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Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century

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[Excerpt] The Campbell experience demonstrates that many strategies of late twentieth-century capitalism had precursors earlier in the century. Many components of Campbell's strategy, surprisingly, are as typical of today's neoliberal globalizing economy as was RCA's escape to a Mexican export-processing zone. The Campbell Soup Company made heavy use of contingent labor, increasing its workforce by 50 percent during tomato harvest season, then laying these workers off eight weeks later, just as multinational corporations today hire various types of nonstandard workers to handle specific tasks and add to flexibility. Campbell Soup was an eager advocate of transnational labor migration, importing thousands of workers from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the English-speaking Caribbean to fill certain functions, just as immigrants fill niches in today's "global cities." The corporation used immigrants in another way, similar to today's clothing retailers who deny any responsibility for the working conditions of sweatshop laborers officially employed by subcontractors. The firm paid suppliers prices that left them little choice but to exploit largely immigrant farm laborers to the furthest limits possible. The company constantly revolutionized production methods, employing technology and "scientific management" techniques to replace workers and lower costs, and even experimented with practices remarkably similar to many of the features of today's "lean production." Over time, Campbell implemented a few limited paternalistic elements to its dealings with its workers but mostly resorted to an adversarial position toward the unions they organized. The firm had a reputation, especially from the 1930s through the 1960s, as the most antiunion of Camden's "Big Three" employers, foreshadowing the "get-tough" policies toward unions common in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, when structural changes in the food supply system finally made it possible, Campbell joined RCA in abandoning Camden as a production site, over a century after Joseph Campbell began the company in that city, the last act in the deindustrialization of Camden. The fact that it resisted relocating production for so long makes Campbell Soup an excellent case for studying the other techniques available to corporations, and its long history may hold important lessons about the consequences of such strategies.

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production; efficiency; Campbell; labor; employment


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