RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor
By Jefferson Cowie
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. $29.95
Reviewed by Steve Watkins
Book Review November/December 1999
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|For decades, starting in the 1920s, you could see the giant, back-lit
image of Nipper, the RCA mascot, across the river in Philadelphia.
It and three other identical Nippers were affixed to a Camden, NJ, rooftop
tower within the monster complex of factories that helped make RCA one
of the world’s largest manufacturers of radios and, later, televisions.
The black and white fox terrier is still there, depicted on four huge stained-glass windows, his head cocked at a phonograph as he hears his master’s voice. But the lights are gone, panes are missing, and the RCA factories have long since shut down, the jobs moved first to Bloomington, IN, then to Memphis, TN, and finally to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Most of the city’s other industry is gone, too, and the Camden that remains is an urban wasteland.
Walt Whitman once wrote of Camden: “I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth.” As labor historian Jefferson Cowie makes painfully clear in Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, that dream—for Camden, and for increasing numbers of our industrial cities—is dead. Cowie’s fascinating book chronicles the rise and fall of the American labor movement played out in microcosm at RCA. But more importantly, it shows that the flight of capital across international borders in the NAFTA era is nothing new, that it’s in fact an extension of what corporations have been doing throughout this century in their pursuit of cheap labor and a docile work force.
When RCA first located in Camden, the city was known as the perfect home for industry. Workers there were plentiful, and the city’s factories had never seen a strike. RCA right away began hiring those it presumed most compliant and least likely to organize a union: young, single women. At Camden and everywhere RCA subsequently located, the company used the rationale that electronics work was women’s work, requiring small hands, nimble fingers, and the sort of attention to detail that women were better at providing than men. Or so the propaganda went, not just at RCA but throughout the electronics industry. For most of the RCA’s history, at any rate, women have made up three-quarters of its work force. The heavy jobs, and the R&D, remained the province of men, of course.
But even the “docile” female work force would gravitate toward the labor unions when conflicts with management arose over job security, wages, and control of the shop floor. When this happened in Camden, Cowie writes, RCA used every dirty trick in the book to break the unions, including the threat to shut down the plants and move operations out of state, which when all else failed, was precisely what the company did. The pattern was repeated in the decades that followed in Bloomington and Memphis: a community with little history of unionization, grateful for new jobs; feminization of the work place; a honeymoon period of docile labor; the inevitable demands for unionization; active resistance by management; labor conflicts; threats to leave; plant shutdowns; and capital flight. It was capital flight that, years before NAFTA, took RCA over the border into Mexico—where labor cost a fraction of what it did in the US and where an endless supply of workers—largely poor, young, uneducated, single, and female—once again could be hired, trained, kept on the job for a few years, and then let go, before they could think about starting a union.
When the first RCA plant opened in Juárez in 1968, workers made about $20 a week. Workers in 1995 also made about $20 a week. Seniority brought more and more responsibility but no corresponding increase in pay. And if the Juárez factory hands didn’t like conditions, benefits, or wages—if they became too much of a problem—RCA, now owned by a French electronics giant, let it be known that it could move its operations yet again, this time overseas to Taiwan.
Cowie’s study is disturbing on any number of levels for those concerned about workers’ rights and economic justice. Exhaustively researched, with dozens of interviews with the workers themselves, Capital Moves doesn’t end with the grim picture of defeated workers, though. In his final chapter, Cowie throws down this challenge to American labor: to enlarge its under-standing of community, lose its isolationism and xenophobia, and instead see that workers in Bloomington have too much in common with workers in Juárez, and too much at stake, not to forge new alliances to protect workers’ rights across national boundaries.
The borderlands, according to Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua, is a place where “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” That, according to Cowie, describes Ciudad Juárez in many ways. But as Cowie also points out, Camden, Bloomington, and Memphis are bleeding, too. The challenge to a global work force is to make the bleeding stop.
Steve Watkins is an associate professor of English at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA, and author of The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire.
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