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Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940

Author(s):Harris, Howell John
Reviewer(s):Jacoby, Daniel

Published by EH.NET (October 2000)


Howell John Harris, Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvii + 456 pp. $44.95. (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-58435-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Daniel Jacoby, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program, University of Washington, Bothell.

Those of us wedded to economic and institutional labor history have much to be grateful for in Howell John Harris’s painstaking examination of the metal manufacturing labor market in Philadelphia during the period 1890 to 1940. His book examines the conditions enabling employer cooperation and in so doing establishes a bridge between class conflict driven history and neo-classical economics. This feat is performed almost effortlessly in the context of a well-structured chronological saga that is climaxed by three “bloodless” battles waged over the open shop.

The first battle ended in 1915 when the Metals Manufacturer’s Association of Philadelphia [MMA] warded off organized labor and re-established the open shop markets that it had fought for since is inception in 1903 (p. 114). The “second almost bloodless victory” belonged to labor when it closed those open shops over the course of the 1930s (p. 12). Finally, there is a much more complicated, if not controversial, third bloodless victory wherein employers managed to resculpt industrial relations so that closed shops and organized labor appear anomalous today (p. 442). The three victories are unevenly marked within the wealth of material presented. Harris corrects this with clearly designed chapters that generally follow the ebbs and flows of the business cycle and successfully demarcate finer swings in the open shop battles of business and labor.

The success of the book lies in the details that establish how employers set aside their competitive differences in order to combine to resist unionists. Harris performs this task both by analyzing key statistical and institutional features of the labor market for skilled workers and also by reconstructing the mental and social world of his metal manufacturers. In Harris’s account proprietors of middle rank are effectively workers in a republican tradition, a tradition wherein one’s “manliness” resides in the enterprise he has created. In consort with John Locke’s treatises, property is justly derived from labor and it is this that gives these proprietors their rights against the incursions of unionists. These Quaker owners constituted living rebuttal to working class presumptions that property and mobility had become empty promises. Yet, Harris’s portrait becomes less sympathetic when these heroes engage in collective and organized resistance to labor.

It is the details of this story that build interest. How do these manufacturers organize themselves to maintain employer unity in the midst of incentives to shirk on collective agreements? Can an employment bureau break strikes and blacklist union activists? Are employers capable of developing their own mechanisms to produce and enforce property rights in skill? The common problem in each of these situations is that their solution requires employers to contend with the free riders among their ranks. Their strategies to overcome free riding constitute the most satisfying aspect of this book. Harris is sophisticated in neither assuming that employers could do all they wanted, nor that competition made all attempts at combination ineffectual.

Harris guides us through the selective benefits and punishments used by the MMA to promote solidarity in the face of self-interest. Not unnoticed is the irony that these rugged employers, ever complaining of union restrictions, voluntarily submitted to collective government designed to eliminate head to head individualistic competition. Harris portrays his proprietors as businessmen disdainful even of scientific management because the overhead of administration was considered too expensive. In Philadelphia, the MMA was proud that it was the “cheapest” employers association. In one instance leaders boasted that they had crushed a strike with the help of the employment bureau for a grand cost of only $157.47 above normal operating costs (p. 124).

One of the more interesting threads in Harris’s work concerns the role of apprentices in the open shop campaigns. The Metal Manufacturer’s Association, created in 1903, made its employment bureau the main agency by which it hoped to arrest the rapid expansion of the International Association of Machinists and International Molders Union. By 1903, national membership in these unions had increased to between three and five times its 1897 level. A negotiated truce with these combatants left Philadelphia employers chafing because the agreements tolerated union rules and customs they found constraining. Apprenticeship restrictions were a particular irritant in that they blocked employers’ absolute right to hire as they pleased. Such a right was necessary if owners were to be able “to dilute the skilled component of the labor force at will, to give themselves a cheap and adequate labor supply in rush times, and to gain an improved bargaining position vis-?-vis their journeymen at all times” (p. 90). Biding their time until local agreements had lapsed, the MMA relied upon its employment bureau to secure strikebreakers, among whom were apprentices required by contract to serve out their time. The employment bureau furnished the information necessary to know that a worker was indentured and should not be lured away. To secure its rights, the MMA evidently provided legal aid to one firm that sought to enforce its indentures against enticers.

This raises one difficulty in Harris’s analysis of Braverman’s thesis that capitalism progresses by debasing skilled work. Despite their misuse of apprentices Harris suggests employers rejected the idea of dumbing down work through specialized machines and narrowly defined jobs because they participated in custom work industries in which skilled labor was crucial (p. 337). On this point, his account is inconsistent. First, most of the firms (like Link-Belt Mftg, Baldwin Locomotive and Cramps Shipyard) upon which he bases this discussion are among the larger shops not in the MMA, the association to which he generally accords primary place. Second, when it came to strike breaking, firms appeared to believe that hiring less skilled workers had few costs. In breaking the brass polishers union in 1906 the MMA borrowed skilled workers from neighboring firms, but the bureau also brought in “craftsmen and instructors — to break in ‘green hands on plain work.’ The battle won, 80 percent of the union men were not rehired, and individual piece work, with no minimum wage, and as many ‘apprentices’ — cheap adolescent labor rather than genuine trainees — as a manufacturer wanted to hire introduced” (p. 127). To be sure, Harris documents one strike in which employers lived to regret hiring incompetents, but at least of equal concern, Harris shows, is employers’ desire to secure freedom to deploy machines and rearrange work process as they deemed appropriate.

The skill issue is further confounded when the MMA is described by 1915 as working on a “new and nonconflictual” scheme to harness vocational education to relieve the burden of their “skill dependency” (p. 293). Gone, apparently, are all the skill battles, which Harris only moments earlier described. Usually astute about the national surroundings, in this instance Harris uncouples the MMA’s vocational program from the national movement for industrial education that had long been championed by manufacturers hoping to circumvent union control. True, some unionists joined the call for industrial education, but as Julia Wrigley (Class Politics and Public Schools: Chicago, 1900-1950, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1982) has shown, labor’s conception of industrial education was quite different from that of the industrialists. Only if viewed in the context of the 1920s can the vocational education movement be regarded as non-conflictual and then merely because the opponent was too weak to put up a fight.

Harris seeks to weaken Braverman’s thesis but in the process misses what his own evidence tells us — that as long as unions controlled apprenticeship, skill constituted a strategic battleground against which employers would commit almost any sacrilege, including the debasement of their own workforce. However, when unions weakened — and likely also when craft unions attained unassailable power — employers attended to the creation of a highly skilled labor force.

Harris’s delightful self-indulgences practically dictate that a reviewer must find some fault with his book. Says Harris, “We each have some right to write our own book; and now every reader has the right to read into it what he or she wishes, and the opportunity to criticize it with as much vigor as seems fitting.” One can’t help but empathize as Harris huddles up to defend himself from his critics:

The labor history in this book will be as institutional and elitist as the rest of it. Readers may think that this results in missed opportunities; that there are tantalizing hints of what this book might have turned into, had it been written by another hand. But it wasn’t. The book ranges far and wide already in its efforts to contextualize and explain the behavior as employers of Philadelphia metal manufacturers through four decades. It has been more or less, a pleasure to research, and even to write” (p. 28). Indeed, Harris’s work has been a pleasure to read, more or less. The joy of Harris’s work resides in the manner in which he substantiates his narrative. When evidence is compiled as well as it is here, the inevitable remaining ambiguities encourage fair-minded criticism. The book deserves to be mined thoroughly. Bloodless Victories is a significant achievement.

Daniel Jacoby is author of Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America (M.E. Sharpe, 1998).


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII