- Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States
Chad Montrie’s Making a Living offers six case studies of the intersection between labor and the natural world. First were the young women who went to work in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1840s. They left behind a life of domestic production and close connection with nature and entered a prison of loud and dangerous factory work. Some of them came to write with longing of the world they left behind. Next were slaves and then free blacks after the Civil War who supplemented their incomes by hunting, fishing and gardening; in this way they softened the exploitation imposed by plantation owners and they maintained a positive relationship with the natural world. Third were women whose families settled the grasslands of Kansas and Nebraska in the late [End Page 516] nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; nature for them was at first a dangerous arena of wild animals and mighty storms. As they tamed the environment, their recollections of the early days grew warmer. Fourth were the small farmers of southern West Virginia who went to work in the mines, but who, at least for a while, continued to farm and hunt and fish; they maintained not only a source of extra income but an arena of free space. However, eventually they moved into company towns, living conditions deteriorated and the ex-farmers formed unions; when coal jobs disappeared they moved to the factories of Akron, Detroit, and Chicago. Fifth were the auto workers of Michigan who were deeply involved in outdoor activities-in part as a respite from the assembly line. Inspired by United Auto Workers leaders Walter Reuther and Olga Madar, they moved easily into efforts to save the local environment from industrial pollution and to utilize the great outdoors for camping experiences that embodied the social democratic ethos of leading members of the UAW. In this way, the UAW helped to found the modern environmental movement. The same was true of the United Farm Workers (UFW), the subject of the last case study. The union pioneered the fight against dangerous pesticides and tried to link economic and environmental exploitation.
For the most part these six stories are told clearly, but it is not apparent that they add up to the new way of looking at things that the author seems to announce in his introduction. The stories are important and some of them may not have been put together in quite this way before, but the scholarly effort of putting the world of labor and the natural environment into contact with one another has been underway for a while, including in the author’s own book on the battle against surface mining in Appalachia. Here Montrie’s studies do not seem to offer a model for understanding the world that generates new insights that other approaches do not.
As to specifics, for some of the six case studies I wanted to know much more. For example, the chapter on the auto workers and their organizing against pollution made me think again about turning points that did not turn forward for the union movement in the first three post-war decades. I was also taken aback that the author mentioned only once and then in passing the giant question of the union’s position on automobile pollution (108).
Most of all I wanted deeper reflections on the central assumptions of the book. The author quotes Marx and writes often of people’s profound alienation from nature, in part to set up a parallel with the alienation of capitalist economic relations. But I am not sure that we know how “estranged” people were from nature, or what impact that had on them. People who live in congested cities may not be close to “nature” but they also may not feel estranged from it. We don’t really learn much about how workers thought about the natural world; the best we have comes from...