|The BOOKPRESS||May 1998|
Rooted Workers, Migrant Capital: RCA on the Move in the United States and Mexico.
Forthcoming, Cornell University Press Spring 1999.
Singing "Auld Lang Syne" and "Happy Trails to You," workers marched down the ramp of
Bloomington, Indiana's enormous television manufacturing plant number two for the
very last time in April 1998. "It's been a pleasure working with you...and God Bless,"
read the notice each former employee clutched as she headed out of the factory gates
and into an unknown future. Once home to over 8,000 RCA jobs in the 1960s, the
southern Indiana community watched helplessly as the company sent the last fraction
of its assembly work down the well-worn trail to Ciudad Juarez on the Mexican border.
Few questioned why the firm chose to move to Mexico where poverty is high, wages are
low, and unions are weak. Neither workers nor the traditional media that followed
their plight were aware, however, that RCA originally selected Bloomington almost
sixty years earlier for the very same reasons it continues to choose Mexico today.
To understand why Bloomington was so alluring to RCA, however, we must first turn to
Camden, New Jersey - the place from which RCA originally came. During a major strike
in 1936 to recognize the militant United Electrical Workers at the massive RCA plant
complex there, one of the major themes in the company's extremely violent and
well-financed campaign to break the strike was the threat of capital flight. Even RCA's
opening salvo in its battle with the union was a thinly veiled threat to abandon the
community should the workers not return to their jobs. "We want to keep our plants
open...we want to continue to provide gainful employment for thousands of families in
this area," explained the company in the middle of the Great Depression, "but we cannot
accede to demands made by representatives of a minority organization...compliance
with which inevitably would result in serious loss to employees, the community and
the company." By the middle of the four week conflict, lists of machinery with removal
tags attached to them and rumors of subcontracting efforts began to circulate around
the plant. As the dispute dragged on into its final week, the threats of community
abandonment became increasingly strident. "A VOTE TOMORROW MEANS LESS JOBS FOR
US IN CAMDEN" declared a company-sponsored flyer. When a solid majority of 9,000
workers voted in favor of the union, the company chose to make good on its threat to
take production of consumer electronics out of the city.
Sounding like a story from today's global era, the corporation escaped the union
contract by going in search of, in the words of one manager, "anything but an industrial
town." The site they chose, however, was not an exotic location like the Mexican
border, but Bloomington, Indiana. There they hired thousands and thousands of young,
single, female workers at a substantial wage savings, signed a backdoor agreement
with a pliable union, and threw large numbers of the high-wage union workforce at the
Camden site out onto the streets. What follows is a selection taken from a forthcoming
book about RCA's movement through communities (Camden, Bloomington, Memphis,
Juarez). This section describes the early days in Bloomington and argues that the
relationship between Camden and Bloomington in the forties and fifties was not so
different from the relationship between Bloomington and Juarez in the eighties and
* * *
Bob Doty looked like he "just fell in the flour bin." Stationed above the pulverizing
jaws on the big crusher, his job was to pick out the mud, lost drill heads and other
articles that would destroy the machine if they got caught in the mechanical jaws that
converted rock into marketable lime-dust. Like many workers in southern Indiana's
stonebelt, he carried a collapsible aluminum cup into which the water boy could pour
relief from the hot and dirty work. On one of the boy's passages, Doty accepted his
water ration and began to roll a cigarette for himself. As he began to put tobacco to
paper, however, the overseer barked, "You ain't got time to be rolling cigarettes. Buy
hard rolls." One cross word quickly escalated to another as the nineteen-year old Doty
refused to allow the foreman to push him around. "You see all them guys standing right
out there across the creek there by the office?" the boss threatened him, "They're
everyone wanting your job." It was 1939, toward the end of the Great Depression, and
Doty's patience had worn thin with the ten-hour days, meager pay, no overtime, and
even less respect. "Mr. Dobson," he responded, "you'd better get one of them because I'm
going home right now. . . You can mail my check because I'll not even come after it.
That's just how much I think of you and this outfit." Doty knew the economic hardships
he faced without a job during the hard times that plagued rural Indiana, but "I was
always standing up for my own rights," he remembered, "I always have been. 1 guess I'd
argue with the President if I thought he was wrong."
During the latter half of the 1930s, at the same time that the Camden workers'
struggles helped to transform the course of U. S. labor relations in the twentieth
century, the fight limestone workers faced in southern Indiana was for simple dignity
and survival. Even in the late 1930s, Monroe County had unemployment rates over 40
percent, one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state, and one of the highest
percentages of workers dependent upon relief in the entire nation. Finding the coffers
empty, the state government abdicated all responsibility for relief, with the exception
of some administrative costs, to the local and federal governments, which had stepped
in to perform a modest but crucial role of insuring subsistence employment for the
jobless in the Bloomington area. Drifting from odd job to odd job after leaving the
limestone mill, Doty, along with over two million other young people, ultimately
gained a slot in the National Youth Administration's (NYA) vocational training program
to receive the skills necessary to become a machinist. He never enrolled in the New
Deal program, however, as- pushed by the struggles of the Camden workers-new
opportunities arrived in Bloomington.
"One of the greatest forward advances in the history of the city" appeared to relieve
the community's otherwise dismal employment picture in February 1940 when the
local press announced plans for the opening of a Radio Corporation of America factory.
Presented as a grand "opportunity to many now on the pittance of WPA payrolls," the
city leaders projected that the plant would provide for permanent income, create a
demand for new homes, offer economic stability to the community, and draw
additional national corporations to open in the area. With virtually the entire front
pages of the local papers devoted to the story, the new plant promised to pull Monroe
County out of the Great Depression and to create "A New Bloomington!" The arrival of
RCA in 1940 not only saved many workers from destitution; it launched a dramatic
departure from Monroe County's earlier path of economic development as the factory
quickly grew to employ over eight thousand workers and became the industrial core of
southern Indiana by the 1960s.
One of the thousands who signed up at the new plant was Bob Doty. Having received
word to show up for work at the factory, he did so early the following morning at
which time the personnel director told him to sit at a bench and wait to be called. By
noon, when nobody had said anything to him and he had done no work at all, he became
discouraged, gave up, and walked home. The next day, however, his family doctor, who
had become the official physician for RCA, came out to his house wondering why he had
left. Doty explained the situation to which the doctor replied, "Get cleaned up and get
your clothes on, I'll take you down there. You've got a job.... They was paying you
yesterday." In an era, as Doty described it, when "you couldn't buy a job," the number of
men lingering outside the gates of the stone mill waiting for someone to be fired or to
quit on that day in late 1939 remained a haunting testimonial to the scarcity of
employment in southern Indiana and across the country. Being paid to sit and simply
wait, only a few months later, indicated a fundamental change for the local population.
Clearly, what made Bloomington so attractive to the corporation was the population's
desperation for work due to the devastation of the local economy. The core of the
economic crisis could be found in the way the Depression severed the linkages that
generations of Monroe County workers had with the land that nurtured the hardwoods
they converted into furniture, produced the crops they ate and marketed, and harbored
the stone they cut into building material. As the Purdue University Department of
Agricultural Economics explained, "The southern section of the State has the poorer
resources and consequently the folks with lower incomes, lower levels of living, and
communities and institutions of less acceptable standards." The area, concurred a
state employment survey, provides "a constant reserve of labor for industrial
Even without the ravages of the Depression, Bloomington still would have been an
extremely attractive location for an industrial plant. Since local residents had very
limited experience with factory work, as the RCA employment manager explained,
company executives "figured that we would stand to have good labor relations here for
a long time because people hadn't been embittered or involved." And she was right. In
1930, before the Depression completely undermined the industrial economy, the
combined output of all of Indiana's forty-two southern counties (out of a total of
ninety-two counties in the state) accounted for a mere 14.3 percent of the state's
industrial production. Moreover, the presence of organized labor in Monroe County had
been minimal, and the most active unionists were in the conservative building trades
that dominated the local movement. A mob was even said to have expressed its
sentiment toward the Congress of Industrial Organizations by allegedly confronting the
President of the Indiana State CIO and beating him up on the steps of the Court House
during his visit to Bloomington in the late 1930s.
The local population's desperation for work and deference to those who could provide it
allowed RCA to exert its control through very strict guidelines on who would be
granted a job. "The people that we hired when we started RCA was this nice person's
son and daughter," the employment director recalled, "You know, a rather high level of
clientele." Without the constraints of federal-or state-mandated hiring rules, she
explained, "You could refuse to hire a person if you didn't like the way they parted their
hair. So you had full rein of being very selective." Applicants "were just wild to get a
job," she continued, "and particularly something in industry.... Jobs had not been
available. They needed them." When workers lined up at the Graham Hotel for an
interview, a position "would be so important to them, they would be so nervous, they
would shake like the leaf in the wind." Workers were not concerned with how much it
paid, what they had to do, or what their hours would be; "they just wanted that job and
wanted to hold that job." Boys applying for mere stock-handling positions typically
arrived in their Sunday suits, and even those prospective employees that were "very
minimal in social and education standards" would show up impeccably dressed and
groomed when they submitted their applications. "It sounds like a fairy tale," she
recalled about the workers' submissiveness, "but it was that important to them."
Management's only reservation about the formula they had found in Bloomington was
the possible influence of the coal miners in the region and their deep commitment to
organized labor. "Well for years," reported the personnel manager, "we did not hire in
that area where you would have the coal miner's daughter."
And it was, indeed, working-class daughters that RCA hired for its assembly lines.
While men would toil in heavy work such as shipping and stock handling, and relatively
skilled positions such as troubleshooting and repair, the vast majority of the new
workers-about eighty percent-were to be women. As the newspapers made clear, the
corporation chose Bloomington because of "a large field" of "high-class feminine labor"
located in the city that could fill the assembly lines which would produce the
table-top radio, the "Nipper." More than just being female was required, however, as
recruits had to be between the ages of seventeen and twenty-eight, single, possessing
a high-school education, within specified height and weight limits, to be of "high
moral character," and capable of passing a physical exam and a series of dexterity
tests. The corporation's personnel director, who knew the local labor market extremely
well, later claimed with very little exaggeration that RCA delivered the industrial
revolution to the women of Monroe County. While offering much-needed work to
Bloomington women, the real financial bonanza still belonged to RCA, as the female
operators in Camden started at between 40 and 50 cents per hour-up to double what
Bloomington women could expect.
More than just labor market conditions and gender factored into RCA' s hold on the
local population, as even the size and technological dazzle of the industry assisted in
controlling the new workers. The first generation of RCA workers remember awe at the
immensity of the operation and the excitement of learning about something as
sophisticated as radio production. "I had a feeling that that was the biggest place I
nearly ever seen," remembered Anna Belle Ooley about her first time entering the
plant, "when I walked down through there I was scared to death. Cause you know it's
big. It's big!" Each woman began by learning to crimp and solder wires, and those hired
very early on built an entire radio set from start to finish. "That was the thrill,"
remembers Jane Chestnutt about assembling her first radio, "of course we didn't get to
keep it" she added disappointedly. As the first Nipper model rolled off the assembly
line on the seventeenth of July 1940, everything in the factory came to a stop as all of
the workers gathered around to see the completed set. When they turned the switch and
music from the radio broke the silence, everyone in the plant "screamed and clapped" at
The general sense of the early days was one of a "family feeling" peppered with a
variety of complaints about the discipline involved in the workers' first experience
with high-speed production and autocratic management brought in from the East Coast.
Alyce Hunter perhaps best summarizes the workers' feelings about RCA. Never having
seen the inside of a radio-"which hadn't been around for us for a great long time
anyway"-she found the experience "fascinating" but life on the line "rough." The
women's feelings toward co-workers were unambiguous, however, as they remember
RCA in the 1940s having a "home-town feel" in which a close-knit group of workers
knew each other through a variety of social and familial relations. "It was just like a
family, you know. And we got along so," line worker Joska Hoke summed up, "And if
somebody had sickness in the family, you know it seemed like everybody... would take
up money and help.... Anytime anybody needed help, it seemed like everybody was
always so willing to give and to do things. It was just like a family."
Management applied the family metaphor to the Bloomington workers as well, but did
so in contrast to the contentious and unfamilial environment that years of industrial
struggle had produced in Camden. "I can tell you unofficially that they certainly
appreciated the Bloomington workforce as compared to what they had in the East,"
reported Mary Frances Roll, because "in the East they had considerable labor problems.
The labor environment wasn't too healthy, the employees, I don't think, had nearly as
high a regard for their work place as our employees." In Bloomington, in contrast, RCA
produced a "feeling of camaraderie between the working force and company that was
certainly nonexistent in the East." Echoing the ideas of her employees, she explained,
"it was more of a family feel and that family feel kept up for years and years and
years. It was the RCA family-very strong." The main factor Roll pointed to in her
analysis was the lack of industrial culture in Bloomington. "It will probably be a long
time before we would have the adverse feeling develop here as say might on the East
Coast [which] has always been industrialized, and we weren't an industrial community."
In conclusion, she figured, "we have not had the things that has poisoned the work
force against the work place."
Although RCA had found a seemingly perfect location for industrial investment, the
company's very presence in Bloomington, like Camden before it and Memphis and Juarez
to come, recast the culture and politics of southern Indiana's workers almost
immediately upon its arrival. Such transformations make it clear that capital includes
more than just equipment, buildings, parts, and raw materials; rather, it embodies a
complex social relationship. Since labor power is embedded in living, breathing,
conscious workers with an evolving sense of culture, history, and place, the new
factory regime had an inevitable impact upon the RCA employees' social identity.
Although RCA's flight from the insubordinate workers in New Jersey to the seemingly
cheap and docile workers in Bloomington appeared successful on every level, the very
act of opening a factory in Monroe County initiated a series of changes in the same
social factors that management sought in its plant location decisions. The "family
feeling" of the early years of RCA's presence in Bloomington could not withstand the
continued exposure to industrial discipline. By the 1960s, changes in the local
working-class culture would deliver the same types of industrial strife the company
fled in Camden.
Jefferson Cowie is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Cornell University's School of
Industrial and Labor Relations where he teaches history.
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