Breaking Away

Breaking Away

Capital Moves:
RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor
by Jefferson Cowie
Cornell University Press, 1999 273 pp $29.95

Most Americans rarely think about the large structures of political economy. At election time, they are more likely to focus on schools, taxes, guns, crime, religion, even traffic, than monetary policy, antitrust enforcement, or labor law. In recent years, however, there has been a notable exception: the intense debate in Congress, on talk radio, and on the campaign stump over free trade. The two most galvanizing candidates of the 1990s, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, built their right-wing populist crusades through attacks on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the World Trade Organization. What their followers have feared—more than a flood of imports—is an accelerated relocation of jobs from the United States to Mexico and other low-wage countries.

The resonance of free-trade issues testifies to continuing jitters about the economy. A quarter-century of downsizing, factory relocations, and episodes of widespread joblessness has left Americans anxious about their ability to get and keep work, even when unemployment is at a historic low. For many workers, globalization connotes threat to their well-being and to national economic and political security, not technical or social progress. Organized labor has particular reason to worry. No problem has been more vexing for workers trying to organize and assert their rights than the mobility of capital. Time after time, when workers have built strong unions, won higher wages, or created a culture of solidarity, companies have trumped their efforts by closing factories, office complexes, and service centers and opening new ones elsewhere. Since elsewhere is more than likely to be abroad these days, union fears of job loss fuel wariness about globalization.

Globalization has an air of newness about it, but Jefferson Cowie’s fine study of one corporation’s repeated relocations of its manufacturing demonstrates how little is fresh in capital’s use of mobility to increase profits and temper the power of labor. RCA, the giant maker of radio and then television equipment, first centered its production in a vast complex in Camden, New Jersey. To assemble consumer products, which generally require less skill to make than custom equipment for industrial or military use, the company hired young women and paid them by the piece. When in the mid-1930s the underpaid Camden workers got swept up in a national tide of unionization, RCA fiercely fought their strike for recognition, using imported thugs, pro-company workers, and cooperative local authorities to do its dirty work. Ultimately the Camden workers did win union recognition and an excellent contract. In response, RCA began dispersing its production throughout the country. By 1953, only seven hundred of what were once nearly ten ...