- A Workforce Divided: Community, Labor, and the State in Saint-Nazaire’s Shipbuilding Industry, 1880–1910
Leslie Schuster’s study of the ship-building port of Saint-Nazaire, 1880–1910, is something of a throw-back to a spate of labor-history books published on individual cities and towns during the 1970s and 1980s, challenging the applicability of the conclusions of some of them to her case study. Saint-Nazaire is interesting because “state intervention over a thirty-year period directed the pace and progress of the industry and influenced the form of labor relations,” (p. 3) contributing to booms and busts in the Breton town, bringing industrial and urban growth, but also chronic uncertainty. She demonstrates with clarity the impact of critical legislation of 1881 and 1893 (and subsequent legislation as well) on shipbuilding and on that in Saint-Nazaire in particular. Schuster is informed by relevant literature to her study, a list that includes work in British and U.S. labor history. Her descriptions of ship production in the Loire and Penhouet yards, which mixed artisanal and “industrial” work and brought new types of workers to the docks with the shift from wood and then iron to steel, are particularly well done, indeed frequently fascinating. She insists on telling differences between shipbuilding and other industries, for example the less imposing role of machinery in an industry basically immune to standardization and of foremen on the pace of production, leaving skilled workers with considerable control over their work. Schuster thus contrasts the experience of Nazaire during the period in question with accounts of large-scale industrialization that “included a sudden and thorough assault on the prerogatives of the skilled, promoting the emergence of a political consciousness among these workers that then gave rise to labor organization and strikes” (p.2). Comparisons between French and British shipbuilding are very helpful: she notes that during the Crimean War, Napoleon III was forced to charter British ships to carry French troops. She concludes that “From 1880 to the Great War, France’s shipbuilding industry remained costly, profoundly underutilized, and unable to compete with the quality and price of foreign yards” (p. 67). [End Page 253]
Schuster’s research in the Archives Nationales and the Archives Départementales de la Loire-Atlantique, along with useful stops in the Archives Municipales, was thorough. She mined a variety of printed primary sources (particularly informative on the development of ship-building) and newspapers, as well. (It would have been interesting to see if a reconnaissance militaire could not have been found in the Archives du Ministère de la Guerre at Vincennes, which might have added another fascinating description of Saint-Nazaire when it was still virtually a village of about 1,000 inhabitants in the 1840s.)
Leslie Schuster knows Saint-Nazaire well. Yet, at least in the view of this reader, she is unable, despite the richness of her archival sources, to bring the town and its workers to life. There is a good deal of theoretical discussion of community, but perhaps not enough about neighborhood and la vie quotidienne in Saint-Nazaire. Seven very nice illustrations, taken from cartes postales anciennes, are not enough. The lack of a map is distressing.
There are also several odd moments. Discussing the concomitants of “community,” Schuster quotes (p. 116) P.M. Jones’ study of neighborhoods in seventeenth-century Paris. Peter Jones is a fine historian, worth citing, but he does not work on Paris, and the book from which the author quotes is about the Lower Massif Central in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (as she later on correctly notes). On the same page, she cites David Garrioch’s study of “fifteenth-century Paris.” The book she probably has in mind by Garrioch is about eighteenth-century Paris (although she may be thinking of Bronislaw Geremek’s Les Marginaux parisiens aux XIVe et XVe siècles ). There are accents missing here and there, which is not the worst thing in the...