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Making a Living

Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States

Chad Montrie
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Making a Living
    Book Description:

    In an innovative fusion of labor and environmental history,Making a Livingexamines work as a central part of Americans' evolving relationship with nature, revealing the unexpected connections between the fight for workers' rights and the rise of the modern environmental movement.Chad Montrie offers six case studies: textile "mill girls" in antebellum New England, plantation slaves and newly freed sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, homesteading women in the Kansas and Nebraska grasslands, native-born coal miners in southern Appalachia, autoworkers in Detroit, and Mexican and Mexican American farm workers in southern California. Montrie shows how increasingly organized and mechanized production drove a wedge between workers and nature--and how workers fought back. Workers' resistance not only addressed wages and conditions, he argues, but also planted the seeds of environmental reform and environmental justice activism. Workers played a critical role in raising popular consciousness, pioneering strategies for enacting environmental regulatory policy, and initiating militant local protest.Filled with poignant and illuminating vignettes,Making a Livingprovides new insights into the intersection of the labor movement and environmentalism in America.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0617-0
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    “When one speaks of increasing power, machinery, and industry,” Henry Ford wrote in 1922, “there comes up a picture of a cold, metallic sort of world in which great factories will drive away the trees, the flowers, the birds, and the green fields.” This was how he began an early memoir, on the defensive, and the rest of the book was an answer to both skeptics and critics. The bleak and foreboding imagery, Ford contended, was not right. It was a mischaracterization of what would happen with the advent of new technology and the spread of factory production. Machines, he...

  5. 1 I Think Less of the Factory Than of My Native Dell Labor, Nature, and the Lowell Mill Girls
    (pp. 13-34)

    In 1840, as part of a defense of factory life in Lowell, Massachusetts, textile operative Sarah Bagley pointed out that “mill girls” were not really “so far from God and nature, as many persons might suppose.” They managed to maintain their relationship with nature, and nature’s God, by cultivating roses, lilies, geraniums, and other plants in pots on the mill’s window sills, giving their work rooms “more the appearance of a flower garden than a workshop.” The perfume of the flowers supposedly pervaded the air, inspiring the operatives to praise God for such rich blessings and filling them with happiness.¹...

  6. 2 Living by Themselves Slaves’ and Freedmen’s Hunting, Fishing, and Gardening in the Mississippi Delta
    (pp. 35-52)

    The story of Yankee mill girls’ venture from New England farms to urban factories demonstrates the importance of both place and work in shaping people’s relationship with the natural world. Yet theirs is not the only story. Examining other regions and sectors of the American economy in the same period or at different times complicates the historical narrative. Former slaves in the Mississippi Delta, for example, who cultivated the cotton used in textile mills, stayed much closer to home, near the rural plantations where they were born and raised and worked for much of their lives, yet they also witnessed...

  7. 3 Men Alone Cannot Settle a Country Domesticating Nature in the Kansas-Nebraska Grasslands
    (pp. 53-70)

    As the stories of the Lowell mill girls and Delta slaves and freedpeople make clear, there were both similarities and differences in the ways changes in work affected how various groups of people thought about and used the environment around them. Gender mattered to both the Yankee white women and the southern black men, but race was perhaps a more significant factor for the latter, the reason for their bondage and their postemancipation exploitation. The two also experienced a severed connection with nature because of the labor they did and how it was organized, yet they responded to this separation...

  8. 4 Degrees of Separation Nature and the Shift from Farmer to Miner to Factory Hand in Southern West Virginia
    (pp. 71-90)

    As was the case with many homesteading women and their male counterparts, and even more so with the children of homesteading families, the process of moving to the grasslands to make a farm was sometimes just a step on the road to a town or city. Family fortunes declined, forcing the abandonment of a quarter section and a search for new means to make a living, and family fortunes improved, allowing parents to offer their sons and daughters opportunities beyond their farms’ surveyed boundaries. For these and other reasons, the rural-to-urban shift was also the story of millions more, in...

  9. 5 A Decent, Wholesome Living Environment for Everyone Michigan Autoworkers and the Origins of Modern Environmentalism
    (pp. 91-112)

    Part of the power of Harriet Arnow Simpson’s portrayal of the fictional Nevel family was its pointed accuracy. Like the family inThe Dollmaker, many early twentieth-century autoworkers were migrants from rural areas, and they found a considerable amount of heartache and trouble when they made their journey to a city. Yet the move was not without at least a few good ends. Detroit and other large metropolitan areas gave migrants access to better schools, doctors, and hospitals, as well as cultural amenities such as movie theaters, amusement parks, and dance halls. Likewise, making advantage out of misery, migrants embraced...

  10. 6 A Landscape Foreign and Physically Threatening Southern California Farmworkers, Pesticides, and Environmental Justice
    (pp. 113-128)

    Although cooperation between organized labor and mainstream environmental groups was faltering by the late 1970s and early 1980s, those same years also witnessed events that set the stage for formation of an ‘‘environmental justice’’ movement. Starting in 1978, Lois Gibbs rallied her neighbors in a Buffalo suburb after they linked pervasive, chronic illness in the area to toxic chemicals dumped in the old Love Canal, which had since been filled and used for a school. Gibbs then went on to establish the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes in 1981 and played a key role in the making of an antitoxics...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 129-132)

    In its most basic form work is the transformation of nature. To produce both food and shelter, as well as countless other goods and amenities as needs and wants evolve over time, human beings must change parts of the natural world around them. This continuous use of the physical and organic environment, and the remaking of self and communities that it necessarily entails, is the core element of human history, a materialist basis for change and continuity in the past. It conditions and is in turn affected by the evolution of social relations, technological innovations, demographic variation, and geographic mobility....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 133-158)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 159-172)
  14. Index
    (pp. 173-177)