Active(ist)? History on Wikipedia

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Source: W

William Murphy, 1958. Source: W

By Jonathan McQuarrie

Recently, I spent some time with Daniel Sidorick’s fantastic monograph Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century (Ithica, 2009). Among the timely observations made by the work is the vital point that a managerial effort to enforce efficiency through the threat of outsourcing is hardly new. At the turn of the 20th century, John Dorrance famously held the line on 10-cent cans of Campbell Soup, and that low price derived from pressures on workers to meet high production requirements and from contracts with farmers obliging them to sell their produce at a low price.

After reading it, I felt it had some information that would enhance some Wikipedia entries because I consider editing Wikipedia one entry point for public history engagement. Given how much students, the public, and (let’s be honest here) historians use Wikipedia, providing little edits never seems a bad idea.

Chapters five and six analyse the postwar relationship between Campbell’s Soup head William Beverly Murphy and the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). Sidorick traces the conflict between Murphy’s production targets and the UPWA efforts to maintain control over the pace and pay for their work. After reading the work, I looked at Murphy’s Wikipedia entry to see whether it mentioned this long and complex relationship. It didn’t. The brief entry listed his education, accomplishments with Campbell’s, and his various honorary degrees and civic directorships. I felt the entry should acknowledge how he directed Campbell’s, so I added the following entry, with a citation for Sidorick’s book:

As head of Campbell Soup, Murphy’s managerial style, which prioritized lean manufacturing, fostered conflict with his workers who contested his high production targets. The climax of this conflict occurred in 1968, when the AFL-CIO affiliated locals at the Campbell plants attempted to coordinate their contracts. Murphy firmly opposed the coordinated bargaining across his plants; divisions between the different locals limited their gains, and his managerial vision prevailed.

This is not a large addition, just enough to give the reader a sense what kind of manager he was. However, even this took some consideration. The challenge, as I saw it, was to introduce labour scholarship in an entry on a member of the managerial class while adhering to Wikipedia’s pillar of neutrality, which is one of their five pillars. (The others: it is an encyclopedia, it is free and freely edited, it profits from editors interacting respectfully, and it does not have firm rules).

Of course, the value or feasibility of neutrality in information is in itself a challenging question; a few years ago, the late Roy Rosenzwig, an early commentator on Wikipedia as a historical tool, observed that neutrality was the most discussed and disputed pillar, and this still holds true today. For example, in April 2013, 250 pages had ‘Neutral Point of View disputes’ (or NPOV disputes, to use the Wikipedia lingo), including topics like ‘Korean nationalist historiography,’ ‘Male privilege,’ and the 1978-79 British ‘Winter of Discontent.’ I suspect that a more obscure topic like William Beverly Murphy is unlikely to embroiled in a NPOV dispute, but when I edit entries, I am willing to adhere to Wikipedia’s principles.

However—and here’s the sticky bit—I wasn’t entirely motivated to edit the entry out of an adherence to some platonic form of neutral knowledge. I wanted to introduce a wrinkle into Murphy’s narrative, to flag that not everyone supported how he ended up with those directorships and honorary degrees.

Linking to existing articles is one way to work with the question of neutrality. For instance, by hyperlinking to the entry on Lean Manufacturing, I was able to avoid using a description that I might use, such as ‘a system of abstracting aspects of manufacturing in a way that squeezes out more productivity at the expense of the health or job of the worker. But workers might get quality discussion circles, so that’s something.’  Instead, the reader would get a thorough discussion of lean manufacturing and a description of its origins in the Toyota Company and the ‘Kaizen’ system (among others).

Yet choices had to be made. The reference to the AFL-CIO efforts to institute coordinated contracts flattens a complex story, including the efforts to coordinate four different Campbell’s plants that were under four different unions. I mention ‘divisions,’ a reference to Sidorick’s narrative of the split between the more militant UPWA Local 90 in Camden, New Jersey, and the moderate ‘business union’ leadership of the Amalgamated Meat Cutter local in Napoleon, Ohio. Likewise, Murphy’s role in fostering these divisions and attempting to segregate his workforces by race and gender through assigning particular tasks to particular groups is, at best, hinted at.

Is the addition too sanitized, then? Hopefully not. I thought that too much detail on the unions and their divisions would pull the addition beyond the scope of the topic entry, so that was actually a straightforward omission. Discussing Murphy’s efforts to divide the unions, however, was murkier. From a ‘neutral’ point of view, Murphy’s charge that the coordinated bargainers were ‘outsiders’ had some truth to it: these were people brought by parent unions to attempt to improve the bargaining tactics of the Campbell’s union locals, not people who came from the plants themselves. Likewise, by writing that Murphy was anti-union (and he was), I worried that the entry would be opened up to a NPOV dispute, since analysing positions on unions is generally subjective—I suppose a supporter of Murphy might note that he did work with the Campbell’s unions for his entire career. I hoped that providing a citation to Sidorick’s work would direct the curious to his work and so this saved me from violating the NPOV pillar.

The exercise is worth going through, since we so frequently have to reconcile personal politics with the presentation of history. Wikipedia is as good a forum for doing this as any, for in  considering these questions, we also help to improve the starting points for so many research essays and searches, and inserting current literature in the page references.

Jonathan McQuarrie is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History, University of Toronto.

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One thought on “Active(ist)? History on Wikipedia

  1. M. H. Beals (@mhbeals)

    A lovely piece. Wikipedia needs active scholars like you to add a few well referenced wrinkles. Your short narrative might be made more or less complex in the future, but it certainly provides a more nuanced look at the man and his life.

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