hathaway Manufacturing (later Berkshire-Hathaway) in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Stanton outdid other mill owners in his determination to keep the mill running in its original location. In fact, co-workers observed that Stanton ignored financial statistics, such as profit and return on investment, that indicated the health of the company. But he considered the firm successful as long as it sustained operations in New England. Hartford speaks of Stanton in glowing terms, and suggests that workers would benefit if all managers were like he (p. 199).

But this means that there is an interesting unwritten chapter of the book, the one that would follow the 1960 end point of Hartford’s volume. By 1962, Berkshire-Hathaway was in financial distress, having suffered a $2 million loss. With regard to management of society’s scarce resources, Stanton was irresponsible. Under his leadership, the firm’s stock price fell to less than half of its per-share working capital. This situation left Berkshire-Hathaway vulnerable to takeover, and it was Warren Buffett who made the acquisition in 1965 and who sustained the textile operations for another two decades. His cost-conscious management team rescued the firm from the disastrous course to which Stanton had committed it. Though Buffett did shut down the looms of Berkshire-Hathaway in 1985, it seems likely that bankruptcy would have forced a closing earlier had Stanton continued in charge.

The events related in Where is Our Responsibility? illustrate the notion that workers’ lives are broadly affected by the fate of the industry in which they choose to work. But it is easier to agree with Hartford’s interpretation of these events if one feels that the purpose of industry is to provide jobs, rather than to produce goods. Consequently, most economists will shake their heads in disagreement with the economic commentary in the volume. I was touched by the sentiment Hartford expresses for the men and women who spent their lives in the cotton and woolen mills of New England. Yet, ultimately I was left wondering whether he realized how technology and the profit motive might be considered allies of the worker. It is an ironic footnote to the history of the textile industry that the name Berkshire-Hathaway now at the end of the twentieth century is associated not with the mills that Seabury Stanton sought to keep in perpetual motion, but rather with the Buffett financial empire built on the principle of mobile capital.

Debbie Mullin Department of Economics Oberlin College


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII