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Troublemakers: Power, Representation, and the Fiction of the Mass Worker

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    William Scott'sTroublemakersexplores how a major change in the nature and forms of working-class power affected novels about U.S. industrial workers in the first half of the twentieth century. With the rise of mechanization and assembly-line labor from the 1890s to the 1930s, these laborers found that they had been transformed into a class of "mass" workers who, since that time, have been seen alternately as powerless, degraded victims or heroic, empowered icons who could rise above their oppression only through the help of representative organizations located outside the workplace.

    Analyzing portrayals of workers in such novels as Upton Sinclair'sThe Jungle, Ruth McKenney'sIndustrial Valley, and Jack London'sThe Iron Heel,William Scott moves beyond narrow depictions of these laborers to show their ability to resist exploitation through their direct actions-sit-down strikes, sabotage, and other spontaneous acts of rank-and-file "troublemaking" on the job-often carried out independently of union leadership. The novel of the mass industrial worker invites us to rethink our understanding of modern forms of representation through its attempts to imagine and depict workers' agency in an environment where it appears to be completely suppressed.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5313-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Power—Representation—Fiction
    (pp. 1-22)

    The emergence of mass production and monopoly enterprise in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century had a decisive impact on the way American novelists chose to represent industrial workers in fictional narratives.Troublemakersexplores how the sudden appearance of a new form of mass working-class power, unlike anything U.S. workers had previously known, came to be reflected in a set of formal and aesthetic problems that attended the literary representation of the mass industrial worker.

    As quickly as mass production industries were being established, the nature and forms of U.S. working-class power were undergoing dramatic...

  5. PART ONE. The Making of the Mass Worker

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 23-32)

      Between 1900 and 1920 a new type of worker appeared in mass production industries in the United States. In the eyes of sociologists, business executives, trade union leaders, and other curious onlookers who noted the phenomenon, such workers were routinely identified with the complex and imposing machines that they operated. Moreover, as if they, too, were machines, the new breed of industrial workers was considered an inevitable product of the highly mechanized environments in which they worked. As a group, mass workers were thus distinguished from other workers of the era through the specific process of adaptation they underwent with...

    • 1 The Powerless Worker and the Failure of Political Representation: “The lowest and most degraded of human beasts”
      (pp. 33-64)

      Upton Sinclair reserves this designation—“the lowest and most degraded of human beasts”—to describe what he considered to be the ethnically and racially inferior “scab” workers during a meatpackers’ strike in Chicago (Jungle255). From another angle, though, this phrase could also be taken as conveying one of the more common images of mass industrial workers that novelists invoked during the first two decades of the twentieth century. However, because Sinclair goes to such great lengths to portray the horrific effects of the mechanized meatpacking industry on its workforce, by the end of his novel there is practically no...

    • 2 The Empowered Worker and the Technological Representation of Capital: “Out of this furnace, this metal”
      (pp. 65-106)

      The writers examined in the previous chapter were faced with the dilemma of having to represent an industrial workforce that was otherwise unrepresentable by unions and political parties. This problem seemed to be resolved by a second group of writers, who were convinced that mass workers actually could be represented, only this time not in symbolic but in iconic terms: namely, as representations of capital itself. In the view of this second group of novelists, the mass worker was primarily a technological phenomenon, produced as the quasi-natural offspring of modern industrial capitalism. If they tended to imagine the mass worker...

  6. PART TWO. Strategy and Structure at the Point of Production

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 107-120)

      As Ford’s historians observe, if any branch of this integrated network of operations functioned improperly, it could alter the balance of elements throughout the entire system, potentially even putting a stop to production. Thus, “if a few key men were late, half the factory was late” (Nevins and Hill,Ford: Expansion514). The workers in these huge plants realized early on that, because Fordist mass production methods “operated as a system of related parts,” when the relation between any of the parts changed, everything else was forced to change along with it (Edwards 121).

      A direct by-product of the extreme...

    • 3 The Disempowering Worker and the Aesthetic Representation of Industrial Unionism: “I am the book that has no end!”
      (pp. 121-182)

      The statement in the subtitle of this chapter—“I am the book that has no end!”—is made by a fictitious ocean liner filled with mass industrial workers who are on their way to the battlefronts of Europe at the start of World War I. Appearing as the final sentence of Ernest Poole’s IWW-inspired novel of 1915,The Harbor, the exclamation signals the newfound radicalism of the modern industrial worker, figuratively conveyed in the machinery of a large ship making its way around the world. Why, though, do these workers, whose voices are united in the single call of the...

    • 4 The Powerful Worker and the Demand for Economic Representation: “They planned to use their flesh, their bones, as a barricade”
      (pp. 183-238)

      Workers in U.S. mass production industries learned a great deal from the legacy of the IWW. Most importantly, they learned that to make their voices heard in the modern workplace, there was nothing more effective than direct action at the point of production. This is nowhere better illustrated than by the workers of Ruth McKenney’s 1939 novel about the wave of sitdown strikes that swept Akron’s rubber industry in 1936,Industrial Valley. McKenney’s workers understood perfectly that by sitting down at their jobs they could use the commodified mass of their own bodies to block production in the tire factories,...

  7. Conclusion: Making Trouble on a Global Scale
    (pp. 239-258)

    Once the CIO had consolidated the gains it had made—due largely to the success of the sitdown strike tactic—Fordist production methods were exported from the United States to western Europe. This was done not only as part of an effort to rebuild Europe’s war-torn economies but also as a way to stem the labor unrest that had resulted from the implementation of Fordist methods in the United States over the previous four decades. This concluding portion ofTroublemakersfirst briefly sketches the labor unrest that erupted in U.S. industrial enterprises immediately following the end of World War II....

  8. Notes
    (pp. 259-266)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 267-276)
  10. Index
    (pp. 277-284)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)