From the Progressive Era to Today, Employers Have Always Been Petty Dictators

Today’s union-busters owe much to the bosses of the Progressive Era, who refused to recognize unions and fired labor organizers. Employers have never been “enlightened,” instead fighting tooth and nail to maintain their dictatorial powers.

Police officers dispersing striking streetcar employees in New York City. March 4, 1886. (PHAS / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Victims and observers of today’s ruthless anti-union employers will profit from reading Vilja Hulden’s deeply researched, well-written book about early twentieth-century bosses and their powerful organizations. Her new study, focusing on both national developments and local case studies, reminds us that the contemporary ruling class owes much to earlier generations of elites who practiced some of the same detestable deeds: refusing to recognize unions, firing labor organizers, and pitting unionists against anti-unionists.

The Bosses’ Union, by Vilja Hulden. (University of Illinois Press, 2023).

The autocratic behavior of bosses and their lackeys was clear to all honest observers. Yet employers sought to draw attention from their own class privileges and exploitative practices, using high-minded language about protecting the rights of “free workers” (strikebreakers), the necessity of upholding “law and order” against “union tyranny,” and the importance of creating and defending “open-shop” workplaces. Holding membership in both national and local employer associations, they perfected the rhetoric of reform while acting like workplace dictators during the improperly named “Progressive Era.”

According to the conventional history, this was an epoch of sweeping pro-worker improvements, when muckrakers spotlighted the horrors of child labor and middle-class reformers campaigned against the suffocating power of industrial monopolies. But as Hulden demonstrates, this picture is wrong in two respects. First, middle-class reformers perceived instances of labor unrest — strikes, boycott campaigns, union organizing efforts, and demands for closed shops — as profoundly unsettling. They believed, Hulden writes, in “middle class expertise rather than worker power.”

Second, the conventional history focuses more on reformers than powerful employers. Yet middle-class “experts” didn’t call the shots. Bosses did, and the seemingly ever-present labor problem brought them together as a class. Employers built durable organizations, lobbied policymakers, broke strikes, busted unions, blacklisted activists, redbaited radicals, protected strikebreakers, launched astroturf labor organizations, and promoted industrial relations schemes like open-shop workplaces. And in the process, they gained the backing of influential figures outside of industrial relations settings — not just conservatives, but liberals, too.

Conniving Bosses

Much of this history is shrouded in secrecy. Thankfully, Hulden, a dogged researcher equipped with a strong bullshit detector, has unearthed much, providing readers with detailed accounts about how diverse sets of employers — holding membership in organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the National Civic Federation (NCF), and various regional Citizens’ Alliances — took a multifront approach to the “labor problem.” Her book is chock-full of revealing details recounting the ways that business leaders organized, lobbied politicians, secured legal assistance during union confrontations, and employed labor spies.

Cover of the National Civic Federation Review, vol. 2, no. 12 (March-April 1907). Official organ of the National Civic Federation. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lots of scheming occurred behind the scenes, allowing bosses and their agents to plot while avoiding uncomfortable public exposure or legal accountability. Many enjoyed direct access to politicians and owners of influential newspapers and magazines. They used their connections strategically by pressuring lawmakers to kill bills that would have, for example, provided an eight-hour workday for some employees and by planting exaggerated — and sometimes fictitious — stories about cases of labor violence in newspapers.

All of these employers had similar objectives: halting strikes, securing dependable employees, boosting profits, and establishing societal legitimacy. Yet Hulden makes clear that the business class was not a monolith, and she investigates the central controversies between somewhat moderate employers and their more reactionary colleagues. Here she weighs in on a controversy that has animated business and labor historians for more than a half century: how to make sense of the tensions between the arch-conservative NAM and the avowedly centrist NCF.

Most scholars have insisted that these ideological differences were meaningful, and, indeed, some facts are not especially controversial. While NAM represented mostly small and medium-sized firms that were outwardly anti-union, NCF representatives spoke for a membership that featured both big capitalists and prominent trade union representatives — including American Federation of Labor (AFL) head Samuel Gompers — and endorsed trade agreements to establish labor peace. The NCF’s businessmen anticipated that union recognition would act, in Hulden’s words, as “an antiradical barrier” and prevent eruptions of labor strife. The two organizations, she notes, “adopted very different official positions.”

The key word is “official,” and Hulden has done more than any other scholar in revealing that on crucial matters, the similarities between these two organizations outweighed the differences. Members of both groups fiercely opposed socialism, participated in ferocious strikebreaking, and defended the rights of anti-union “free workers” to work in “open-shop” worksites. Some employers even held membership in both organizations. As Hulden puts it, “When employers kept one foot in the open-shop movement while working with the NCF, the result (and possibly the intent) of their NCF involvement could be to subdue union leaders’ militancy.” Her findings, spelled out meticulously, serve as a reminder that we should focus more on what bosses did than what they said.

Thuggish Bosses

Many Progressive Era bosses displayed their thuggish side by directly meting out violence against workers. Hulden includes fascinating information about turn-of-the-century St. Louis, where more than a thousand “businessmen of respectability,” recruited by the city’s sheriff, joined public forces to terrorize protesters during a streetcar strike. Their most notorious act was the Washington Avenue Massacre, which saw the deaths of three protesters on June 10, 1900. St. Louis had been the scene of earlier eruptions of class conflicts, and the city’s elite residents had a proud history of battling the so-called dangerous classes and enforcing their subordination.

Hulden mentions strikebreaking organizations with benign names like the Committee for Public Safety, which intimidated and brutalized dissenters during the extraordinary 1877 general strike.

How did St. Louis’s upper crust build bonds in the first place? Many enjoyed preexisting family and cultural relationships, and Hulden has produced a sophisticated, computer-generated spatial analysis of their residences and social clubs. We learn that many of the same elites who shared community spaces abhorred labor unions. The climax of their organizational efforts was the formation of the confrontational St. Louis Citizens’ Alliance in 1903. Highbrow hobnobbing undoubtedly helped cement the ties that came in handy during labor disputes.

Hulden’s impressive examinations of what she calls St. Louis’s “web of connections” adds much to our understandings of elite organizing, but there is more to the story — and perhaps we can identify additional reasons for the remarkable unity and confidence practiced by these affluent thugs. Above all, we must consider the actions of veteran organizers in launching local open-shop associations in places like St. Louis. We should be unsurprised that the first person to join St. Louis’s Citizens’ Association, brick manufacturer and former congressman Anthony Ittner, had participated in earlier crusades. Ittner was a leader of St. Louis’s Law and Order League, a fearsome and secretive vigilante organization that blacklisted strikers after the massive 1886 railroad uprising.

Newspaper image of US Marshals guarding a freight train in East St. Louis during the 1886 strike. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

While Hulden explores cases of repression in 1877 with an appropriate amount of attention, she says little about the brutal roles that some of these same goons played in 1886. In fact, one of the Law and Order League’s most prominent activists from the rail-fighting days of spring 1886, J. West Goodwin of Sedalia, Missouri, had become a national Citizens’ Alliance organizer and assisted in building St. Louis’s chapter at the turn of the century. Perhaps the knockout successes of St. Louis’s ruling classes during early twentieth-century battles had as much, if not more, to do with the agitation of seasoned union-bashers and outside activists as with preexisting local networks.

Racist Bosses

The period Hulden explores — spanning Reconstruction’s collapse in the 1870s to the pre–New Deal late 1920s — was not only shaped by explosive strikes and union-busting. These years were also shot through with racist brutality: lynchings, the rise of Jim Crow, white supremacist riots. Racism was not restricted to southern regions or elites, and she points out that plenty of white workers expressed bigoted attitudes toward Asian and African-American laborers. Mainstream labor organizations like the AFL had a decidedly mixed record; it supported Chinese exclusion practices but its spokespersons, including Gompers, called for efforts to organize black workers. In practice, according to Hulden, “union chauvinism excluded African Americans.” Of course, the AFL mainstream was hardly the only game in town. The Knights of Labor organized countless black workers in the 1880s, and locals of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the United Mine Workers illustrated that interracial unity was hardly absent during the early twentieth century.

Although Hulden highlights examples of AFL-generated racism, she has, surprisingly, left out the more significant activities of the open-shop bosses who deliberately promoted — and ultimately profited from — the development of racially divided working classes in both northern and southern regions. On balance, managers at all levels enjoyed substantially more influence than wage earners in establishing racial hierarchies on the job. Northern bosses and their representatives, for instance, built and administered networks that connected their struck workplaces to the employment-seeking crews hired by southern-based recruiters. The process of recruiting, transporting, and sometimes housing black job-hunters frequently involved collaboration between employment agents and black elites.

Even more remarkably, southern employers and their allies constructed the country’s densest concentration of open-shop workplaces partially by practicing racially based policies. A glance at the period’s business magazines, including the Foundry, Manufacturers’ Record, and the Tradesman, reveals dozens of articles about the managerial usefulness and economic profitability of pitting white workers against black workers to defeat strikes, maintain union-free worksites, and drive down wages. Hulden mentions that John Edgerton, the NAM’s Tennessee-based president, boasted at the organization’s 1922 conference that there were few unions in southern regions. But she doesn’t explore the deeper question: Why was he able to brag in the first place? Because of the decades-long activities of businessmen, policymakers, landowners, and vigilantes in constructing an overtly racist political economy that has traditionally served as an attractive haven for northern investors who wanted to escape, rather than simply fight, labor unions. We continue to live with this legacy.

And we must not overlook the white supremacists involved in anti-labor activities. Consider some examples. In 1879, before he participated in Law and Order Leagues and Citizens’ Alliances, Goodwin called for the reintroduction of the whipping post in Missouri for African American law-breakers; in 1906, former Ku Klux Klan leader, Birmingham Citizens’ Alliance secretary, and Tradesman editor N. F. Thompson proposed forcing “idle” black workers to labor in Panama; that same year, famed writer and Citizens’ Alliance propagandist Owen Wister compared African Americans to apes in his best-selling book Lady Baltimore; in 1907, C. W. Post, breakfast cereal manufacturer and Citizens’ Industrial Association of America head, established a black-free and anti-union “utopian” town, Post City, in the western part of Texas; and in 1910, Tampa’s Citizens’ Committee leader, D. B. McKay, won his mayoral contest partially by appealing to “white rights.”

Those in the open-shop movement’s vanguard, enjoying extensive authority over their own communities and beyond, employed racist practices both in and outside of workplaces. Above all, elites worked together to block the development of multiracial movements from below.

Good Cop/Bad Cop Bosses

Hulden informs us that organized employers were usually farsighted, recognizing that the flowery language they used about the open-shop principle’s fairness and the naked brutality they unleashed against union activists failed to solve all their public relations and labor problems. Consequently, many of those active in groups like NAM devised personnel management programs designed to secure workers’ loyalty by demonstrating they had no need for unions.

Especially after World War I, employers constructed sports fields and gymnasiums for employees, introduced profit-sharing plans, and even formed on-site medical services. Hulden aptly calls this “a softer touch,” writing that “the NAM’s new emphasis on foreman training and the ‘human factor in industry’ fit into a broader effort across industry to modernize personnel management.” Numerous companies also created “company unions” or employee representation plans, which were intended to give workers the illusion of workplace democracy. Unlike traditional, worker-run unions, company unions offered workers no contractually guaranteed benefits or rights.

While these top-down, “good cop” schemes were meant to dissuade workers from forming their own organizations, Hulden demonstrates that bosses were ultimately unable to solve the enduring “labor problem.” Those who labored at these supposedly benevolent worksites typically wanted a real say in the workplace matters and felt entitled to reasonable benefits.

Yet employers showed their limitations, especially when economic downturns hit. Echoing historian Lizabeth Cohen, Hulden points out that workplace-based welfare programs “had inadvertently legitimized standards [employers] were not able or willing to meet.” During financial slowdowns, as in the 1930s, employers across the country slashed benefits and issued mass layoffs. This incited renewed class conflicts, and organized employers displayed their “bad cop” side by reasserting their strident anti-unionism. Labor’s longtime foe, the NAM, continued to appeal to “a significant segment of the business community” (seen in its swelling membership), and returned to its open anti-union belligerency.

The Employer Agenda

Hulden has produced a rich history at a time when major companies like Starbucks and Amazon are reminding us every day of the duplicitous nature of employer-led anti-unionism. In the face of renewed labor organizing efforts, these and plenty of other companies have harassed workers and fired union supporters, even as they boast about their supposedly generous benefit packages.

In the case of Starbucks, management has dangled out wage increases to non-unionists while denying the same benefits to those who voted to organize. And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — Hillary Clinton’s reported pick for Labor Secretary during her 2016 presidential run — has arrogantly boasted about refusing to recognize “a third party.”

Such autocratic behavior should not come as a surprise given what scholars like Hulden have taught us. After all, as Hulden points out, “the employer agenda, has in fact been fairly consistent over time.” Read this terrific book to learn more about the many roots and characteristics of that ugly, undemocratic agenda.