Carnegie Mellon University

Images of Steel: Labor, Memory and the Cultural Work of Corporate Photographers

Author: Courtney Maloney

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2006

In this dissertation I examine the ways working-class people, and their history, have been represented in the public relations literature and photography of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation. I look at company representations of workers during the height of union power, investigating how J&L used media to create cultural interventions to cope with the changing power relations brought by the union era. My concerns go beyond this period, however, to question whether, as the steel industry declined, these representations had lasting consequences for the way people remember the days of powerful organized labor. This project investigates how the rise of unionism in the steel industry necessitated adjustments in the way steel corporations dealt with their workforce, and how the arena of culture and representation be-came more and more important.  Straightforward advertising was not enough. Companies employed diverse means to foster a culture of individualism in workers and their communities that opposed the culture of solidarity upon which the union depended.  In some instances, this effort reflects a complex contest of meaning in which workers were not only consumers, but in some ways producers, of the cultural texts that were mobilized. For example, my chapter on the company magazine shows how the publication, originally conceived as a uni-directional communication from the company to the employees and shareholders, evolved into a more collaborative project of representation as workers began contributing their own photographs and stories.  Corporate images and workers' snapshots came together, mixing images of industrial production with those of domesticity and consumption. The unusual level of worker involvement in J&L's company magazine makes it particularly successful PR, because the magazine used workers' self-representations, expressing justifiable pride in family and hard-won leisure time, to construct a feeling of community and mutual interest with the company.  In another instance, the appropriation of worker participation combines labor imagery and cultural memory when the company collected vintage photographs from workers with the intention of illustrating a company history. My chapter on this commemorative project shows how the company used these labor portraits, expressive of workers' pride and solidarity, to construct a representation of itself that replaces a long history of class struggle, including the struggle to form a union, with a grand narrative of progress in which the company is the heroic benefactor of labor.  

The corporation also sponsored the creation of new photographs that appropriated images of labor solidarity to its particular ends.  This is the case in the PR department's hiring of Roy Stryker, famed director of the Farm Security Administration photography project of the 1930's. The company commissioned Stryker to create a documentary file with his particular liberal humanist stamp, a photo collection that focused especially on workers.  The photos hearken back to the 1930's in their celebration of the "ordinary man" and in their evocation of a culture of solidarity to create a new idea of solidarity that, instead of connecting workers to each other, linked the individual worker with the company. My final chapter carries the theme of historical memory into the present, describing how people in former steelmaking communities try to maintain a connection with a history of industrial production. Here I argue for the importance of remembering the role of labor struggle in creating the prosperity associated with the steelmaking days, and investigate several J&L-related memory projects. In doing so I explore the various ways they commemorate steelmaking and the extent to which they enable a memory of struggle that can be mobilized to face new challenges to economic justice in the present.