Condensed Capitalism

Tuesday, 14 July 2009 11:51 By Seth Sandronsky, Truthout | name.

Condensed Capitalism

Reviewing: "Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century"
by Daniel Sidorick
Cornell University Press (April 2009)

    Before the housing market blew up, radical writers knew how the system appears to be stable when times are good. In 1990, author Mike Davis, in "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles," chronicles Kaiser Steel's rise and fall in nearby Fontana. For a time, steelmaking by union workers improved their lives. Daniel Sidorick picks up where Davis leaves off. In "Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century," he explores the political economy of the famous "comfort" food company, chiefly at its lead plants in Camden, New Jersey. The author shows how the people who made the soup and other processed foods formed unions and won occupational and social improvements, including better wages and fringe benefits.

    Sidorick's approach is chronological. This helps us to see the advances and retreats of Campbell Soup workers from many backgrounds who fought to have some say over their working days. The company, relentlessly, opposed such efforts with four main strategies, he writes: "continuous production redesign; the use of contingent labor and workforce segmentation; antiunionism and anticommunism; and movement of production." Each of his eight chapters pivots around these strategies and workers" responses.

    With care and clarity, Sidorick analyzes the industrial development of food production from the vantage points of the owning and working classes at Campbell. He includes the stories of those who planted and harvested the food, from New Jersey to California. Throughout the book, the state mediates labor-management relations. Campbell sought and got help from the federal government to recruit seasonal workers from the Caribbean and Puerto Rico during World War II. Similarly, shortages in raw materials such as tin propelled company managers to ask for a hand from Uncle Sam. In the meantime, a Campbell union sought and received government help to bring African-American farm workers from Florida to labor under collective bargaining agreements in Camden's plants. Labor shortages strengthen workers' bargaining power with employers. Surpluses of labor have the opposite effect.

    Foreign wars shaped production at Campbell. Owners welcomed the Cold War. Its Red Scare hysteria proved to be a new frontier to divide workers and attack union solidarity, with its vibrant shop-steward program that weakened color and gender lines. Racism and sexism were company tools used to pay some workers less. Militant unity countered that and increased the workers' share of their rising productivity.

    The author's use of archival documents is impressive. He interviews and sources all sides of the struggles at Campbell Soup. Workers recall how they and their labor unions confronted and defeated the company's attempts to divide them. Company sources are highly class-conscious. Some of them praise the virtues of "free" enterprise during wars, hot and cold. Yet, when push came to shove in the competitive marketplace, Campbell sought government protection. A minor quibble is the author's uneven dating of photos. Some have dates, while others do not.

    In 1968, the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements were at the height of their militancy. Less well-known is the labor upsurge during the same year. Campbell defeated the bid by unions representing workers at separate worksites for a single contract in 1968 - narrowly. Against that backdrop, Campbell kept automating production to boost output and profits. Through the 1970's and 1980's, the company "relied on automation as its primary tool for productivity improvement," the author writes. That same preference for machines also revolutionized agriculture. To wit, Campbell's demand for mechanization of tomato harvesting grew. New Jersey growers lost. Their loss was the gain of California growers. Such changes, Sidorick writes, helped to shift Campbell's workplaces from urban to rural areas. In 1991, Campbell closed its Camden plants, moving production to a highly automated plant in Maxton, North Carolina. With this departure, which came on the heels of other manufacturers such as RCA leaving Camden, the city's jobless and poverty rates rose.

    On one hand, Sidorick's method is historical. He mines the past to better understand the present. On the other hand, he uses a dialectical method. That is, he investigates the accords and discords among and between groups of people, or classes. This process is in constant flux. Together, the two methods expose, critically, an era of 20th century America concerning food consumption and production, and work.

    In some quarters now, the corporate drive to cut costs by any means necessary appears as something unique. Sidorick begs to differ. In the 1920's, for instance, Campbell owners instituted a version of kaizen, a Japanese term from the 1950's for continuous improvement in the production process. Campbell was a pioneer in this "management by stress" strategy, the author shows. The company, foreshadowing current workplace trends, also paid temporary workers lower wages than full-time employees decades ago, Sidorick writes. He clarifies and explains how this big American corporation maintained low shelf prices for its products through multiple management strategies, which employees resisted to varying degrees. Perhaps the most important part of this narrative is the workers' gaining of political consciousness and activism. Then and now, people's collective actions can move mountains.

    The relevance of such past struggles continues in 2009, in the author's view. I agree. Thus, his book is useful to the "Facebook" generation. It is entering a labor market where owners use automation and the speed-up to intensify the working day and wring more profits from the increased productivity. It almost sounds like the 1930's, when workers at Campbell and at firms across the US rose up to form labor unions where none existed. Almost.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 July 2009 15:39