Tuesday, September 27, 2011

empirical dimensions of class conflict, part ii

Last time, we ended with a somewhat banal point: that you can't really understand what goes on inside a firm without looking at the social conditions surrounding the firm. The idea becomes interesting and thought-provoking in comparative context -- either cross-sectionally or temporally -- because that way you can say something of value about how the details of different contexts lead to different behavior.

I take up the latter approach and argue that different stages of industrialization produced significantly different patterns of class conflict. Early in the history of the mill, the workforce was primarily composed of farm girls, who took temporary jobs to earn some money before eventually returning home to teach, go off and get married, or go back to work on the farm. Women didn't even necessarily see all of their wages since most of it would be sent home to their father or other guardian. Nevertheless, women were vocal at the mills about wage cuts and would actively protest negative turns in management policy.

Unfortunately, such turns were becoming increasingly common as we move from the beginnings of the mill in the mid 1830s into the early 1840s. Things change at home, too, as agriculture becomes less and less lucrative, thus making families more and more dependent on the womens' earned wages. Of course, protests still occur in this period but the goals become centered around legislative reform (10 hour laws, better working conditions, etc.) now that it had become increasingly apparent that the girls might be working on a more permanent basis. By the late 1840s and early 1850s, when managers at the mill had begun to employ Irish immigrants and had introduced various technological changes leading to increased intensity of work, working families were almost solely dependent on wage work for survival.

Stand back for a second and think about how you might respond, given these different eras, to an increase in your wage rate. In a period where you're relatively free to go and return as you please, a wage increase might be seen favorably as a way of management wanting to share in the profits of the firm -- so you might work a little harder in response, knowing that you'll be rewarded for doing so. But then, think about an era when you're really stressed for time and are already working 70, 80 hour weeks. Is an increase in your wage now necessarily going to mean that you'll put in another 4, 5 hours of work?

Of course not. Even if you're making more in the earlier era relative to the latter era, you might very well be at your "breaking point" in the latter era, with such a "point" significantly affecting your work-leisure preferences. And that is essentially what I am out to prove in the paper -- in short, that working conditions were being increasingly downgraded, causing a shift in response to how workers decided (partly as a group, partly individually) to react when managers dramatically increased or decreased their wages. This isn't a wealth effects model where increased income leads you to shift your time from work to leisure; rather, it is one of changing outside conditions compelling specific performance in the latter period where it was only optional in the previous.

That's it for now! In the final part to the series I'll present the conclusions in a bit more detail and argue a few "big picture" points -- for example, that we can learn a lot about labor contracts in this period from this case study.

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