Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Joshua Freeman's "Behemoth" (2018): The Great Factories ... and Their Workers

            Workers' compensation specialists can, in my opinion, benefit by a grounding in, or a refresher on, the industrial and organized labor histories which were, and are, so formative to our field and the larger system of which we’re a part. Behemoth, written by CUNY history professor Joshua Freeman, is a book which assists in providing such education and, likely, filling in gaps in the learning of most of us.  Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (W.W. Norton & Company 2018).

            Freeman's book is an account of the rise and partial fall of the great factories which were, for so many years, the centers of international – and Pennsylvania – industrial growth.  

            The manufacturing facilities treated by the author range from the early cotton mills of Britain and New England to those of the Ford Motor Company, its Soviet imitators, and the modern mega-factories of mainland China. The latter, particularly the factories of manufacturer Foxconn, are those that produce cellphones, other electronic devices, and their constituent parts. Significant Pennsylvania connections exist in the realm of factory history, and the author addresses such gigantic factories as those of Carnegie and Frick in Pittsburgh and the Cambria Ironworks in Johnstown. Indeed, the Cambria Ironworks, the first in the U.S. to use the Bessemer furnace innovation, is a constant touchstone for Freeman.

            Freeman's book, while presented chronologically, is not simply a linear history. The book instead treats what he calls “industrial giantism” in socio-cultural terms as well. Indeed, the author, on multiple occasions, talks about giant factories and the visual arts. Such references come up in both discussions of steel mills and auto manufacturing facilities. Even Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo make an appearance in Behemoth – in this regard, Rivera painted a series of frescoes for Henry Ford in the early 1930s at the immense River Rouge plant that Ford built in Michigan.

            The role of the worker, meanwhile, is constantly addressed, be it as a disempowered cog in a machine – or a proud union member contributing to war efforts.  

            The book is not a labor history per se, nor one that focuses on industrial safety. Still, given the book’s pervasive treatment of the history of factories, both of these critical aspects of industrialism are treated.

            One such item was new to this reader. In the realm of how unions were received, the author observes that at first, municipal leaders were largely hostile to organized labor. This attitude changed over the decades. Indeed, Freeman includes in his book an April 1946 aerial photographic view of Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence addressing, from the steps of our courthouse, a crowd of striking Westinghouse workers.

            It’s notable that every single man is wearing a hat.

            I have been quite enthused about this book and, I engifted two of my top students (now lawyers) with it.  A definite must-read for those who desire a holistic understanding of industrial and labor history.


| Permalink


Post a comment