- The Story of Reo Joe: Work, Kin, and Community in Autotown, U.S.A.
Lisa M. Fine's study of Reo Joe focuses on the "universal white male autoworker" during the early decades of the twentieth century—Protestant, native-born, with strong ties to both localism and the land. Reo Joe's conservative background often made him content to be part of Reo Motors' "factory family," but he also could be a staunch unionist. Reo Joe could have belonged to the Masons, the Ku Klux Klan, either the Democratic or Republican Party, sports teams, or a church.
Ransom E. Olds established the Reo Motor Car Company in 1904 in Lansing, Michigan, which was at the time a center for the production of plows and agricultural implements. The city was over 98% native-born white and [End Page 114] had a well-organized business community that prided itself on its homogeneity and lack of class conflict. Workers and managers/owners lived in close proximity to each other, shared the same set of values, and often joined the same fraternal associations.
It was in this context that the Reo's culture was forged and stabilized by three key pillars: the "square deal" (a combination of hard work and loyalty in exchange for fair pay, job security, and welfare capitalism's benefits), a "living wage" that could support a family, and "Anti-radical Americanism" that nurtured a sober, loyal, family man and "respectable" unionist. "Through the benevolence and paternalism of the company, the male worker provided his family with security, independence, and a place in the emerging consumer culture" (p. 42).
However, the Great Depression seriously compromised the company's welfare capitalist practices and Reo Joe's ability to provide for his family. Many workers returned to the land for food and income and saw the New Deal's industrial unionism as a viable solution. The UAW local that formed there reflected the membership's local orientation and its disdain for outside influence, politics, and bureaucracy. Through the union and numerous labor actions, Reo Joe freed himself from the company's paternalism and created an alternative community. After 1936 he and the company found themselves too dependent on outside forces when the company switched from the production of cars to trucks, and again in 1938, after a federal-supported loan to assist in reorganization. Henceforth, military truck production was the company's main output.
Lansing's labor force also underwent significant changes during and after World War II. Greater numbers of blacks, Hispanics, women, and younger more militant war veterans joined Reo. Together with harsher supervision and changes in the labor process, labor unrest marred the cooperative spirit at Reo. The collective bargaining process was often unable to resolve nagging disputes over piece rates, supervision, seniority, and work rules.
By the mid-1950s only a few hundred workers remained at Reo, after it had peaked at over 3100. Over the next two decades Reo experienced three corporate takeovers, including one by a local businessman who milked the company and its pension plan. With a narrow product line, an outdated factory, and unstable ownership, the plant closed in 1975.
Fine's oral histories with retirees feature the many positive remarks about the factory family and whitewash negative remarks about the company. Retirees also created social clubs—extensions of the factory culture—to maintain old friendships and to keep alive the vision of a homogenous, harmonious, and humane workplace where Reo Joe (and Jane) lived out their version of [End Page 115] the American Dream.
Fine does a nice job of recreating Reo Joe's world of work, kin, and community, but some important questions are left unanswered. For example, she argues that the persistence of the rhetoric of the factory family, relatively low turnover rates, and the popularity of Reo's social programs suggest that workers were supportive of its employee welfare programs. However, she also contends that workers were happy to break free of the company's paternalism, joined unions in significant...