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Published by EH.NET (August 2006)

Lisa M. Fine, The Story of Reo Joe: Work, Kin and Community in Autotown, U.S.A.. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. xii + 239 pp. $23 (paperback), ISBN: 1-59213-258-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence W. Boyd Jr., Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawaii at West Oahu.

Lisa M. Fine (Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University) has done something both unusual and difficult. She has written a social history of a small-to-medium-sized factory in a small-to-medium-sized Midwestern city. The factory was operated by various incarnations of the Reo Motor Car Company in Lansing, Michigan between 1904 and 1975. Reo was an acronym for Ransom E. Olds and was the second automobile company this entrepreneur founded. The first company he founded, Oldsmobile, also operated in Lansing in one form or another for over one hundred years. Reo Joe is the name of a sort of “everyman” who worked in the automobile industry in Lansing. As the author states, “This book is about Reo Joe and his world: a city, an industry, and ideas about work, manhood, race and family” (p. 3). Fine includes gender as a category of analysis and emphasizes men and male identity in this work.

A simple thumbnail sketch of the story of the plant would go something like this: After experiencing labor problems in Detroit, Ransom E. Olds moved the plant to Lansing where he found a rural, largely white, Protestant workforce. The plant and community prospered for more than two decades. It struggled through the Depression; in 1937 a union was recognized following a sit-down strike and what amounted to a general strike in Lansing. Following these events the company declared bankruptcy. During 1939 it was rescued by a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan and a government contract to produce trucks. Following World War II, it continued to produce trucks for the military during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. In addition to producing civilian trucks, following World War II the factory diversified into lawnmowers. The plant struggled throughout the last twenty-five years of its existence, never really recapturing the position it had held in the twenties. Finally, urban renewal in 1973 closed the plant and the entrepreneur who had bought the plant, seems to have stolen the workers’ pension fund.

This would not be an unusual story in that it duplicates the experience of a large number of factories in the Midwest. Yet, few historians have attempted a plant-sized view and then tried to produce a broader social history of the people connected to the plant. Fine finds that the Reo plant consistently employed a relatively homogeneous workforce, with the proportion of foreign-born and African-American workers well below industry averages. Partly because of this, at least from its founding to the Great Depression, management and owners found workers receptive to an emphasis on the “factory family” and various aspects of welfare capitalism.

Within this broad context one learns, for example, that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Lansing, and that, possibly, Reo employees were part of this movement. The Klan in Lansing organized Labor Day parades, with an anti-immigrant theme. The Klan also campaigned for a state constitutional amendment that would require all school-age children to attend public schools. They also had candidates in the Republican primary for governor who ran on the basis of opposition to parochial schools and the Catholic Church. One of these was a Lansing area minister, Frederick Perry, who was also a field organizer for the Klan. The author finds some evidence that Ransom Olds supported Perry’s ministry in 1910. At the time of these activities (1924) Perry spoke to about 1,500 workers at the Reo plant. In addition a local Klan leader was presented a Reo automobile by “men of the KKK” (p. 67). In an oral history interview, a former Reo worker, Layton Aves, states, “that in order to join the union you had to be a member of the KKK.” Fine suggests, “The popularity of the Klan in Lansing during the 1920’s challenges us to rethink how Reo Joe responded to the events of the 1930’s and made a union and New Deal of his own” (p. 64).

This raises some questions about this work. In a micro history of one plant and its neighborhood how does one assess the influences of a broader society and culture? How does one also assess the channels by which these influences come through to the employees of the plant? And how does one assess claims likes Aves’? That someone closely associated with the Klan, like Perry, was able to speak at the plant indicates upper-level management support, probably that of R. E. Olds himself. Internal evidence, however, does not support Aves’ statement. Lester Washburn, who worked at the plant from 1927 on, and who joined the union during 1933 and functioned as a local and international union leader does not mention joining the Klan or associating with the Klan. This example illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this work. On the one hand, one gets a really interesting snapshot of the times and society at the plant and in Lansing. On the other hand, one would like more weighing of evidence and more of a broader context as to what Fine is reporting.

By context I mean that ideas and social attitudes tend to be widespread and interact with members of the “factory family.” To put it more succinctly who was Reo Joe? Did he change his mind about things? Or was he the sort of elderly guy who at seventy-five still had the same views he had in the 1920’s. He probably was a bit more of a metrosexual during World War II, as the work force included far more women, and a bit more nonwhite, and “hip” during the sixties. The author’s metaphor tends to obscure these changes, and tends to stress continuity more than change.

This is the sort of labor history that economic historians will find useful, and interesting. One suspects that an economic history of the plant would find that it failed largely because it could not take advantage of the economies of scale that other automakers enjoyed. Its reliance on piece rates into the 1950’s would tend to indicate it did not develop the sort of mass production assembly that other auto manufacturers did. One would also like to have seen more about wages and incomes at the plant, and thereby some idea of the standards of living of employees. It would have been even more useful had the publisher included a bibliography as well as the very detailed and exhaustive endnotes. These are all relatively mild blemishes, however, on a fine work.

Lawrence W. Boyd Jr. is an Associate Specialist at the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu. He is currently working on an analysis of wages and prices between 1920 and 1940 in the United States.