THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LABOR The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 By David Montgomery Cambridge University Press. 494 pp. $27.95

THE OWL of Minerva flies only at dusk. In the twilight of the modern American labor movement -- with Labor's House battered by a revanchist capitalism armed with multinational capabilities and unprecedented access to state power -- it is appropriate to turn to the history of the American working class to understand labor's declining fortunes. Indeed, the last two decades have witnessed the flowering of working-class history: the publication of the papers of Samuel Gompers, splendid biographies of Eugene Debs and John L. Lewis, new interpretations of the Knights of Labor, the IWW, and the CIO and, perhaps most significantly, fresh studies of shoemakers, hatters, cigar rollers, electrical workers and other constituents of the American working class.

Few scholars have contributed more to this renascence than David Montgomery. A machinist turned Yale professor, Montgomery has spent a lifetime redrawing the boundaries of working-class history and filling in the unexplored areas of the map -- first as the author of a model monograph on labor in the era of Reconstruction, then as editor of a leading journal of working-class history, and throughout as mentor to a generation of young labor historians. He has now applied his formidable learning to a study of the making and remaking of the American working class between 1865 and 1925. It is one of those rare works that has classic stamped all over it.

The Fall of the House of Labor depicts the development of the American working class in the crucible of class warfare between the abolition of slavery and the formal close of European migration. It is history on a grand scale, encompassing the Great Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair, the Pullman Boycott, the Homestead Strike, the Colorado mine wars and the post-World War I steel strikes. But Montgomery is more interested in the day-to-day skirmishing of labor and capital than in their pitched battles. He concentrates on the struggles of "Rollers, Roughers, Catchers, and Hookers" (all iron workers), of garment and construction workers, and of machinists and miners in an effort to delineate the relationships among workers, between workers and their bosses, and finally among workers, their bosses, and the state -- the three relationships Montgomery considers as critical to understanding the history of the American working class.

What emerges is a story of how the House of Labor fell, rose, and fell again. It is a scholar's history informed by an economist's understanding of business cycles and money supply, a sociologist's knowledge of migration and social structure, an anthropologist's sensitivity to the process of cultural change, and a historian's sense of time and place. But it is also a people's history laced with meaning for our own time. Although its message cannot be projected indiscriminately into the late 20th century, it nonetheless offers important clues to the present predicament of labor in the United States. For anyone interested in the history of American workers and their future, this is must reading.

At the heart of Montgomery's working class is the ideal of mutuality. Mutuality cut across loyalties to nationality, craft, sex, age, and party to join working people together and to distinguish them from the prosperous and well-born, whose commitment to possessive individualism was alien to the workers' experience. However seductive the individualist ethos, American workers came to believe that their best hope of bettering themselves derived from concerted, not individual, action. Mutualism thus became the ideological seedbed for some workers to reform capitalism and for others to overthrow it.

For Montgomery, the ethic of mutuality was first and foremost the product of the ethical norms governing the workplace. Working-class consciousness was thus forged in the rough labor gangs, grimy workshops and primitive factories of American capitalism. But Montgomery also understands that "class consciousness permeated social intercourse outside the workplace." His search for the roots of mutuality therefore takes him to the fraternal societies, saloons, churches, and families of working-class communities.

Mutuality found expression in another ideal that permeated American working-class life: the code of manliness. A complex notion of contradictory parts, manhood became a shorthand by which workers articulated their belief in the dignity of labor, the Sermon on the Mount, and the legacy of the American Revolution -- in short, the right to enjoy an honorable livelihood worthy of an American citizen. However, since manliness was commonly expressed in racial and ethnic terms, it prompted racism and ethnic chauvinism. It also infused working-class life with a patriarchalism, if not misogyny, that befouled relations amoung working people.

Montgomery's House of Labor had three wings: skilled craftsmen, unskilled laborers and factory operatives. He describes the origins, recruitment and work routine of each of these groups and explains how their work experience engendered particular variants of the ethic of mutuality.

The foremost carriers and articulators of the culture of mutuality were the craftsmen. Their centrality derived from their knowledge. "The manager's brains under the workman's cap" allowed craftsmen to dictate the terms of production -- to define the "stint" (the collective definition of a reasonable day's work), to control the pace of work and to make the work rules -- not through negotiation with their employers but by mutual agreement among themselves. Workers' control constantly renewed working-class ideals and gave them force and undeniable authority. It was only natural that the struggle over who would direct the process of production became the terrain of class warfare.

Unskilled laborers and factory operatives also subscribed to the ethic of mutuality and the code of manliness. Montgomery's discussion of common laborers, men and women whose lowly origins and transience have rendered them invisible to most previous researchers, is particularly notable. Montgomery sees the laborers as central to the American working class, not as an archaic vestige of a pre-industrial past. The most highly capitalized industries -- railroads, steel and chemicals -- employed the largest numbers of laborers. Unskilled workers provided the muscle that spurred American productivity in the late 19th century. By devoting a larger and larger portion of their lives to work, these "human machines" transformed an agricultural society into an industrial one, at great cost to themselves and with little benefit to their immediate descendants.

Peasants from the rural periphery, generally Afro-Americans from the South or immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, filled the ranks of the unskilled. So rare was it for a native white American to swing a pick or wield a shovel that such a man was presumed to be a "bum" -- a characterization indicative of the low esteem in which most Americans, craftsmen included, held unskilled laborers. As unassimilable strangers who practiced corrupt customs and suspect religions, laborers were deemed unfit to enjoy the benefits that flowed from manly work. Instead, they drew strength from their own ethnic communities, which, in turn, fostered a powerful sense of self-respect and an alternative notion of manliness that employers offended at their own peril.

Montgomery also has important things to say about factory operatives, whose designation as semi-skilled -- a slander which belies the knowledge required to thread a light-bulb filament at a rate of hundreds per hour -- may have derived from the fact that factory hands were in disproportionate numbers women and girls. If the ethnic community was a source of strength for unskilled laborers, the family ("a nursery of class consciouness") and the sororital rooming houses, where unmarried working women often resided, served the same functions for operatives.

The operatives' importance lay in their strategic position on the frontier of industrial innovation. There new-style corporate employers -- armed with claims of superior intelligence, encased in white shirts and carrying the dreaded stopwatch -- seized control of the workplace, continually transforming the work process to their own needs. The operatives' experience defined the future for the laborer and, most significantly, for the craftsman.

THE STRUGGLE over control of the workplace, the source of the craftsmen's power and their distinctive culture, lies at the heart of Montgomery's book. In attempting to expropriate the craftsmen's skill by severing the processes of thinking and doing in the workplace, employers not only tried to redefine the good job, but also the good life. Under the new regime, the promise of American life would be fulfilled by an ever-swelling material prosperity, not by a sense of manliness generated through control over work and life. Workers and bosses alike understood that the struggle between craft and managerial authority involved matters of social and political conflict between social classes asserting very different values.

To the extent that the time-motion men succeeded in cutting the taproot of workers' power, they transformed the American work force, shifting some craftsmen to ancillary tasks (such as tool-makers and foremen), degrading others to operatives, and fusing the worlds of the laborer and the operative. Reducing differences in work, earnings, styles of life, and even social origins among workers pushed the diverse elements of the House of Labor closer together. But the managers were hardly pleased with the work force they had created. In their dissatisfaction with the workers' lack of "discipline," they commissioned a host of emissaries -- personnel officers, social workers, and teachers -- whose task was to convert workers to the ethic of competitive individualism. If the distinctive ideology of the working class drew its strength from the family and the community, its notions of mutuality had to be attacked on its home ground.

The reconstruction of the American labor force also laid the foundation for new patterns of working-class resistance. Homogenization of the work force did not, however, create a unified working class. The mutually antagonistic groupings of trade unionists, socialists, Catholic corporatists and revolutionary syndicalists within the House of Labor suggest something of the variety of ways in which workers tried to protect their terrain. Nonetheless, workers could and did unite upon occasion and act with great authority, as demonstrated by the rising membership of trade unions and the growing success of the Socialist Party in the first two decades of the 20th century. During World War I levels of strike participation soared beyond those of any previous period in American history.

Conflicts of this magnitude necessarily involved the state. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, workers and their bosses increasingly turned to state and federal governments to resolve their disputes. Workers wanted the state to limit hours (especially for women and children), to set minimum wages, to establish safety and health standards, and to provide a variety of social services, while bosses sought injunctions against strikes and boycotts, protection for strike-breakers, and soldiers to guard their property. The state shaped the course of labor relations in other ways as well. As Montgomery points out, racial segregation could not have existed without state sanction. By World War I, when the federal government openly entered the business of directing the economy, the state had become the central actor in determining the outcome of the struggle between labor and capital.

In emphasizing the role of the state, Montgomery demonstrates the connection between the course of political events -- elections, legislation, court decisions and constitutional amendments -- and the history of workers -- their families, churches, schools and work. Of late, "social history" has come under assault as narrow, parochial and irrelevant to the question of power. Not so with The Fall of the House of Labor. Its great strength lies in linking the struggles on the shop floor with those in the statehouse.

Montgomery chooses to end his epic with the House of Labor in disrepair, and he draws his title from labor's defeat following the Great War for Democracy. This forceful reminder of the historic fragility of labor's power is certainly appropriate for a book published in 1987, when the former heartland of industrial production has become the rust belt. But a look beyond the era of Montgomery's conclusion reveals the renovation of Labor's House and the rise of labor to unprecedented power and influence. In that may be found the moral of Mongtomery's tale of how labor fell, rose, and fell again only to arise once more in a still more potent form. So too with Montgomery's reminder that the source of labor's power has been -- and must be -- in the experience of workers and the values that experience nurtures.

Ira Berlin teaches at the University of Maryland, where he also directs the Freedmen and Society Project, a collaborative study of post-Civil War emancipation.