Book By Jefferson Cowie

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Capital Moves RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor by Jefferson Cowie

Capital Moves RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor by Jefferson Cowie

This essay identifies and assesses the most important and appealing aspects of the book by Jefferson Cowie. “Capital Moves RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor” is an excellent piece of work by Cowie. The most appealing chapter/section of the book is 4th one, in which Cowie highlights the descrimination of female workers. The central thesis of that chapter is that as long as women workers remained "cheap and docile" their jobs were relatively secure (Cowie explains the forced relocation of RCA from industrial Camden to rural Indiana in the 1940s in these terms). But, and this is a real strength of the analysis, the issues of labour control, gender, and worker militancy are played out within a wider context of the increasing globalisation of production in the second half of the 20th century.

In an extended case study of RCA, a company often cited in earlier works on worker agitation and union growth, he finds an altogether different pattern. Over many decades, RCA employed young women at low wages to do its mass production manufacturing. When they became restive and rebellious, the company moved its operations to another location where a new generation of underemployed job seekers was eager to work for a high-wage employer. Thus RCA moved its radio and television production from Camden, New Jersey, to Bloomington, Indiana, after World War Two, to Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1960s, and to Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, in the 1970s. Rising wages and worker unrest were major influences in all of the moves. Unions, present in each case, were divided, parochial in outlook, and unable to manage the assembly line tensions that characterized RCA operations. Cowie most successfully documents the Bloomington experience, though his most compelling example is Memphis, where the process of maturation and decline took only a few years and resulted in the abrupt closure of the plant in 1971.

One of the methods used, which, again, Cowie notes but does not make much of, is the attempt by the corporation to imbue pride in the company and its products. Cowie comments: "For decades to come, female workers remembered that it was RCA and World War II that pulled Bloomington out of the Depression." (Cowie, 1999: 43) He documents the difficulty of the work but also the excitement of making a new product (the TV) and the workplace solidarity through which was forged a special type of labour unity, exploited by management through the metaphor of the "RCA family." (52) There are benefits as well as costs for capital when a workforce genuinely feels some sense of ownership of a company and a factory and their products. The rapid and numerous mergers and acquisitions that are so characteristic of capitalist globalisation have done much to destroy this, but some of these attitudes remain, with their contradictory consequences for labour and ...
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