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Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement

Author(s):Pearson, Chad
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

Chad Pearson, Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement.  Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. viii + 303 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4776-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts.

Even while the Labor Movement is dying, its history thrives.  For a long time, Labor History was a narrow often sterile discipline focused on the glorious rise of unions and socialist political formations, the formal Labor Movement.  Labor History was populated by advocates whose works often read like sermons, histories of good and honest workers struggling against evil capitalists and their political toadies.  Strikes and unions were good, except where the earnest rank-and-file were betrayed by self-serving union leaders.  Sometimes, these betrayals cost the workers.  But the experience of collective action and struggle always contained good lessons, and task of the labor historian was seen as interpreting these lessons and passing them along to build the labor movement.

While labor historians imagined placing workers and their struggles at the center of historical analysis, by reducing capital, the state, and labor to simplistic Marxist elements, their work was consigned to a leftist ghetto.  Labor History as medieval morality play can contribute little to the broader study of history because it treats all actors as parodies. Ironically, by shrinking all social actors to a simplistic category, this work brought nothing to the understanding of the labor movement or the proper strategy for labor struggles.  In the face of the decline, even the collapse, of the Labor Movement, the old Labor History has had nothing to say except the old mantra of “evil capitalists” and “self-serving union leaders.”

Perhaps it is the crisis of the Labor Movement that has invigorated the field of Labor History.  A new generation of historians has emerged conscious that the old categories are inadequate to understand the current crisis.  They are ready for a much more nuanced approach, one that recognizes the varieties of capital. The experience of the Labor Movement’s rise and decline has forced them to recognize the often-contentious relationship between capital and democratic states, and the role of ideology in shaping not only the Labor Movement, but the response to labor militancy by states and by capitalists.  In short: the new generation recognizes that the making of the capitalist class and any capitalist state is just as challenging as the making of the working class.  By conceiving labor history as a history of contending collective movements, labor historians have enriched our understanding of American employers and their organizations (Ernst 1995; Harris 2006), their bargaining strategies and campaigns against unions (Richards 2008; Sidorick 2009; Cowie 1999), their often-tangled relationship with state officials (Howell 1992; Howell 2005; Friedman 1998; Friedman 2007), and the ideology they developed to sustain their collective action (Phillips-Fein 2009; Harris 1982; Leon 2015).  At its best, this new labor history is contributing, as labor historians have long wanted, to a broader emerging field of the history of capitalism (Beckert 2014).

Chad Pearson’s new book should be seen in the context of this transformation of Labor History into a piece of the larger history of American capitalism. His book uses brief biographies and case studies of local associations to examine the development of the Open Shop movement in American industry before the First World War.  (“Open Shops” are establishments that hire workers without regard for their union membership; in practice, they do not hire union members because they do not sign union contracts.)  In particular, Pearson addresses a question that has often appeared as a paradox to liberal historians eager to portray the American story as a march of progress: the coincidence, both in time and often in personnel, between the Progressive Era “Age of Reform” and the rise of militant anti-unionism and the repression of labor organization.  How to reconcile the seemingly antagonistic positions of progressive reformers like George Creel, who advocated of women’s suffrage, public ownership of utilities, and opposed child labor, while also campaigning for the Open Shop and serving on Citizen’s Industrial Association of America (CIAA) press committee (Pearson 2016, 70)?  What to say of Theodore Roosevelt, bitter critic of both the repressive labor policies of the Anthracite Coal companies and of the closed (union) shop?  Or the liberal hero, Louis Brandeis, who argued that the open shop protected the liberties of both employers and the rights of meritorious unionists and nonunionists alike (Pearson 2016, 83)?

It is the great strength of Pearson’s study that regardless of any personal sympathy with unions and labor militancy, he avoids any cant but evaluates seriously the positions of open-shop employers.  He shows that they, too, were often reformers and their employers’ movement was as much a part of the Progressive Era as was the Labor Movement. In rejecting labor militancy and the closed shop as incompatible with his vision of America’s political traditions, Brandeis, for example, expressed a view of labor relations and the economy that was championed by Progressive Era employers’ organizations, has remained popular in America, and has come to motivate much of our political right.  In this view, free Labor has no social dimension.  It means simply the right of individuals to conduct their businesses and to buy and sell commodities, including their own labor power, untrammeled by the interference of others, either state regulators or other workers or businesses.  An attribute of individuals, freedom is negated by collective action.  Not only does free competition among individuals best promote efficiency, it is fair because it rewards work and merit; and it is just because it represents liberty. Labor unions are a threat to efficiency because they place the lazy and incompetent on equal standing with the hard-working and meritorious.  Worse, through their political action, by promoting regulation and monopoly, they are a fundamental threat to freedom, “the greatest menace” (Pearson 2016, 182).  Far from a selfish battle to increase profits, the campaign for the open shop and the employer in the management of his property, was a noble and generous struggle to protect fundamental principles of justice and fairness.

If the open-shop activists had a general political orientation, Pearson shows that, paradoxically for many historians, it was liberal and progressive rather than reactionary.  Open shop proponents did not see themselves as part of a counter reformist movement; instead, they were part of a tradition of social reform that stretched back to the abolitionists and early Republicans, to Abraham Lincoln rather than Jefferson Davis.  They saw themselves as heirs to the abolitionists, reformers, patriotic and class-neutral proponents of industrial fairness and guardians of ambitious, hard-working individuals. It was natural then for them to oppose monopoly, to favor honest government, municipal efficiency, industrial progress and professionalization. Far from fighting against labor or higher wages, they often condemned abusive managers (like the Anthracite Coal companies), and favored welfare capitalist initiatives and what labor economists today call efficiency wages.

It would be a cheap shot at the open-shop activists to observe that their campaign in defense of individual liberty against collective regulation required collective action, “employer solidarity” and individual sacrifices to benefit the group.  Indeed, their campaigns were often undermined by the actions of self-interested individuals, employers who displayed an inclination not to “give their time to anything that will further the interests of the group. (Pearson 2016, 160, 162).  Like their union opponents, employers’ organizations face a collective action problem, the need to mobilize individual resources to produce public goods. Pearson’s greatest contribution is to show how these organizations addressed this problem, and how they used ideas — the ideology of individual liberty — to mobilize their constituents.  What socialism was for the working-class movement, progressivism became for America’s employers.

Pearson’s work should be read and read carefully by all interested in the history of the Progressive Era, the history of employer organizations, and American political thought.  His work is Labor History in the broadest and finest sense, the history of the development of American capitalist society.


Beckert, Sven. 2014. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Knopf.

Cowie, Jefferson. 1999. Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ernst, Daniel R. 1995. Lawyers against Labor: From Individual Rights to Corporate Liberalism. The Working Class in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Friedman, Gerald. 1998. State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Friedman, Gerald. 2007. Reigniting the Labor Movement: Restoring Means to Ends in a Democratic Labor Movement. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Harris, Howell John. 1982. The Right to Manage: Industrial Relations Policies of American Business in the 1940s. Madison University of Wisconsin Press.

Harris, Howell John. 2006. Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howell, Chris. 1992. Regulating Labor: The State and Industrial Relations Reform in Postwar France. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Howell, Chris. 2005. Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leon, Cedric de. 2015. The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

Pearson, Chad. 2016. Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement. American Business, Politics, and Society. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Phillips-Fein, Kim. 2009. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan. New York: W. W. Norton.

Richards, Lawrence. 2008. Union-Free America: Workers and Antiunion Culture. The Working Class in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sidorick, Daniel. 2009. Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press.

Jerry Friedman has served as the U.S. editor of Labor History since 2003.

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