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David Montgomery’s “The Fall of the House of Labor” Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jun 14th, 2022


This book covers the American labor activism events that unfolded between 1865 and 1925, which were characterized by conflicting social classes. It analyzes the strikes that were experienced during the said period as workers struggled to achieve equality in the labor industry. Before the 1920s, the labor industry had three major categories of laborers with each class handling different tasks and earning different wages. The book highlights the events that led to the formation of workers’ unions and David Montgomery’s contribution to the revolution. It underscores the major labor strikes that were led during this period; for example, the Pullman boycott, the struggle for textile workers, and the steel strike of 1920 (Montgomery 1989, 2).


David Montgomery wrote this book from the first-person point of view. Throughout the book, the author sought to underscore the employees’ struggles coupled with the birth of workers’ unions. He achieved this objective by giving firsthand accounts of what transpired coupled with chronicling his input and stood in the fight for labor unions. Montgomery worked in various industries for many years, and thus he experienced the prevalent culture. Therefore, he was conversant with the bane of the labor movements. His activism role continued even after he left the workforce to join academics. As a communist, Montgomery emphasized the formation of labor movements and he contributed heavily to workers’ plight alleviation. This book was written to cement Montgomery’s firm idea to change the labor history from an economic to a social issue.

In the book, the author opposed the Industrial Workers of the World’s War I view that unions formed by unskilled laborers were unnecessary and thus they had to be dissolved or incorporated into the industrial unions (Montgomery 1989, 311). The author greatly opposed this view by voting firmly to support the independence of such unions. In the book, he emphasized the need to look at labor history as an issue comprised of human labor, as opposed to the economics of production as viewed by other scholars. He insisted that for an economy to thrive, human lives, both at the workplace and home, had to be improved. He also claimed that the existence of different classes of labor led to the downfall of the “House of Labor” in 1924 (Montgomery 1989, 460). His objective was to narrow down the gap between the three classes that he strongly believed were the key causes of problems in the labor sector.

Montgomery presented a clear picture of the differences that existed amongst the social classes. He used his writing to show how workers were disregarded and diminished in their efforts to form trade unions. In his work, the author expressed discomfort with how employees’ rights were being infringed by their employers. He cited his efforts to educate workers on their rights, which played a significant role in encouraging them to join unions to enjoy the fruits of collective bargaining. He examined the different job groups by citing the shortfalls in the administrations.

His analysis revealed a lack of uniformity in the industries, which were characterized by differences in age, race, and gender. He expressed sensitivity to the skilled industrial workers, specifically in the iron and machinery industries in the 19th century. The skilled laborers were in control of the production and received good remunerations. He was particularly inclined towards the non-skilled laborers who were regarded as the minorities and thus were poorly remunerated. He described the industrial working class as the one composed of three different classes, viz. the skilled, semi-skilled, and the unskilled laborers. In the second and third categories of workers, persons working in the same department and doing the same task received different wages as dictated by the supervisor. He also expressed concern on the emergence of the scientific management system, which was adopted by most organizations, thus leading to the reduced advantage of skilled labor in production.

The author asserted that technological inventions increased the number of unskilled laborers and reduced skilled laborers in many industries. On the same note, he revealed the lack of uniformity and lack of job security, especially for the common workers. Most mistreatments were directed to women employees as their fate rested on the hands of managers. Montgomery insisted on unions for the introduction of collective bargaining, which he said would go a long way in bringing uniformity in various departments and help fight discrimination related to age, gender, or race. Throughout his writing, the author criticized leaders of the labor unions by noting that they had other reasons behind the formation of the unions, and thus they have never meant to improve the workers’ living conditions. During his time, the author sought to foster the relationship amongst workers in different classes. After World War 1, the American employees sought involvement in determining how the industries would be run coupled with forming powerful unions. Montgomery centered his arguments on the issues in various departments, as opposed to the issues around the factories at large. His writings earned him the job of the president of the labor department, and he thus managed to implement his ideas.

Reference List

Montgomery, David. 1989. The fall of the house of labor: the workplace, the state, and American labor activism, 1865-1925. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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