- Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States by Chad Montrie
Work can be defined as the energy that men and women exert transforming materials from nature into goods for human consumption. When engaged in activities that provide leisure, such as gardening, fishing and hunting, human beings interact with the natural world in ways that make such labor creative and meaningful. When they labor for compensation, and under the direction or control of others, the work loses its meaning and alienates humans from the environment. Teasing out the relationships with nature that American workers have created is the subject of Chad Montrie’s book, Making a Living. Exploring several case studies, Montrie seeks [End Page 206] to establish connections between the early transformations of industrial capitalism and market agriculture and the contemporary origins of labor environmentalism. His interpretive survey draws on the rich scholarship in labor and environmental history to suggest that workers and labor organizations have exhibited respect for and ambivalence toward the natural environment, even as they have seen nature as central to their lives.
Montrie’s cases follow the story of work and the environment from the first large-scale industrial development in the Lowell textile mills through the transformation from slavery to sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta to women homesteaders in Kansas and Nebraska as they domesticated the western plains. He probes the history of West Virginia coal miners and their on-again, off-again relationship to the land in farming and coal mining, as well as the environmental politics of Michigan autoworkers and California migrant farm workers. In the latter case studies, labor unions play a significant role in how much control workers have over their work and living environment as well as in shaping the emergence of and subsequent resistance to the modern environmental movement. Needless to say, the tenuous connections among these examples make the book read more as a collection of related essays than as a unified interpretation. The case studies, however, call attention to often neglected aspects of labor history. Thinking about the Lowell mill girls in this context gives additional meaning to their alienation in the workplace. Their labor struggles were not only about spinning machines, noisy workrooms, and oppressive supervisors. What women workers in Lowell missed in the workplace was not just the family at home; they also longed for and romanticized “nature.” When Montrie turns his focus to more contemporary rubber and auto workers, he locates their desires for sport in hunting and fishing to their slow detachment from the land. It was their continuing connection to outdoor life, he argues, that provided a basis for the labor environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s.
There are shortcomings in Montrie’s interpretation, much of which are derived from the brief stories that he tells. The autoworkers chapter, to use one example, lacks nuance in its understanding of the United Auto Workers, its social unionism, and the environmental activism and sensibility of the rank and file. Nonetheless, Making a Living offers a place to begin talking about the historical relationship of workers and work to the environment.