- Manhood on the Line: Working-Class Masculinities in the American Heartland by Stephen Meyer
Stephen Meyer wants to make labour historians squirm. He wants us to look hard at the male wage-earner and see beyond the heroic militant that we so often write into our accounts of working-class history. He points us to "the underside of labor and union history – the rough and sometimes regressive aspects of working-class and union culture." (ix) Specifically he directs our attention to the deeply ambivalent place of working-class masculinities in labour history.
Meyer has spent a lifetime studying the US auto industry, and previously produced two highly influential monographs and a collection of essays. Now he has turned back to look more closely at the masculine identities of autoworkers. He begins with the well-recognized dichotomy between the "respectable" and the "rough" that was still visible at the dawn of the 20th century: "If the laborer's sense of crude manliness emerged from the roughness of physical strength and dangerous work, the respectable craftsman's manhood arose from refined values of control, skill, autonomy, and independence." (6) He argues that the rise of mass-production labour processes undermined both versions of masculinity and prompted men working in semi-skilled jobs in auto plants to "re-masculinize their work and male identities" (9) by a kind of amalgamation of the free-spirited rough culture and the respectable culture of reasonably well-paid occupational security. He adds that this "new working-class idea of manliness" also took on "more explicit sexual connotations." (10) The consequences for women in particular were dire.
The book is divided into chapters that carry that story forward from the early 20th century to the 1980s, though most of the author's attention is on the 1930s and 1940s, when the United Auto Workers (uaw) became a powerful force within the industry. He opens with a sketch of the impact of mass-production on the new workforce drawn into auto plants – the monotony, tedium, speed-up, humiliation, and physical dangers – that form the backdrop and the terrain on which the new masculinities of the auto plants were worked out. There were formal and informal versions of the new identity. The formal involved the struggles to get an industrial union established. Meyer highlights the two divergent directions of these campaigns: "fighting and providing." One involved often violent physical battles between the company's regime of industrial spies and swaggering goons [End Page 290] and the union's flying squadrons of tough-guy fighters. Winning a union was a fierce fight, and its bitter legacy cast a long shadow over workplace relations for years to come. The other strand in the unionization was the bridge between these wage-earners and their responsibilities outside the plants as breadwinners. Meyer emphasizes the gendered rhetoric of union organizing, which urged workers to defend their manhood by joining. In the end, the arrival of collective bargaining with the uaw "allowed them to regain and to reclaim some of their lost manhood that resulted from years of humiliation." (111)
Ultimately Meyer is less interested in the more respectable strand in auto-worker unionization and instead focuses most of his discussion of gender on the less public, informal practices of the shop floor. Long before unionization, auto-workers had found various ways to resist the degradation of their working lives and thus "reclaim" their manhood, including absenteeism, labour turnover, restriction of output, and "stealing a trade" (bluffing their way into more skilled jobs). But he pushes further to explore the kind of "bachelor culture" that operated among both the many young workers and the older, married men, which included pranks, profanity, drinking, fighting, and degradation of women, and which overflowed into disreputable leisure pursuits after work.
The era of unionization brought a new boldness in expressing this culture, despite the existence of strict work rules and managerial disciplinary procedures. This amounted to an attempt "to transform the workplace into a space of leisure, of hijinks and of fun and games, often...