Making Sense of Employer-Activists in the Progressive Era

PearsonToday we have a guest post from Chad Pearson, a Professor of History at Collin College, whose book, Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement, gives deeper context to the open-shop movement of the early twentieth century. While most historians characterize union opponents as knee-jerk conservatives, Pearson demonstrates that many open-shop proponents identified themselves as progressive reformers and benevolent guardians of America's economic and political institutions. By exploring the ways in which employers and their allies in journalism, law, politics, and religion drew attention to the reformist, rather than repressive, character of the open-shop movement, Pearson's book forces us to consider the origins, character, and limitations of this movement in new ways. Throughout his study, Pearson describes class tensions, noting that open-shop campaigns primarily benefited management and the nation's most economically privileged members at the expense of ordinary people.

Historians disagree about how we should interpret the ideas and actions of organized employers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time shaped partially by thousands of strikes, labor-led boycotts, and union organizing campaigns. Were they forward-thinking and benevolent managers, responsible for protecting the interests of the nation’s mostly non-union workers? Or, should we remember them as exploiters and reactionary union-busters, individuals guilty of seeking to maximize profits while driving down workers’ wages and fighting the so-called “dangerous classes”?

My book, Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement, suggests we should embrace a third interpretation. After all, employers defended their involvement in anti-union movements not out of a desire to challenge the so-called “dangerous classes,” but rather because they wanted to protect the rights of non-unionists and small business owners—groups of Americans that one employers’ association called “the common people.” As champions of “the common people,” movement-activists demonstrated a willingness to embrace values we often associate with progressive reformers. Yet their principle goals, the creation of many thousands of workplaces welcoming to job-seekers irrespective of union status, remained incompatible with one of the labor movement’s central aims: the establishment of genuine collective bargaining rights in closed shops.  

Employers active in open-shop organizations actually went out of their way to illustrate that they were fair-minded guardians of the nation’s institutions and people. In 1899, E. H. Putnam, one of the organizers of the newly formed National Founders’ Association (NFA), denounced some of his fellow foundry owners for employing child laborers; he called them a “mischievous class” guilty of engaging in “scavenger business” practices. The organization that Putnam and his colleagues sought to establish, according to a spokesperson in 1900, promised “to oppose injustice by employers and employes [sic].” Putnam was hardly exceptional. Just before he helped launch a multiregional network of open-shop activists, Kansas City’s George Creel referred to George Baer, the notoriously insensitive spokesperson for the employers during the massively disruptive northeastern Pennsylvania coal strike in 1902, “stubborn” for failing to compromise. Muckrakers continued to expose and condemn examples of workplace exploitation throughout the decade, prompting employer-organizers to distance themselves from what James Van Cleave of St. Louis called in 1906 “oppressive employers.” The executive of the Buck’s Stove and Range Company and National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) leader feared that these individuals had helped to damage the reputations of “the entire guild of employers.”

Yet labor activists committed to building closed shops, workplaces that protected collective bargaining rights, had numerous reasons to view organized employers as “oppressive.” Consider Van Cleave’s ally and fellow Confederate veteran, N. F. Thompson. Thompson received national publicity in 1900 before the U.S. Industrial Commission for recommending the widespread adoption of laws that would “make it justifiable homicide for any killing that occurred in defense of any lawful occupation.” In other words, Thompson believed that non-unionists and anti-union employers needed legal protections to murder aggressive picketers. Thompson, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, was the South’s most aggressive and influential anti-union activist in the Progressive Era. And his comments likely inspired others, including employer-vigilantes in Colorado and Wyoming in 1903 and 1904. Backed by state forces, employers in these regions won their armed struggles against what open-shop proponents called “union dictation.” But expressions of employer violence and intimidation were not restricted to the South or to the Wild West. David M. Parry, a carriage manufacturer and one-time NAM president, almost always carried two automatic revolvers when he left his Indianapolis mansion. And other employers armed their non-union men during labor-management confrontations. Former NFA organizer and publisher of business trade publications John A. Penton provided forty of his non-union workers with guns during a dramatic strike at his Cleveland-based printing establishment in 1906. Penton succeeded in keeping his publishing company an open shop, and he shared his joy with Mayor Tom Johnson after forcing the union supporters to retreat, reporting that “business has been running along very smoothly.” Numerous open-shop leaders had discovered the managerial usefulness of employing violence.

Reform or Repression? Readers will obviously disagree. It is difficult to generalize, but we can point out that plenty of employers paid decent wages, offered welfare programs to their workers, and refused to employ children—and many of these same employers bragged about their supposed generosity and societal contributions. At the same time, most employers were uncompromisingly committed to running their workplaces without union interference. Indeed, we should neither caricature nor romanticize turn-of-the-century anti-union employers. Instead, we must acknowledge that they had clear class interests, which they defended at the point of production and in society generally by disseminating a set of progressive-sounding talking points. Of course, workers had their own interests, and it is unlikely that they truly believed that open-shop employers actually cared about “the common people.”