The Employee: A Political History by Jean-Christian Vinel (review)
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The Employee: A Political History. By Jean-Christian Vinel. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. Pp. 336. $47.50 cloth)

During the throes of “Bloody Harlan,” Florence Reece famously penned the song “Which Side Are You On?” claiming that one’s loyalties could either be with the company or with the miners on strike. This divide between capital and labor stretched beyond the coal industry in Kentucky, yet the line between employer and employee was never as clear as many people believed. Indeed, in The Employee, Jean-Christian Vinel argues that white-collar workers occupied an ambiguous position in the twentieth-century workplace that made it difficult to determine on which side of the labor-capital line they belonged. Neither a part of the rank-and-file nor truly aligned with company management, these white-collar workers did not fit within the industrial hierarchy and were ultimately omitted from both the collective-bargaining benefits workers received, as well as from the authority that management enjoyed.

The Employee explains how this happened. Following labor law scholar James Atleson, Vinel showcases how the definition of who could organize into unions shifted over time both in company and legal policy. The study is divided into two parts, with the first section focusing on the evolution of the legal and social constructs surrounding the word “employee” from the late nineteenth century to the New Deal. Drawing on labor laws, court cases, and writings of labor theorists, Vinel claims that what began as a term that vaguely embodied the shared interests between worker and employer faded as employers seized tighter control of the workplace by implementing the regimented policies of scientific management.

The second section examines the 1930s and 1940s in more detail, drawing from National Labor Relations Board records and worker testimonies at congressional hearings to chart how, by the 1970s, white-collar workers were unable to organize. Focusing on the automobile industry, Vinel argues that as the workplace became more bureaucratized, the number of foremen swelled while companies sought to cultivate blue-collar loyalty with benefits not available to [End Page 718] management. Foremen, then, occupied a kind of no-man’s land in the workplace hierarchy. Their increasing numbers, lesser pay, and decreasing authority resembled the plight of blue-collar workers. At the same time, however, foremen maintained a modicum of managerial duties that set them decidedly apart from the rank-and-file.

Organized labor, Vinel asserts, never fully rallied to the foremen’s cause, unable to justify organizing workers who were clearly not blue-collar. Consequently, although foremen’s organizations such as the Foremen’s Association of America briefly met considerable success in organizing during World War II, employers increasingly classified foremen as management, stalling organizing efforts. Thus, by the end of the war, foremen and supervisors were not only expected to remain loyal to the company, but as a provision of Taft-Hartley, were legally excluded from the Wagner Act.

This shift set the tone for the future of labor organizing. Vinel claims that organized labor failed to keep up with the changes taking place on the shop floor and organizing the foremen marked an opportunity that was “found and lost” by 1950 (p.156). Any hope that foremen could organize was closed with the 1974 decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Bell Aerospace, which upheld the exclusion of white-collar workers from employees’ organizing rights.

Although the focus on the automobile industry sometimes leads to conclusions too narrow to be applied to the experiences of all white-collar workers, Vinel should be applauded for giving light to a neglected subject. In an age in which organized labor seems in retreat, The Employee reminds us of how we got here and complicates the current understanding of what it means to be an “employee.” For too long there have only been two sides to the characterizations of workplace relationships, but for those such as foremen or supervisors caught between the worlds of worker and manager, Vinel gives the question “which side are you on” more meaning. [End Page 719]

Dana Caldemeyer

DANA CALDEMEYER is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses...


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