The Guiding Forms of Collective Action
Meaning is not decreed: if it is not everywhere, it is nowhere.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism
Strikes have entered sociologists' imagination as if they were events prefabricated for numerical analysis. They seem to present themselves with ready-made dimensions such as number of participants, duration, and frequency. Yet before strikes can be enumerated, they must be identified, and doing so requires that one define the cessation of the transfer of labor. In every society labor and its exchange are conceived before they are perceived. Accordingly, the occurrence of labor stoppage, like the transmission of the social force called labor , takes place in the imagination of the agents themselves.
In The Rise of Market Culture , William Reddy compellingly demonstrated the symbolic constitution of strikes in early nineteenth-century France. The operative principles of culture become visible only by descending to the particulars of practice. Consider one of Reddy's examples. In 1839 the employer at a spinning mill near Rouen asked his workers to pay for illuminating oil so he could extend the hours of manufacture into the evening. The operatives consigned themselves to the prolongation of work but rejected the surcharge for lighting. They made no concerted effort to abstain from labor, but at starting time each morning they mounted a demonstration against the new exaction for oil, causing the insulted owner to shut them out day by day afresh. "They were ready to work, they wanted to work; 28 centimes per kilogram of yarn was acceptable to them," Reddy concludes. "This was not a strike, so much as a state of refusal to pay for oil that resulted each morning in a new closing of the mill." Attaching the term strike to the event may suit a blind statistical vision of such events, since the result , to be sure, was a labor stoppage of quantifiable dimensions. But the workers did not intend to withhold their
labor in order to bring the employer to terms. French industrial workers of this era had not yet adopted the concept of the strike or coined a locution for it. For the investigator to label it as such results in an anachronistic generalization; it effaces the character of the event and falsely abstracts the human agency that created it.
The agents' cultural schema determines not only whether a strike is a conceivable course of action but the forms the strike could imaginably take. The meaning and constitution of strikes assumed their contrasting forms in late-nineteenth-century Germany and Britain in accordance with those of the commodity of labor. What were hallmarks of a strike in one country were extraneous in the next. The workers' understanding of the labor transaction shaped the goals of strikes, the means by which strikes were executed, and, indeed, whether workers' collective action could be classified as a strike at all.
Scripts on Stage and on Paper
The workers used their definition of labor as a commodity to orchestrate the unfolding of a work stoppage in space. When British workers had a grievance they wanted corrected, they typically filed out of their workrooms into the central mill yard, which served as a theater for their demonstration. The tactic was habitual, as the documentary sources as well as oral history collections in Britain show. Textile workers from both Yorkshire and Lancashire, asked in interviews what they did to correct a workplace problem, responded, "We went out to the mill yard." The workers in some instances transformed this action into a raucous assembly, singing and shouting slogans in the yard. For example, at Glossop, just southeast of Lancashire, the
weavers at one mill who filed into their yard delivered a message that merged rebellion and patriotic conformity when they commenced singing "Rule Britannia" as loudly as possible.
The British textile workers also imported community traditions of demonstration into the factory. At the end of the nineteenth century, textile workers in urban areas, especially women, still subjected miscreant supervisors to the proverbial ceremony of "rough music." At a mill in Bradford, for example, the female workers in 1893 condemned the advances of their overlooker by preparing an effigy of him. They banged on cans and shouted. In 1891 at Great Horton, near Bradford, weavers who were "members of the weaker sex" jeered and hissed on the shop floor at a team of new overlookers with whom they were supposed to work. When the overlookers informed the employer of the rude distractions, he locked the women out and closed the mill. To put an unpopular overlooker in his place, workers at another mill in Bradford in 1890 formed a procession on the factory grounds, playing on tin kettles and a ram's horn. In these instances, workers drew upon repertoires of protest that had traditionally been used to censure those who transgressed community norms.
Textile strikes had long drawn upon community repertoires of mockery. In the Preston strikes of the 1850s, strikers who had turned out called upon itinerant musicians to stand opposite the mill and accompany their dances, which employers interpreted as a form of "ridicule and defiance." Even after the turn of the century, work boycotts could become an occasion for carnival merrymaking. At a village near Burnley, strikers in 1908 lent their
stoppage a festival atmosphere when a female participant "masqueraded in man's attire." In mockery of their owner, these revelers also paraded a pig in a cart through the town streets. With such opportunities for entertainment, an incident such as occurred at a Bradford mill in 1893 could only have been expected: officials of the textile workers' union, called to investigate the cause of the stoppage, claimed that many of the merrymakers demonstrating at the mill gate could not cite a grievance. The workers said they had "come out to have 'a little fun.'" The union officials said that "upon inquiry it turned out that few of the women really understood why they were on strike, many of them coming out as sympathizers with the first malcontents."
The British workers thought of their assemblies as a means of signaling their insistence upon bargaining, not just as a means of withdrawing labor. A newspaper account of a stoppage in the Colne Valley during 1891 makes plain the importance workers attached to turning the cessation of work into a visible gesture of disobedience. "The workmen were seen to be making their way to an open space close by their mill," the report stated," and when anything of this kind takes place all eyes are upon them in wonderment." At a mill in Apperley Bridge in 1893, the weavers were delighted to see that the head of the company "stood stock still when he saw all the weavers outside the mill gates."
The physical arrangement of the British mills often created a stage for workers' demonstrations. The central location of the yard in many mills ensured that a congregation there would be visible to workers and supervisors in every department of the factory. When not used as a site for protest, the mill yard was used by employers and public figures as a platform for addresses. In the Colne Valley, for example, politicians campaigning for
office used yards inside the mills as sites for public addresses to workers. A weaver from Yeadon, born in 1861, chose the mill yard as the setting in his autobiography in which to portray the turning point of his spiritual development. There he rejected a job offer from a shady music agent from London and threatened to heave a rock at the man. Well could the central yard, encircled by buildings as if by grandstands, serve as a stage for dramatic confrontation.
The surviving record of evidence in Germany does not easily yield instances before 1914 in which workers turned the mill yard into a theatrical arena for their protests. Yet many examples of conduct come forth that draw on an alternative symbolism: German workers stopped work at their looms and refused to continue until their grievances were corrected. At a weaving mill in Rheydt, for example, weavers stopped work for two days in 1909, but stayed in their shop rooms, to protest against what they viewed as a reduction in piece rates. The workers employed this tactic in Saxony, Bavaria, the Vogtland, the Rhineland, the Münsterland, and the Osnabrück district. Since the workers left whenever owners requested it, this conduct cannot be taken to represent an attempt to occupy the factory by means of a sit-down strike. A police report from the district of Burgsteinfurt said the
inoperative workers had even left "obligingly." Workers sometimes used the sit-down technique after telling the owner that they did not intend to work. Therefore it was not a silent way of striking without verbal communication, nor a way of denying to authorities that a strike was in fact underway. Like their colleagues in Britain, many German workers remained skeptical of employers' claim to authority and were ready to mock it by pranks on the shop floor, such as falsely pulling emergency alarms. Starting a strike by sitting at the machine was not a sign of greater subordination to managerial directives. It simply exemplified the German workers' conception in this period of the stoppage of work.
The tactic of merely sitting at the machine did not represent a less active response than demonstrating in the yard, or one that required less coordination than marching in a body out of the factory. German workers who adopted the tactic of the "passive strike" showed a high degree of discipline. According to police records from Emsdetten, for example, the weavers who initiated a passive strike in 1904 stopped work at their looms "suddenly, according to an arranged signal." These protesters then sat in the workroom all day. A decade later, at another mill in the same town, the weavers repeated this tactic during the morning shift to protest against weft yarn of substandard quality. The owner eventually shut off the steam power and asked the weavers to leave the premises. When the weavers complied, they did not scatter. Having made their point, they had the discipline to return "punctually" to work in a body at the beginning of the afternoon shift. Details such as these indicate that German workers conducted well-orchestrated stoppages. But they hardly drew upon established techniques such as rough music, nor did they regularly mount protests that depended upon a visual display of disobedience in the yard. The German strikes emphasized the precise, timed withdrawal of labor. At some citywide work stoppages, all
workers in town stopped their work at the same instant. "On May 10th, at nine o'clock in the morning," a factory inspector from Greiz reported, "the strike broke out as if on command in all mechanical weaving mills and in the dyeing and finishing branches." Since workers often began work in the morning with the intention of stopping shortly thereafter, their conduct seemed to affirm the symbolic importance of the act of collectively ceasing the motion of production, rather than merely preventing that motion from starting at all.
The absence of visible workplace demonstrations in the enactment of German strikes made it awkward for some to distinguish between a strike and the contractual withdrawal of labor. Legal-minded German bureaucrats of the time found it so. In the Rhineland, local officials thought that if a large group of workers canceled their employment contract by giving prior notice, they were legally withdrawing their labor and therefore not launching a strike. The Imperial Bureau of Statistics in Berlin had to keep the provincial authorities informed that a mass labor dispute which transpired according to orderly procedures of terminating a labor contract still constituted an event that the officials should report as a strike. The district record keepers in Thüringen may have reflected the prevailing uncertainty about the sighting of a strike in the title of a volume of handwritten enumerations for the period 1882–1906: they called their compilation "Supposed Strikes." In contrast with the British stoppages at the workplace, German protests in the quarter-century before the First World War seem elementary and austere.
How are we to explain the difference between the German and the British forms of protest? Certainly the German workers did not adopt this particular style of action because they lacked acquaintance with forms of crowd action. In the early days of factory development at midcentury, workers also employed rough music (Katzenmusik ) against their employers, though not in the workplace. A minister reported in this era that the workers in the Wuppertal district treated their employers to this ceremony whenever "it became known that a moral lapse had occurred in an eminent family." The tradition of rough music still enjoyed a rich life in industrial towns of imperial Germany. At a village in the Lausitz in 1886, weavers suffering from a wage reduction subjected the mayor's house to these raucous sounds. Protesters used this repertoire for issues unrelated to the workplace. At a textile town near Mönchengladbach, one hundred people, including workers from the local mills, joined a rough music demonstration in 1902. They banged pot tops and clanged bells for several nights around the home of a carpenter whom they accused of carrying on an indecent sexual liaison. German textile strikers also organized street processions after the cessation of work. Striking weavers at a firm in the Löbau district in 1886 paraded through the streets with their colorful fabrics mounted on poles. German workers had the repertoires for collective demonstrations at hand in the community, but seldom imported them into the workplace.
Nor did the divergence in British and German repertoires of action originate in the legal statutes that applied to protest. To be sure, the laws regarding public assembly in Prussia, and in most other German states, required workers to give local police forty-eight hours' notice of a meeting. Yet the courts ruled that the laws that prevented public meetings of associations without prior announcement did not apply to gatherings of employees at work. The courts reasoned that the participants at meetings on shop property discussed workplace matters, not "public affairs." Therefore the law did not require German workers to give police notice of meetings or assemblies on the mill grounds. On this score the laws governing assembly at work in Germany were no different from those in Britain.
If the difference in the repertoires of action at the workplace cannot be explained by the legal environment, where can we turn to discover their significance? One of the terms workers used to describe their actions provides an initial clue, though not a monolithic response. British textile workers who went on strike often said they had "turned out," a figure of speech which highlighted the crossing of a boundary between inside and outside the mill rather than focusing on the stoppage of labor per se.
A confrontation between workers and employers at a Blackburn weaving mill in 1865 implemented this principle. The insurgent weavers assembled in the mill yard before leaving, but they defined the start of the strike as the moment at which they passed through the main gate and left the premises.
Managers, too, framed the cessation and resumption of work in spatial terms. The director of a factory in Bradford described the readiness of strikers to begin work again with the expression "They were glad to come in." To "come out" became synonymous with going on strike. In their own accounts of work stoppages, workers described the start of a strike with the standard phrase that they "came out" together or "in a body." The phrase "in a body" connoted a highly patterned form of group conduct. Both the middle-class and the working-class press took care to distinguish between actions committed by a "crowd" and those that workers committed "in a body." A crowd, The Dewsbury Reporter noted in 1875, moved "without arrangement," even when it seemed a peaceable assemblage, whereas workers organized and coordinated their movements when they acted "in a body." In a word, the spatial form assumed by many strikes was purposeful and methodical.
German workers who struck said they had "ceased their labor" (die Arbeit eingestellt ). A similar phrase appeared in German dialect speech. The memoirs of Friedrich Storck, a German poet from the Wuppertal who worked in textile mills as a teenager, document the evolution of workers' language. Storck said that in the Wuppertal, a region known as a pioneer in the development of factory workers' movements, the word strike (Streik) did not acquire currency until after the 1860s. The popular expression of that era was de Brocken hennschmieten ("throw down the work"), a colloquialism which survived into the early twentieth century. Modern histori-
cal research confirms that in other regions of Germany, the phrase "cessation of labor" (Arbeitsniederlegung ) was employed before use of the word strike became commonplace.
The German workers' tactic of sitting at the machine indicates that the withdrawal of the owners' command of the conversion of labor power comprised a symbolic statement of its own. The only "language" the employer knew how to interpret, the Social Democratic textile union said, was "the language of the work stoppage." In Britain, by comparison, the exchange of labor as it was embodied in finished products meant that the withdrawal of the conversion of labor power per se at the point of production did not constitute a symbolic end to the employment relation. Instead, workers supplemented this with the crossing of the boundary of the workroom, combined with a visible demonstration of protest in the mill yard, to express their flouting of the owners' authority. British textile workers enacted their protests by responding to the employers' own emphasis on the surveillance of traffic at border zones rather than on the control of the transformation of labor power into labor. They took hold of the employers' use of space as a handle by which they could turn the employers' authority upside down in the theater of the central mill yard.
In both Germany and Britain, the workers' tactics of collective action represented the appropriate counter-symbols to use against the employers' own ways of asserting their authority over the factory. British textile workers did not as a rule sign contracts or other documents when they entered into an employment relation. Custom and implicit agreement, to which the courts referred if called upon, governed workers' association with their employers. Only a few mills posted notices in the workroom about the
terms of employment or about the conduct of the hired hands on the shop floor itself. No wonder, then, that British textile workers did not break the employment relation merely by withdrawing the use of their labor power, for there was no official code giving the owner control on the shop floor over the workers' labor time. Instead, workers reacted by crossing the factories' physical boundaries.
Unlike their British counterparts, German workers signed written contracts when they began employment. As early as midcentury, most German mills had printed rules posted in the shop. After 1891 such posting became obligatory. Workers usually received a personal copy of the factory rules. These ordinances typically told workers how to carry out their work effectively, banned political or religious conversations on the shop floor, and specified the fines that would be levied for misbehavior. According to the provisions of the factory ordinances posted in the mills, stopping work at the loom indicated that workers had "deliberately disobeyed" the factory
managers. Such defiance provided grounds for immediate dismissal, according to the provisions of the state industrial labor code. The importance German employers attached to the posting of written rules as a means of enforcing their authority over the labor process can be judged from the composition of the rules. Before 1891, factory owners frequently entitled the factory regulations "laws" (Gesetze ). On their own initiative, employers had the local police stamp the rules before posting them. In some instances, they entitled their rules "police regulations." Through these tactics German employers could give the impression that conduct on the shop floor was subject to legal scrutiny and punishment.
It seems clear that German workers took a more legalistic view of the employment relation than did their British counterparts—when it was to their immediate advantage. In both Germany and Britain, the workers' newspapers reported that managers typically responded to workers' grievances with the comment, "If you don't like it, you can leave." But workers responded to these taunts in a different way in each country. German workers took such casual challenges as grounds for departing, for they had, literally, been told they could go home if they wanted to do so. In each of the principal textile districts of Germany, the work force left without notice on the grounds that by saying anyone could return home if things did not suit them, factory officials had terminated the employment relation. Individual workers used the same reasoning before the business courts. A bobbin winder told the court in Elberfeld in 1899 that she had left without offering notice because a supervisor had told her, "If you don't want to work
for the pay, you should get out of here." In response, she left her machine, never to return.
The legal savvy of German workers can be detected in their treatment of written contracts as well. A spinning mill owner in Rheine complained to a district official in 1908 that workers were acutely aware of their legal situation in the factory during the first hour of their hire, before they had been handed their personal copy of the factory ordinance. During these few minutes, the owner said, the workers believed they were "justified" in committing "the worst kinds of mischief" because they knew they did not yet stand under the legal provisions of a labor contract. Not surprisingly, the "people's bureau" (Volksbüro ) in that town, set up by Catholic organizations to inform workers of their legal rights in housing and employment, reported frequent inquiries from workers about the terms for concluding labor contracts. In Rheine, weavers in 1891 stopped work instantly when a clerk took down the sign that listed their piece rates. The workers did not ask why the sign had been removed, but they refused to continue until the clerk replaced it—in the absence of a posted agreement about rates, the workers believed that they had no contract.
The German strikers treated a halt to the process of converting labor power into labor as an essential and dramatic challenge to the owner's authority. They oriented their action to the technical violation of the printed factory rules, which specified the employer's authority over conduct on the shop floor. British textile workers, by contrast, considered a visual demonstration of defiance, "coming out" of the mill into an open theater, to be one of the hallmarks of a strike. In each country the workers' actions represented the appropriate counterstatement to daily practices on the shop floor. In German mills, where the rituals for entering the mill and the timing of workers' entry focused on the appropriation of workers' labor power, strikers acted out the withdrawal of labor power as such. In British mills, where owners focused on the appropriation of products and the assertion of control over border spaces, strikers, too, thought in terms of "coming out" and staging visible protests in the mill yard.
For many Germans who reflected on their economy in the middle of the nineteenth century, the treatment of labor as a commodity still appeared
monstrous and perverse. Ferdinand Lassalle pointed to industrial conflict in Britain as evidence that the complete objectification of human labor was unrealizable. The melancholy course of strikes in Britain, Lassalle claimed, represented the vain attempt of human beings "to disguise themselves as commodities." In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, however, the specification of labor as a commodity was taken so thoroughly for granted that it guided not only the humdrum enactment of production but the small insurrections workers improvised on the shop floor against the system's indignities. In all likelihood, only a minority of workers could have offered a detailed verbal exposition of their understanding of labor's commodity form. But the eloquent patterning of work stoppages shows, as philosophers and social historians alike have remarked, that although people may not be able to put their knowledge into words, they can put it into action.
The Formulation of Strike Demands
In both the German and the British textile industry, the decade of the 1890s began an upsurge in labor disputes that was sustained until the First World War. Karl Emsbach, in his sample of reports from the textile industry in the Rheinland, found a threefold increase in strikes during the decade 1890–1899 over the averages for the three preceding decades. The trend accelerated in the decade after the turn of the century. In Britain the years from 1888 to 1892, the critical years of development for the New Unionism, also initiated an extended increase in textile strikes. Despite this shared trajectory, however, strike demands at the textile factories of each country reached toward different ends, based on the workers' definition of labor as a commodity. In Germany, textile strikers transcended requests concerning wages and hiring to propose changes of their own in the conditions under which workers carried out the labor activity.
The German workers went beyond their British counterparts in requesting changes to protect the labor power they entrusted to the employer. They lodged strike demands for technical improvements to prevent accidents at work. In Borghorst, for example, striking weavers requested the introduction of "arrangements for the transport of warps according to the accident prevention regulations" of their company. German strikers also requested the installation of shuttle guards to prevent shuttles from flying off the loom and injuring nearby workers. According to the Imperial Bureau of Statistics in Berlin, demands for safer or healthier working conditions contributed to the outbreak of eleven strikes in textiles from 1901 through 1906 (these are the years for which the official figures can be disaggregated into precise demands).
Unfortunately, the average frequency with which German strikers presented such demands for changes in the organization of work will never be ascertained. Local authorities who submitted strike reports to the Imperial Bureau of Statistics often omitted reference to the demands workers submitted that did not relate to wages or the length of the workday. The officials forwarded only those demands that seemed palpably understandable and that fit into their conventional view of industrial conflict, but the researcher who sifts through police notes or newspaper accounts will find a veritable underground of grievances which the workers themselves incorporated into strike negotiations. Historians who rely on the published government statistics in Germany to enumerate the instigating causes of work stoppages merely recirculate the crass assumptions of German officialdom. In Gummersbach, for example, textile workers in 1900 submitted demands for more light and air in the workplace, for a better canteen, and for cleaner toilets. City officials submitted reports to higher-ups only about the wage demands, however, so only the wage demands entered the published tabulations. Similar misreporting occurred for textile strikes in Saxony, in Luckenwalde, and in the district of Lingen. "The official overview of the results of the
strike statistics," the Social Democratic Volkszeitung concluded in 1892, "is absolutely worthless."
The significant point from a comparative perspective is that German textile workers often formulated such demands in strikes, whereas British workers rarely did. No evidence that British textile workers voiced strike demands for protection against accidents appears in British workers' textile newspapers or in the parliamentary listings. Does the inclusion of demands for workplace safety in German strikes, but their absence in Britain, mean that this issue was of concern only to workers in Germany?
The comments of British workers in the Yorkshire Factory Times indicate that they certainly harbored dissatisfaction with unsafe machinery. In my sample of stories from this journal for the years from 1890 through 1893, twenty-seven complaints about unhealthy or dangerous working conditions appeared. Most frequently the workers mentioned the lack of guards to prevent the shuttles from flying out of the loom; they also cited the lack of mesh fencing around some equipment. Yet proposals to correct these problems, in particular the installation of loom guards, were not apt to enter into strike negotiations as they did in Germany. This seems even more curious in view of the British textile workers' legendary obstinacy and readiness to strike over minor arrangements in the workplace that concerned pay.
German textile workers, again unlike British workers, included among their strike demands the building of factory canteens and the cleaning of toilet facilities. At Düren in the Rhineland, for example, the workers at a
mill for weaving metal sheets bargained in 1899 for better eating facilities as part of the strike settlement. The male dyers who went on strike in 1899 around the district of Krefeld included among their demands a request that the owner provide dressing rooms in which they could change clothes. In Thüringen, workers pressed for free soap and towels from employers. In Mönchengladbach, striking textile workers in 1900 bargained not only for higher wages but for unsoiled toilets. German workers treated the condition of water closets as a topic meriting separate discussion at their union meetings. At Coesfeld, for example, thirty-seven weavers at a meeting in 1910 signed a petition whose sole object was cleaner toilets.
The circumstance that in strikes only German workers advanced demands for better factory facilities does not imply that only German workers concerned themselves with these amenities. The great majority of British textile workers felt the lack of cloakrooms, cafeterias, and undefiled restrooms, but they did not make this an issue of contestation with employers. Instead, they submitted letters to their newspapers express-
ing their discontent about toilet and eating facilities. In my Yorkshire Factory Times sample for 1890 through 1893, for example, ten complaints about sanitation and two about the absence of canteens appeared. (Remarks about canteens appeared only under unusual circumstances, however: in one case the air in the workroom itself was so noxious people felt they could not safely eat there; in another, the owner punished someone for eating near their loom and spilling crumbs on the cloth.) Thus, the British workers complained informally about toilets, but they did not introduce the state of these facilities into strike negotiations as the Germans did. Nor did the discussion of toilets become a topic for public meetings in Britain, as it was in Germany.
The German strikes and complaints concerning toilet facilities, canteens, and safety all took for granted the owner's responsibility for providing for workers' needs on the shop floor. These strikes assumed that the small rituals of life in the factory—eating, cleaning oneself, going to the toilet—could be treated as confrontations with the owner's authority over the production process. When seen in those terms, apparent details grew into suitable issues to introduce into strike negotiations. Speakers at German union meetings turned them into symbols of the owners' command over the worker. The union secretary in Gera declared it "scandalous" in 1906 that female workers at a mill could clean themselves only by putting water in their mouths and spraying it over their bodies. British workers, by contrast, lacking the notion of the owner's embrace of the expenditure of their labor power, did not dramatize those parts of their vie intime that
transpired within the factory walls as points of contact with their employer.
German textile workers also displayed a tendency to broaden the issues in strike movements to cover many seemingly unrelated points of contention. They extended the conflict to consider the employers' authority over the manufacturing process in multiple ways. According to the reports of the Imperial Bureau of Statistics in Berlin, 44 percent of the strikes that German textile workers launched from 1899 through 1906 included multiple demands (these are the only years for which strikes with more than one ultimatum are distinguishable in published reports). The surviving copies of workers' original demands indicate that strikers sometimes compiled long lists. For example, workers at Schiefbahn in 1905 submitted eleven separate demands, including hourly pay for waiting time, restraints on abusive language, and regular consultation between representatives of management and workers. In Britain, by contrast, in a count of the Board of Trade's strike reports for textiles whose format permits a comparison (the years 1894 through 1900), only 5 percent of strikes included more than one demand.
It is possible, of course, that the greater incidence of multiple demands in Germany meant only that German workers planned their strikes more carefully or conducted them in a more organized fashion. Were this explanation accurate, strikes in Germany that were initiated with the two weeks' advance notice legally required to terminate the employment relation would revolve around multiple demands more frequently than would more spontaneous strikes begun without sufficient notice. Government statistics are not the last word on the matter, but they lend no support to this hypothesis. For the years 1899 through 1906, the period for which the official German data can be cross-tabulated, textile workers issued multiple demands in 43 percent of the abrupt, illegal strikes. There was no statistically significant difference in Germany between the rate at which textile workers in well-organized, lawful strikes presented multiple demands and the rate at which workers in illegal strikes lodged them.
The variation between Germany and Britain in number of demands lodged probably did not derive from the institutions that factories had in place for mediating workplace conflicts. In both countries, conflict usually broke out in individual mills without turning into district-wide confrontations between the unions and the employers' associations. In Germany, if negotiations at a mill preceded the launching of a strike, workers usually conducted them without assistance from trade union officials. The lack of close union guidance in German textile strikes can be gauged from the circumstance that most of them began without the legal notice necessary to end employment. The so-called worker committees some German mills formed to administer health insurance funds hardly became known for representing the workers' interests in disputes. And in Yorkshire most
strikes broke out before the unions had received word of the dispute. The Socialist Review reported in 1910 that in one woolen district, workers launched or threatened half a dozen strikes within three months "without a single Union member being concerned or official intervening."
Still another possible explanation for the greater incidence of multiple demands in Germany is that the German textile workers struck less frequently. By this hypothetical line of argument, fewer strikes would build up a backlog of demands that would then be expressed in a single strike. But in terms of the size of the textile work forces, strikes were actually slightly less frequent during the period from 1899 through 1913 in Britain than in Germany. The annual ratio of strikes to workers was about one to seven hundred in Britain and one to six hundred in Germany.
The tendency of textile workers in Germany to formulate an extensive list of demands rather than to strike over a single issue coincided with another trend: German textile workers included among their strike demands requests that employers reform their governance of the work activity. Strikers at a Chemnitz mill told their employer in 1889 he had to make a "better arrangement of the production techniques" and allow workers to monitor the run-
ning of the engine. In Aachen the weavers demanded that the company create a new job, that of carrying warp beams, to relieve weavers of this burden. Challenges such as this were not simply defensive responses to employers' efforts to introduce new machinery or heavier workloads. At a spinning mill in Viersen, on the lower Rhine, for example, the striking spinners in 1899 listed several demands for the maintenance of machinery. They gave the manager a schedule that stipulated how often he was to carry out preventive maintenance and replace frayed parts on various types of spinning frames. In both Germany and Britain, weavers considered it proper that overlookers dispense warps among the looms in the order in which weavers had finished their previous jobs. At a mill in Eupen, Germany, the weavers even demanded that the overlooker himself, who tended a loom of his own in his spare moments, receive warps in the same order as the ordinary weavers. When the owner disapproved the request, the weavers went on strike. They wanted to override the overlookers' and employers' authority to determine the distribution of work on the shop floor.
How dissimilar are these demands from those of the British? British weavers, like those in Germany, resisted changes in the labor process, such as the change to the two-loom system. Like the German weavers, they struck over the poor quality of raw materials, especially in the cotton industry, because defective materials reduced their piece-rate earnings or caused them to work harder for the same wage. They also struck over the arbitrary sacking of co-workers and, in the spinning departments, over the owners' failure to promote workers in order of seniority from the apprenticeship position of a piecer to the full position of a mule minder. British workers were no less concerned with authority than their German counterparts, but they focused on defending against encroachment rather than challenging
the governance of production. British textile-factory workers did not propose changes to control the manager's methods of administering production, as did their German counterparts.
British contemporaries believed that some of the strikes over wages disguised textile workers' wishes to change aspects of the manufacturing process. For example, at the Alston wool combing works in Bradford, the director found in 1892 that men who had gone out on strike were glad to come in once he agreed to changes in the organization of work. He concluded that the wages had not been the overriding issue at all; rather, it was "a problem of work operations concerning the disposal of suds and potash." William Drew, an executive of the Yorkshire textile workers' union, testified in 1891 that many strikes over wages were an "excuse," a pretext. Wage demands concealed other concerns, he said, in particular, mismanagement of the looms. Even when British textile workers were both dissatisfied with the technical methods of production and willing to strike, they did not focus on the governance of work as a contestable issue.
Each of these differences between the goals of British and German strikers parallels the differences between their cultural definitions of the commodity of labor. The German concept of the delivery of labor in the form of labor power accentuated the employer's exercise of authority at the point of production to convert this labor capacity into labor. The distinguishing
features of German textile workers' strike goals—the greater focus on safety conditions and on hygienic care of the worker's person, the multiplication of grievances in a single strike about the employer's administration of the mill, and the advancement of proposals for changes in the governance of production—all focused on the employer's domination of workers by the exercise of authority at the point of production. British textile strikers did not focus on the small rituals of daily life inside the mill as a point of contact with the employer's authority. Rather, they converted disputes that might have addressed the organization of production into an issue of receiving adequate compensation for products delivered.
German workers' understanding of the labor transaction did not always lead them to reject the owner's authority on the shop floor; sometimes they embraced it. The union of workers employed at home in the sewing industry demanded the erection of central workshops for themselves, though not to boost productivity. Instead, they sought to make employers responsible for providing better working conditions and wanted union and state inspectors to certify and monitor the wages and hours of labor, which would be possible only if workers labored under the employer's supervision. British sewers, by contrast, were far from preferring centralized work. As the example of the home sewers in Germany shows, the specification of labor as a commodity did not inevitably make workers in Germany more rebellious against the capitalist labor transaction or against authority on the shop floor. Factory workers contested employers' authority while home workers embraced it, yet the struggle in both situations started with the presumption that the renter of labor power, entrusted with the disposition over the person of the worker, also bore responsibility for the care of that labor power. Depending on the tactical advantages to be secured, German workers used the prevailing specification of the labor transaction in different ways, but always in a
manner that reveals consistent differences from the cultural paradigm for conflict in Britain.
Overlookers' Role in Strikes
The role of overlookers in Germany helped to sustain German workers' understanding of the labor process as the submission of the labor activity to the employer's domination. When German workers labored under overlookers, they understood themselves as having immediate contact with executants of the employer. In Britain, by contrast, the overlookers' relative independence from the factory owners lent support to the workers' understanding that they transferred their labor as it was embodied in products. The German overlookers' status as agents, not just servants, of the owners prevented them from mediating between workers and owners. By contrast, British overlookers, who boasted that they did not "fawn" on the owners, saw themselves as intermediaries between workers and owners. For example, the rules of the Huddersfield and Dewsbury Power Loom Tuners' Society, issued in 1882, set down as one of the association's goals the "regulating" of relations between workmen and owners. Weavers in Yorkshire and Lancashire could even consult with their overlookers about the chances of obtaining wage concessions or ask for advice about the best timing for a strike. Textile workers in Germany prevented even the lowest supervisors from getting word of a possible strike. The German courts ruled that if an overlooker heard of a planned strike and did not report it to the owner, he had betrayed his duty to the owner and given grounds for immediate dismissal.
The contrast between the roles of overlookers in Germany and in Britain left their marks upon the organization and course of strikes. Overlookers in Britain sometimes supported weavers' strike demands. At Manningham, for
example, in one of Yorkshire's most famous labor disputes, in 1890 and 1891 the tuners refused to teach silk weaving to the new hires whom the higher management set on to break the weavers' strike. Instead, the tuners walked off the job in support of the striking weavers. Weavers cheered their supervisors' decision with the cry, "Good owd overlooker!" In the great weavers' strike of 1883 in the Colne Valley, too, tuners from the district voted against training learners and against filling in on the looms for the striking weavers.
British overlookers also supported weavers' opposition to increases in the number of looms per weaver. For example, the overlookers at a firm outside Bradford in 1891 accused the owner of plotting to shift from two to three looms per weaver. They refused to carry out what they called the owner's "dirty work" of "spotting" for dismissal the least favorite weavers in their sections. This, they charged, would only fit into the owner's plan to begin assigning three looms to each weaver. They ceased work even though the owner did not propose an increase in their own allotments of looms. In Lancashire, too, the overlookers struck in support of workers' demands. In a strike at Nelson in 1891, many of the weaving overlookers left work to force the dismissal of an overlooker who had made immoral propositions to a female subordinate. Overlookers in Lancashire also supported an end to the so-called slate system, in which overlookers posted their workers' earnings to shame the slower ones.
Can we find analogous episodes in Germany where overlookers supported their underlings? In Germany, the professional journal Der deutsche Meister reported sympathetically in 1904 on weavers' efforts in Mönchengladbach to resist a move in some branches to the two-loom system. But German overlookers did not make formal statements or take stronger action to support the weavers. In Germany, business journals, textile workers' newspapers, police reports, and factory inspectors' reports appear not to mention such acts of solidarity.
The most telling indicator that overlookers stood closer to the workers in Britain than in Germany lies in the workers' collective actions. In Yorkshire and Lancashire, strikes by subordinates to protest the firing of their overlooker occurred in each of the textile districts and in all branches of the trade, especially among women, but among male workers as well. When companies attempted to replace striking tuners, the Yorkshire Factory Times
reported, "the weight of the evidence is that women weavers will refuse to work with imported overlookers." This newspaper even believed that the ability to retain favorite supervisors in the spinning branch comprised an incentive for workers to join unions. "It's a great pity, to my mind," a correspondent wrote, "that even the spinners do not combine, if for no other reason than to keep a good overlooker." British weavers supported the demands of their tuners for higher commissions. German overlookers received comparatively little support from workers. In Britain, workers' strike support for overlookers was discussed as common knowledge, but in Germany it was considered an extraordinary event. A German supervisor said in 1912 that if an overlooker appealed to underlings for support, "they would laugh at him and declare him insane."
To complete this comparison of overlookers' positions, we must consider the form of union organization pursued by overlookers in the two countries. Although German overlookers could not legally strike, they could unite in collective associations and organize demonstrations. Two major organiza-
tions represented the interests of German textile overlookers. The oldest, the German Foremen's Union, founded in 1884, included overlookers from all industries. Before the turn of the century, this group counted over twenty thousand members, including more than one hundred in each of several towns in northwest Germany where textiles predominated: Aachen, Mönchengladbach, Rheydt, Barmen, and Elberfeld. Another association, the German Supervisors' Union, admitted overlookers only from the textile branch. This group, founded by weaving overlookers in 1899 in Mönchengladbach, had over five hundred members in northwest Germany by 1903.
These German overlookers' unions varied in a crucial respect from those in Britain: the lowest loom fixers and the highest foremen united in a single organization. The lowest loom fixers and the highest supervisors in Germany shared the position of salaried servants, in contrast to those below them who received piece rates. German foremen used their organization to support the rights of the lesser overlookers. For example, the German Foremen's Union petitioned to ensure that state officials classified its loom fixers as technical professionals, eligible for the government's pension plan. In each of the major centers of weaving in Yorkshire—Bradford, Leeds, Halifax, Keighley, and Huddersfield—citywide overlookers' unions developed at the same pace as in Germany. But the British overlookers' unions severed the lower-level overlookers from higher-ups; foremen did not join. The titles of the Yorkshire unions reflected this exclusion: the local associations named themselves Power-Loom Tuners or Power-Loom Overlookers. In contrast to their German counterparts, the British overlookers had an organization in which the
highest foremen, who were tied most closely to the owner, could not put a brake on action directed against the owners. In Germany, by contrast, the overlookers' unions classified the loom fixers, who actually stood near to the status of ordinary workers, as occupants of the same basic position as the employers' closest assistants.
The absence of foremen from overlookers' organizations in Britain also enabled the overlookers to move closer to the position of the textile workers' unions. From their founding in the mid-nineteenth century, the overlookers' organizations endorsed the principle of providing strike support to weavers if weavers in turn supported the overlookers' cause. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, affiliation became more explicit. The tuners' societies in the cities of Yorkshire relinquished their status as mere friendly societies and registered as trade unions. By the eve of the First World War, the overlookers' unions in Bradford, the Colne Valley, and the Heavy Woollen District had endorsed the Independent Labour Party. They donated funds and sent representatives to the Labour party's parliamentary council meetings. Even in Halifax, where the overlookers' club was slow to act, some overlookers identified themselves more as laborers than as supervisors. One member of the Halifax society, in a debate during 1909 on a resolution to affiliate with the General Union of Overlookers, a national organization, expressed this view with special clarity. According to the minutes of the union's meeting,
He said it was the same ol' thing over again, Capital versus Labour.
He said if the masters of Halifax wished to reduce overlookers'
wages, this Society could not resist it. Therefore he would support Joining the General Union or he was prepared to go further and amalgamate with the workers of the world.
The collaboration between overlookers and workers extended to Lancashire as well. In 1907, when overlookers in Blackburn, Lancashire, joined the United Textile Workers' Association, a national confederation of textile unions, they justified their decision by citing the "spirit of mutual help and brotherhood that ought to exist among all unionists."
Whereas overlookers' unions in Britain supported their members' interests by fighting for improvements in the factory, their counterpart German unions focused their efforts on the political arena outside the factory. They persuaded the German government to admit them in 1911 to a government pension program similar to one enjoyed by white-collar workers. They advocated that technical professional workers be represented on the government's labor boards. Yet the German overseers' unions did not directly
confront the issue of raising overlookers' salaries. "In our social program the question of pay is almost completely forgotten," said a speaker at the overlookers' convention in 1911. The first requirement for raising the salaries of overlookers would have been to admit into the union only those who were already able to command a minimum salary, so that all in the union would have some bargaining leverage. Such an entrance requirement the union rejected. The overlookers' societies in Yorkshire and Lancashire, by contrast, imposed a rule that applicants prove they already earned a high wage. British overlookers took on the issue of pay directly, whereas their German counterparts moved to the political arena, a shift which, in the factory itself, upheld the role of German overlookers as servants of the owner.
The forms of association for overlookers in Germany and Britain reflected the basic difference between their perceptions of the overlooker's role in the factory. The German organizations detached the overlookers from the workers and linked them to the highest foremen; they defined their members' status by reference to the exercise of authority. From the German viewpoint, even the lowest loom fixer was unlike a worker, since the loom fixer had to exercise authority over others and made decisions for workers. The British associations for overlookers, by contrast, severed overlookers from the higher foremen close to the owner; they defined their members as workers who delivered a labor product.
The inability of workers in Germany to unite with their immediate supervisors against employers meant that workers' collective action was directed against the employers' domination of the labor process per se. In Britain, the affiliation of workers with their overlookers meant that workers were comparatively insulated on the shop floor itself from regular contact with the employers' authority. They oriented their collective action to a greater degree toward the price at which workers would deliver their materialized labor.
The theory of the capitalist labor process that Marx presented in Volume One of Kapital is critical for unraveling the differences between the German and British labor movements—but not for reasons that Marx would ever
have dreamed of. The text reveals the cultural assumptions acquired by German workers in the labor process. Marx's emphasis upon the capitalist's exercise of authority in the factory as a means of extracting surplus forecasts the greater importance German textile workers would place, both in their complaints and in the enactment of strikes, upon aggressively contesting the capitalist's disposition over the labor activity itself.
Concluding Reflections on Part Three
The reified forms of consciousness that were manufactured at the point of production molded the shape of workers' resistance to the appropriation of their labor. Workers in each country advanced their interests vis-à-vis employers as straightforwardly as they could, but in so doing they confirmed their allegiance to a nationally prevailing concept of labor's commodity form, a concept that ironically united workers and employers in each locale. In The Rise of Market Culture William Reddy examined the essential terms of liberal capitalism, in particular the concept of labor as a commodity, as alien, intellectual imports with which nineteenth-century workers never authentically identified. He treated market categories as universalistic tools of scholarly analysis. By illuminating the inconspicuous differences between German and British workers' understanding and use of labor as a commodity, the present study instead suggests that the concept of labor as a commodity represented for workers not just an abstract doctrine but a set of popular repertoires that were linked to the course of industrialization and formed an essential component of popular culture. Rather than juxtapose an ethereal market model to real practices in one country, as Reddy did, we compared practices across countries to detect the impressive, but necessarily incomplete, materialization of market categories in everyday life and tactics of resistance.
The distinctive form of labor as a commodity in each country, as opposed to the alternative specifications operating in other capitalist societies, remained out of view of pointed critique. The cultural order was not immune to radical transformation before the First World War. But change could issue from below only through struggles guided by the definition of labor as a commodity that was, literally, "in place."