2021-02-25 14 min read


Notes, 2021-02-25.

A few weeks ago The Prepared’s (members only) reading group finished Behemoth, Joshua B. Freeman’s history of megafactories and the people and cultures which built them. I enjoyed the book a lot; it describes factories in their broader cultural and political context, and offers a portrait of labor and its environs that is both colorful and informative.

So in this *very* special Thursday issue, I bring to you a condensed version of my interview with Joshua B. Freeman. The full conversation (and a transcript thereof) is also available in The Prepared’s podcast → here ←.

Starting next week, The Prepared’s reading group is discussing The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation - one of my favorite nonfiction books. Join us!

-Spencer Wright

Spencer Wright: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to study megafactories - and why do you find them interesting in the first place?

Joshua B. Freeman: Well, I'm a labor historian, and I've spent a long time studying workers and unions and working class communities, and you cannot understand these topics without understanding production - understanding their economic roles and how they've changed over time. And of course, you can't understand production without understanding factories, so I've always had something of an interest in factories. But it was not really my central focus until 2010, when there was a series of suicides at the factories run by Foxconn, where workers, very dramatically, jumped off the roofs of these factories.

The main production facility where the most suicides took place, which was in Shenzhen, probably had something like 300,000 workers at that time, and I was just bowled over. I started thinking, "Well, whoa, this is unbelievably big. I wanna understand this." So I just started thinking of this category, the giant factory, and what was its history, and that's what led me into this book.

Lombe's Silk Mill, Derby, England

SW: You note in the first chapter of Behemoth that as late as 1850, manufacturing establishments on average employed fewer than eight workers. The book goes on to describe the ever-increasing size of the largest factories in the world, from the 1721 Lombe Mill to Foxconn City. So obviously the largest factories have gotten bigger, but I wonder if you have a sense of what the broader story in manufacturing is, and how the modal or the mean manufacturing facility has changed over those same 200 years?

JBF: There have always been varied scales of production in things that we call factories. So in 1850, in the United States, for example, you had Cambria, an early iron maker that had a couple of thousand workers at the same time that the average factory had eight. So modally then - and I'm pretty sure now - the typical factory is small. And what's interesting is they've often co-existed interconnectedly. If you went to Detroit in the absolute heyday of Detroit manufacturing, let's say the '60s, '50s, you would find a zillion backyard machine shops, full of tool and die makers that were making tools to sell to Chrysler or Ford. And that's still very much true today. If you go down the block from the giant Foxconn factory, you're gonna find some hole in the wall factories that may be doing subcontracting - making specialized tools.

SW: A lot of what the book is about, I think, is how life within those large factories has changed over 200 years. I wonder, do you think those changes are representative of the entire manufacturing environment, or have those small tool and die shops evolved in parallel ways as the mega-factories have?

JBF: Yeah, the taxonomy of factories is pretty complicated. First of all, in some ways, life in the big factory has changed enormously and for the better, and yet in some ways, it hasn't changed that much. When you look at the small factory, you have both the very capital intensive, highly sophisticated factory that you may see in parts of the United States making very high-end equipment. And you also have the absolute junk kind of sweatshop, which is technologically primitive and super exploitative. And that latter type of factory - almost always the conditions are a lot worse than at the Foxconn or the equivalent.

SW: One of the things that the book chronicles is the development and deployment of labor unions and strikes as bargaining chips in labor relations. Typically it's a very direct competition where workers want better pay and less strenuous working conditions, and management largely wants the opposite. But I wonder, to what extent have unions also been forces for broader societal changes, arguing for employers ceasing business with customers they find unappealing for some reason? Is there a history of that beyond the past couple of years?

JBF: There is a history. It takes two forms. One form is getting involved in politics to pursue broad social changes that may not in a narrow sense deal with the production issue. Most Americans don't realize this, but unions were an extremely important political force in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now that had some impact on factories and so forth, but that wasn't the main reason they're supporting it. They have a vision of a different kind of society that they share with a lot of other people.

Much less common, but not unknown, is the use of direct influence. Longshoremen were famous for this, refusing to ship arms, for example, to Fascist countries in the build-up to World War II. More recently, there were times when longshoremen, particularly on the West Coast, refused to ship strategic goods to the apartheid regime in South Africa. So, yeah, you've occasionally seen that, but it has not been a major focus for the American union movement. At the work site, generally, action is restricted to work-related issues.

SW: Another broad social thing that the book talks about is industrialization as the vanguard of at least some degree of gender and maybe ethnic progress. Maybe the best early example is the Lowell girls, and this idea that Women getting manufacturing jobs established them as independent entities - as individuals. However, it's a little bit unclear how lasting those effects have been. To what extent has industrialization actually leveled the socio-economic playing field across gender and race? And are any factors that you think could be leveraged to improve outcomes for previously marginalized groups?

JBF: I think I would primarily agree with you. By creating opportunities for people who are utterly dependent on others - whether it's a woman within her family structure or a kind of social caste system or rigid rural hierarchies - this can be a kind of liberating force, to be able to get a job in a factory, where you're working on your own. You may be outside of the physical surveillance of the family, or the local big people of the community, or whatever it might be. And I think, although it's impossible to quantify, that it has a cumulative effect in making society more egalitarian not in the sense of income, but across gender and racial and ethnic lines.

That said, you could come up with some counterexamples if you step back and broaden your vision. For example, it could be argued that early factory production helped lead to the spread and endurance of slavery, because the massive scale of cotton production, when the British perfected mechanized production of spinning of thread and then of weaving, created this huge demand for cheap cotton and the world’s solution was to spread slavery.

SW: One of the ways that factory owners have maintained low wages - and maintained power relative to their employees - is by relocating. You describe in the book that relocating factories (and also by having multiple factories doing the same thing) is one of the main aspects of power that factory owners have retained throughout this whole process. And I gotta say in a lot of cases, the reasoning behind moving the factory is totally understandable; heavy industry isn't always a good fit for cities. Here in New York, there's a (very poorly enforced) ban on 53-foot trailers within the five boroughs, which limits the amount of goods that you can process here. And it strikes me that there is maybe this natural negative feedback loop: A factory is started in a place where there is good access to natural resources or to some form of power, and it then creates or helps bootstrap what becomes an urban environment, a population center. And then as that population center evolves, it eventually rejects all of the negative externalities of manufacturing, leading to the factory relocating to another rural area near natural resources. Is this cycle inevitable? Or are there other examples of industries that have somehow managed to coexist within dense urban environments for a long period of time?

JBF: Well, there's a whole field of economics that deals with location theory and there's endless books written about it. It's a pretty complicated story, but I don't think you're wrong to be sympathetic. My gosh, the idea of doing business that involves things in the City of New York, let's say, or the City of San Francisco, it's terrifying. The logistic issues, the tax and bureaucratic issues, the high cost of electricity, that's all completely real. But I think what you called a negative feedback loop is only part of the story. In my view, labor costs are probably even a bigger part. And what you tend to see moving out of cities are sort of standardized production, which can use a lower skilled workforce than was available in the place where the industry first arose.

So when you look at the history of the garment industry, what moves out for first from places like New York? It's underwear. What moves out last? High fashion that changes every three months. You look at printing. What moves out first? Books, magazines that have a print run of 2 million. What moves last? Stock certificates for Wall Street. So yeah, there certainly can be externalities that make it very difficult to maintain urban manufacturing, but I think there also are counter-examples. Anyway, places like New York never housed many very big factories. They were the centers of mid and small sized manufacturing, and many of those eventually found it an extremely inhospitable environment and they folded or moved.

But it also has to do with political will. In the case of New York, you have something like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which has become a place where small, and even some mid-size manufacturers, can rent a space at a not exorbitant price. It has its own power plant. It has its own security. It has its own parking. It has some shared human resource facilities. So some kind of manufacturing, I think, can and has been sustained in cities, and I think it's good for those manufacturers and good for those cities. I think you have to be realistic about what you can do and what you can't do, but I don't think there's some magic number beyond which you can't still have manufacturing in the city.

SW: Behemoth has this great section on early 20th century factory architecture, and in particular architect Albert Kahn’s collaborations with early American (and then Soviet) industrialists. Can you talk a little bit about how the physical factory form has evolved over the past ~century and a half?

JBF: Well, Yeah, this is a fascinating thing for me. The first thing that really amazed me was when I looked at pictures of what was considered the first factory - The Lombe Derby Silk factory in Derby, England. It was built in 1721 and had about 300 workers. And if I showed anyone that picture of that thing today, and I said, "What's that thing?" They'll go, "Oh, that's a factory." So from 1721 to the late 19th century, there weren't that many changes in the physical design of these factories.

But they were limited in size, and they were limited in bringing in light. Remember, artificial light was ineffective - gas lamps. Also the building construction method couldn't support heavy machinery. Eventually steel framing was used and you had some changes, but in the early 20th century, the big breakthrough was the introduction of reinforced concrete. And this was one of the things that Albert Kahn was very associated with. Reinforced concrete has a lot of advantages: It's very resistant to vibration, you could spam larger spaces, you could have much larger windows. So you had several decades of building these buildings. Probably the most famous example of this is the Highland Park plant for the Ford Company. But they were all over the United States, and they're still all over the United States, although mostly no longer factories.

So that for a while was the standard, but then, starting really around World War I, you began to see a change towards the one-storey factory. Some of it was the increasing use of assembly lines over very large distances that had to get rearranged every time the model changed. And there was greater flexibility, if you could build these very large, high single-storey spaces. You didn't have to move goods up to the upper storeys. You didn't have to have internal beams supporting the upper floors. So you had a kind of flexibility to engineer your production systems and then change those production systems. And again, it was the Ford Company that was kind of the model with this one. They went from Highland Park, which is where the Model T was produced, to the New River Rouge factory where the Model A was produced, and this transition is happening in the immediate post-World War I period. They moved to the steel-beamed single-storey factory design, and that design is still very popular today.

SW: So I came into this conversation thinking about the building that my workshop is in. I believe it was built in the 1950s (though it really belongs to the pre-WWI industrial architecture paradigm), and it's one of these concrete constructions where it's a column every 20 feet or so and it's six or seven floors tall and it occupies about half of a Bed-Stuy block. And the building is filled with light industrial lofts like mine, but all around it are condos. [chuckle] Unsurprisingly, the upside to developing a five or 10 floor condo building is just way higher than renovating this building and keeping it as industrial lofts.
Anyway, I love this era of building. For instance, the (Cass Gilbert designed) Brooklyn Army Terminal: NYCEDC has spent a lot of effort trying to re-industrialize that building to quite a bit of pushback from the neighborhood due to concerns of gentrification. I wonder from a labor perspective, what do you think the best possible case for buildings like this are in the next couple of decades?

The Brooklyn Army Terminal, designed by Cass Gilbert and built 1918-1919

JBF: Sure. Yeah, it's a fascinating question. Look, first of all, remember we're talking about a relatively modest proportion of the entire urban workforce that could conceivably be in manufacturing. And yet I think if you can figure it out, to me, that's a real vision of back to the past. Let me tell you a story: I think people who live in the New York area may be familiar with a housing project (Penn South) in Chelsea between 8th and 9th avenue in the '20s. It was built with the sponsorship of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, and it was a non-profit, modest income housing project that they intended to be for their members. Why did they put it there? Because it was walking distance to the Garment District. And they had a vision: Why do people have to get on the subway, why can't they just walk to work? It's an extraordinary testament to the power of the union, that they could actually pull it off and build this thing smack the middle of Manhattan. Of course the irony is by the time that the thing was done, the garment industry had gone down the toilet and the initial vision disappeared. It’s still a non-profit, modest income housing project, but most of those people can't walk to work anymore.

But in the world we live in today, where we have to think about energy considerations and ecological considerations, the idea that you could have factory workers living in decent housing and able to walk to work... I mean, what a notion. But I think you only can do it, frankly, with government intervention. If urban development is just gonna target the most profitable land use, it's gonna be extraordinarily rare that manufacturing will win out.

SW: Related Companies is not going to start developing factory properties in New York City.

JBF: Exactly. But it's not a radical notion to say that the government should have some say over this. You can make social decisions about how you're gonna use land.

SW: I think one of my favorite vacations is traveling around southern China and being in Dongguan (which is this enormous city and a manufacturing Mecca) and just realizing how mixed-use really can be. You know, seeing a relatively small factory with a community right up against the entrance, and seeing little garage job shops that are running parts overnight so that the factory can work the next day. And right next door is a convenience store, and right next door is a food court... To me that’s a very romantic idea.

JBF: Look, I'm very much on the same page with you. I think it does require social investments, but there's something to the underlying notion that if you provided an infrastructure that's appropriate for a particular kind of land use, then you can be able to attract those kinds of people and you can do it in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

Charles Sheeler, American Landscape, 1930

SW: One of my favorite parts of the book was the section around the early 20th century. You took a little bit of a tangent and just went into all of these artistic representations of factories. And of course, I opened 20 Google tabs trying to find these beautiful Charles Sheeler paintings and Margaret Bourke-White photographs. And also the USSR Under Construction magazine - man, that is an amazing set of images.

JBF: I know. Who knew? Who knew? Right?

SW: Yeah, who knew. Anyway, I really appreciated the way that you contextualized popular perceptions of factories and of industrialization. And one of the things that you wrote about was factory tours, and this era in the early 20th century in which so many factories opened themselves up to the public. That's changed a lot with modern contract manufacturing: Now you have these fabless brands (like Apple, who don’t manufacture their own products), and there's no incentive structure for their contract manufacturers (like Foxconn) to allow tours. And meanwhile, I have often mused idly that the public interest in infrastructure and manufacturing has decreased in some way - something I have no hard evidence of, but it seems like an rational idea. Do you have a sense of how popular impressions of factories and industrial processes actually have changed over the past 200 years?

JBF: I do, and of course it is a bit impressionistic. I think one of the big points I was trying to make in the book was the association of the factory for much of its history with modernity; it was a kind of living embodiment of the future and its promise. And some of it was its sheer productivity and ability to produce goods at low costs, but it's more than simply that. It's a kind of testament to the ingenuity of man, of the harnessing of nature, of a break with the old ways. New is better. I think that was a very broadly shared view of the factory, and I do think that it has somewhat diminished.

First of all, the idea of the future and modernity has become much more of a mixed bag over the last 75 years. The future doesn't always look so great anymore. The future seems to be pandemics and ethnic cleansing and nuclear war. And also I think the factory has been, as you may have suggested, kind of hidden away.

But I don't think that interest is completely gone. There are these TV shows like "How It’s Made," but they're very, literally, narrowly-focused - the camera never steps back, you never see the factory as a whole. They just show you the machine making this particular part or that particular part. So I think there's still that fascination with the ingenuity, the technology, the imagination involved in making goods - I think we still have some of it, but I think it's much diminished compared to earlier generations.

Thanks so much to Joshua B. Freeman for spending some digital time with me. If you enjoyed this excerpt, do read (or listen to) the full interview here.

Thanks as always to The Prepared's Members for supporting The Prepared. Thanks to Richard and Laura for sending links.

Love, Spencer.

p.s. - We should be better friends. Send me a note - coffee's on me :)
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here's what we're doing about it.
p.p.p.s. - If you enjoyed this interview, you'll also enjoy Kane's recent interview with Simon Winchester about The Perfectionists - another book we read in The Prepared's reading group recently!

Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright is the (mostly accidental) founder of Scope of Work, which he started writing (as The Prepared) in 2013. Today he serves as its editor-in-chief and chief dilettante.
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