Capital Moves

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Jefferson Cowie. Capital Move: RCAs Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. New York: The New Press. 1999. pp. 279. ISBN 978-1-56584-659-3

Summary

In his book, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, Jefferson Cowie argues that deindustrialization of the northeast and the United States did not begin in the late-20th Century, but was a process that began in the immediate postwar period and continued through the period of globalization at the end of the 20th Century. Using the example of RCA radio and television factories, Cowie provides a chronological narrative of how the center of RCA production moved from Camden, New Jersey; to Bloomington, Indiana; to Memphis, Tennessee and finally to Juarez, Mexico during the course of the 20th Century.

These moves were gradual and began as a result of RCA attempting to escape agreements the company made with labor in order to compete in a competitive market that demanded low prices. Most notably, Cowie finds that each community chosen by RCA had a large number of unemployed young women and was primarily nonindustrial. The chosen locations also went through a transformation in their relationship with RCA that started out with “a sense of gratitude to the company to one of possession that allowed them to stand up for an expanding notion of their rights” (p. 4).

Cowie also investigates the ideas of gender and culture. He describes the contradictory effects low wage, unskilled jobs offered by RCA had on women. On one hand, RCA created a gendered division of labor to take advantage of disadvantaged women, but this gave these same women new economic and social opportunities which eventually led to more assertive workers and changes in local culture. Cowie points out that “The fact that women were the first to be absorbed into electronics assembly and the most disposable workers in the chain of production places women at the heart of the story of both industrialization and deindustrialization” (p. 197).

Cowie ends his book with a discussion regarding community and how it relates to worker unity. He points out that the example of RCA shows that workers who organized at the community level were “vulnerable to competition from workers in other communities for the coveted, if uneven, rewards of private investment” (p. 189). He describes how transnational investment has even made the “imagined community of the nation… run counter to workers’ unity” because of the lack of a working-class culture that crosses international boundaries (p. 188).

Commentary

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

Jefferson Cowie provides an important perspective that allows a better understanding of the changing economy of the United States in the late 20th Century. He also effectively tackles a wide range of themes to include class, gender, community and globalization. Cowie concisely conducts community studies of each community before, during and after RCA to bring out both the similarities and differences of each. Of particular note is Cowie’s discussion of the economic and political repercussions of labor and management’s ability to reach beyond local, regional, national and international boundaries. His work is an essential jumping off point for those attempting to understand the implications of a global economy and its influence on local community, nations as well as class relationships.

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