By Published: Nov. 16, 2023

CU Boulder professor’s recent book highlights how employers organized to fight labor before the New Deal

The opening of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for American employer-labor relations, marked by the emergence of large-scale factory work, giant corporations and sometimes violent clashes between labor and employers over working conditions.

Briefly, it seemed union organization and collective bargaining might offer an avenue to stability. However, both employers and many middle class observers remained wary of unions exercising independent power.

In her recently published book, The Bosses’ Union: How employers organized to fight labor before the New Deal, Vilja Hulden, a teaching associate professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, documents how this tension allowed pro-business organizations to shift public attention away from inequality and sometimes dangerous working conditions toward the idea that unions trampled an individual’s right to work.

Vilja Hulden

CU Boulder researcher Vilja Hulden, a teaching associate professor of history, in her new book documents employer-labor tensions in the early 20th century and their lasting impact. 

Recently, Hulden spoke with Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine about her book, documenting a tumultuous time in employer-employee relations. Her responses have been lightly edited for style and condensed for space considerations.

Question: At the beginning of your book, you highlight the release of a 1902 report by the U.S. Industrial Commission, which suggested organized labor could have a positive, democratizing effect in the workplace. What was going on in the country at the time?

Hulden: For context, the late 19th century is a time when there are really dramatic labor conflicts. We have the 1877 railroad strike. There’s the 1886 Haymarket Riot (in Chicago), which is all about anarchists and the Haymarket bombing. And in the early 1890s, there’s the        Pullman strike and boycott that involved a quarter of a million workers. So, there’s a number of these (incidents) that are really violent and that really put the country on edge. People are really worried about the labor-capital conflict.

Both the Congress and the president call for investigations. They appoint the Industrial Commission to investigate solutions.

This is happening at the turn of the 20th century—at a moment when it’s clear that factories and wage work are here to stay. It’s a time of massive factories and massive corporations. This is the new normal. We can’t go back to a previous time where the production of goods was based on artisans and small workshops. So, we have to have some kind of a new solution.

A lot of mainstream economists and reformers are coming to think it’s obvious that the corporations are far more powerful than any individual worker. So, there’s this idea that maybe labor needs a collective voice.

The American Federation of Labor has been around since the 1880s, but it really grows in the last years of the 19th century, and it becomes this flagship of a moderate labor movement that says, ‘We’re not out to get capitalism … but we’re going to find a way to get workers more.’ So, it seems like there’s the potential for labor to be a responsible partner.

That’s the moment when the Industrial Commission issues this report. And they are serious about the fact that the country is supposed to be democratic, and yet people spend their working lives in workplaces where they have absolutely no influence.

Question: As labor starts advocating for itself, employers tend to coalesce around two groups, the National Civic Federation and the National Association of Manufacturers. How were those two groups similar and how are they different?

Hulden: In my view, that’s one of the most important things about my book. There’s been these sorts of academic debates about them (NCF and NAM), and I and I’ve never been very happy with how those debates have worked.

The Bosses' Union book cover

Researcher Vilja Hulden's The Bosses’ Union, recently published by University of Illinois Press, highlights how employers organized to fight labor before the New Deal.

In some ways, you can think of the Civic Federation as the embodiment of this U.S. Industrial Commission’s idea of: Let’s have trade agreements; let’s have rational labor relations; let’s find a way for everybody to sit at the same table and hash this thing out and come to agreements, instead of this chaotic striking and so on. The Civic Federation is really concerned to find conciliatory solutions.

The man who runs the Civic Federation, Ralph Easley, he’s the heart and soul of the organization. He’s not an employer. He started out as a journalist, and then was in various kinds of similar positions, and then becomes the secretary of the National Civic Federation. This is his life's work. He’s very serious about it.

He’s a very conservative guy, so he’s not pro-labor in that sense. For somebody who’s pushing for trade agreements, you’d sort of expect him to be progressive, but he’s actually pretty conservative. For example, he’s opposed to women’s suffrage.

But at the same time, he’s really concerned that the country is going to go under. Essentially, he’s worried that the socialists are going win, because there’s so much strife and unhappiness.

So, he works hard to recruit employers. He tries to create the Civic Federation as a tripartite organization, with labor, with employers, and a public category that is kind of weird and amorphous. There are some religious people, and there’s some various kinds of reformers and professors. But then there’s also businessmen, so it feels a bit like they’re kind of double counting of businesses.

But Easley’s goal is: We’re going to get everybody at the same table. We’re going to help labor leaders seem more acceptable to the corporations and we’re going to get the great capitalists of the day—the great captains of industry—sitting together with labor at the dinner table. They organize these actual dinners with people like Samuel Gompers (head of the AFL) and (industrialist) Andrew Carnegie, and they’re all sitting at the same table drinking champagne.

The employers that belong to the Civic Federation are generally bigger employers, like the railroad companies and gas companies or trust companies. Often, they are companies that are very well-known; they are household names. Those companies tend to gravitate toward the Civic Foundation because it makes them look good to the public, and they pay a lot of lip service to the idea of labor’s right to organize and finding a rational solution to the labor problem.

In contrast, NAM is generally composed of mid-sized manufacturers, generally with a few hundred employees, and they are not in the public’s eye, so they are less worried about publicity.

Easley really wants his model to work, but the argument that I make in the book is: The employers who join the Civic Federation really don’t want unions any more than the National Association of Manufacturers do. Because they are bigger employers, they have a bit more room to maneuver, so they might deal with a union for a couple of years, and then they can choose not to, or whatever their internal strategy might be.

In many cases where the Civic Federation manages to broker a trade agreement, it only lasts for a couple of years. A lot of times, they don’t manage to broker a trade agreement, but they organize some kind of deal and essentially force labor to accept it and then they are portraying it as a victory for rational labor relations.

In practice, the Civic Federation project was never viable because it can’t force anybody to do anything. It’s just a voluntary organization.

Question: In contrast with the Civic Federation, the National Association of Manufacturers takes a very different strategy, correct?

Hulden: Their argument is that unions are irrelevant and they are just intruding on the work relationship. They argue that the normal, natural way to deal with things in the workplace is between the employer and ‘his men’—and that unions are an external group that doesn’t have the workers’ best interests at heart.

The employers’ argument is that the unions are coercing workers to join—they’re scaring workers into joining the union, and the workers aren’t getting anything valuable in return. They (NAM) do use very harsh language about labor unions, and they portray them as sort of meddling in politics and trying to get workers to join a union in ways that they argue are illegitimate.

Question: To counter labor’s arguments for greater say in the workplace, at some point manufacturers adopted a campaign advocating for an “open shop” vs. a “closed shop” where all employees had to belong to a union to work there, correct?

Hulden: Absolutely. And they (NAM) invent the term ‘closed shop’ out of whole cloth, as far as I could tell. I did a lot of digging in digital archives and old newspaper archives trying to find if the term ‘closed shop’ was ever used before the National Association of Manufacturers started using it, and I couldn’t find anything pre-dating NAM.

And not only that, but I couldn’t find any references to ‘open shop’ or ‘union shop,’ either.

So, NAM essentially invents the idea of ‘open shops’ vs. ‘closed shops.’ They catch on, which lets the NAM basically define the terms of the debate. And employers make the case to lawmakers and the public: ‘We need a shop that’s open to everybody’—except that, in practice, a lot of times employers actually have a blacklist and refuse to hire union members. So, it’s not really an open shop, but they are pretending.

Question: In doing research for the book, did you discover anything that maybe you weren’t expecting?

Hulden: That’s a great question. A lot of times, the research just confirmed what I knew. …

The one thing I found in doing research for this book is that my appreciation for the American Federation of Labor really grew. They are a problematic group in a lot of ways—there are a lot of racists in the AFL; there’s exclusions of different immigrant groups in the organization; and they’re not always appreciative of women workers.

Rally against the Taft-Hartley Act

A 1947 rally against the Taft-Hartley Act at Madison Square Garden in New York City (Photo: Getty)

On the other hand, I think there’s a certain consistency to their positions. They realize (society) is not going to return to some idealized version of the past where everyone is working in artisan workshops where they have control over their work. They realize these are the times of big corporations and big factories.

Gompers (the AFL president), in particular, has a real rhetorical gift in talking about this, and he makes a number of good points when he’s debating the socialists, for example. He gets a lot of complaints from socialists about working with capitalists in organizations like the Civic Federation.

I quote him in parts of the book where he’s explaining his position. He asks them, (and I’m paraphrasing here), ‘Why would you complain that I talk with these capitalists? The whole damn point of labor is to talk to capitalists. What am I supposed to do? I’m not going to lose my principles just because I talk to this guy.’

Especially given our current political moment, that seems to me to be unexpectedly wise thinking.

Question: In the time period after the book ends, was organized labor able to make progress on its objectives, or did the momentum shift back to employers?

Hulden: Labor definitely has momentum in the 1930s and ’40s. They’re making huge gains, but there’s debates among labor historians about how significant the New Deal gains are and how much they’re about co-opting the labor movement and pacifying it. I think they are really significant gains. The world is transformed for a lot of workers.

And the employers don’t give up. They use the exact same rhetoric, and they push hard against the New Deal changes, and in the late ’40s they get through the Taft-Hartley Act, which …  forms the basis for the modern Right to Work movement—the modern anti-closed shop movement.

The employers keep building on that in the ’50s and ’60s. The union (movement) hits its peak sometime in 1953 or 1954 and starts going down from there. And in the ’50s, unions have to purge themselves of communists in the early Cold War era—and communists were effective organizers, so that does hurt the unions in a lot of ways. There’s also investigations into union corruption, which is real, but which makes the unions look a lot worse than they actually were.

So, the employers don’t give up. And they do manage to really undermine unionism. By the time we get to the ’80s and the Reagan era and the breaking of the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controller Association) strike, unions are really in the doldrums.

Now, recently, there’s been some indications of a comeback in the union movement, but I think it’s way too early to predict the new rise of labor.

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