Sunday, December 07, 2008

Summary: Jefferson Cowie, 'Capital Moves'

Cowie, Jefferson. Capital Moves.

Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves is a challenging, engaging, and most importantly, readable look into the history of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It is primarily a historical work, but Cowie is well couched in the language of geography, and the book functions as an expose of the conflicts between localized place and the fluidity of space. He articulates this conflict by looking into the history of labor at RCA Plants, noting, “The core of the problem is that the wielders of capital have far greater ability than workers to transcend and use space…Command of spatial relations, therefore, becomes a crucial weapon in management’s arsenal” (185).

Cowie begins his story in Camden, New Jersey, hotbed of industrial unionism and the first plant site for RCA. Emerging from the wireless communications industry around WWI, RCA set up their Camden plant in 1930, and by 1936 employed almost 10,000 people. Looking to avoid industrial conflict through hiring supposedly docile workers, RCA attempted to hire primarily female workers. In 1936, 75% of the workforce was female (17), and this trend continued through most of RCA’s history. In Cowie’s analysis, the search for a docile workforce largely characterized RCA’s entire attitude towards labor, and the constant geographical movement of the company represented a search for increasingly needy labor. In 1936, Camden’s RCA workers walked off their job, and won serious gains after an extremely volatile and violent strike. The strikes were short lived, however: new plants opened in Indiana in 1936, 1940, and 1942, and by 1952, there were only 700 consumer electronics jobs remaining in Camden (33,34). Almost all the RCA jobs moved to Bloomington, IN, in what Cowie refers to as a Regional Division of Labor, a parallel precursor to the New International Division of Labor characteristic of globalization. It is also a sexual division of labor, and Cowie makes this clear when he notes, “Having betrayed their ‘cheapness’ by endorsing a union contract and having undermined their ‘docility’ by partaking in street battles during the strike, Camden women would be replaced with female workers from rural Indiana” (36).

Workers in Bloomington, including women, would prove to be anything but docile. Union activity and workplace activism was a major component of Bloomington workers’ eventual relationship to the plant. RCA set up their plant in 1940, when Bloomington’s two major industries, limestone production and furniture making, were practically nonexistent. There was a palpable desperation for work, and RCA attempted to take advantage of this. At first they were successful, but the company was unable to keep activism out of their plants as time progressed. To Cowie, this is a process that occurs in all RCA plants, as “the simple facts of stress, fatigue, and swollen hands” (4) helped to articulate a “staccato beat of social transformation” (4) that spans the contingency of place. He notes, “As wage earners punched in and punched out over the years, their feelings evolved from a sense of gratitude to the company to one of possession that allowed them to stand up for an expanding notion of their rights” (4).

The result is further movement. As RCA workers began to feel more entitled to certain conditions, and as a shortage of workers rather than jobs allowed RCA workers to organize and strike, management moved production again. This time, the move was to Memphis, TN, a city facing a very similar labor situated to the one in Bloomington before RCA showed up. By the time RCA showed up in 1965, however, the terrain of global capitalism had shifted dramatically. Forced to compete with increased competition from foreign companies, RCA pushed Memphis workers hard, and the result was a dramatic increase in workplace activism, especially in the context of the civil right struggles that were raging in the city. The result was that RCA closed down the plant five years after opening it, and began the long process of moving production to Ciudad Juarez, right over the Mexican border from El Paso, TX.

The move to Juarez follows the same logic as the previous moves: the search for cheap, female labor. RCA found this in droves in Juarez, and soon began to shift all production to Mexico. This is the part of the narrative that is largely commonplace at this point, but Cowie uses it to explicate his broader questions of space and place. Mexican workers make attempts at unionization and workplace activism, much like workers in Camden, Bloomington, and Memphis, and the labor is never as docile as hoped. Like all the other sites though, workers are unable to organize in interregional or international ways. Cowie states, “As the new labor history has shown, the pull of place and community has been a powerful force in labor relations, but the limitations of local identity also create constraints on a more expansive notion of working-class politics in an era in which capital transcends boundaries with complete ease” (182). The result is the same conflict between space and place that has characterized Cowie’s historical narrative. Cowie, as a labor historian, is primarily concerned with the possibilities of international solidarity, yet his work raises questions about place and space in a broad sense, and the ability to find a suitable interaction between the two. Like urban governments caught in transnational capital flows or individual musicians trying to navigate the fluid networks of music consumption, the intersection between locality and fluidity is a hugely important question for scholars of all disciplines.

Cowie ends the book with a story that hints at international solidarity, albeit in a limited and macho sense. Before the 1998 shutdown of the RCA plant in Bloomington, workers received a truckload of chassis with a note attached to the front, addressed to “our RCA Compadres” (201). Inside were a few marijuana joints. In return, RCA workers went taped some copies of Playboy Magazine, and shipped them to their Mexican counterparts. Transnational solidarity, indeed.

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