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Hired Hands or Human Resources? Case Studies of HRM Programs and Practices in Early American Industry

Author(s):Kaufman, Bruce
Reviewer(s):Pearson, Chad

Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Bruce Kaufman, Hired Hands or Human Resources? Case Studies of HRM Programs and Practices in Early American Industry.? Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.? xi + 254 pp.? $55 (Cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8014-4830-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Chad Pearson, Department of History, University of Alabama ? Huntsville.

For more than two decades, Bruce Kaufman has produced notable studies that have deepened our understanding of the evolution of industrial relations policies.? In Hired Hands or Human Resources? Case Studies of HRM Programs and Practices in Early American Industry, Kaufman continues his service to the historical profession by providing in-depth descriptions of the industrial relations and early human resource practices adopted by fifteen industries from the late nineteenth century to the first three decades of the twentieth century.? He makes several claims throughout, including his belief that the era of World War I, rather than the New Deal years, represented the watershed moment with respect to the development of modern human resource management.? More controversially, Kaufman downplays the role that the labor movement and legal pressures played in convincing employers to improve their labor relations polices.?

Divided into two parts, Kaufman begins with numerous case studies of late nineteenth and early twentieth century companies.? Drawing mostly on secondary sources, he describes the different ways in which employers responded to strikes, high turnover rates, and what commentators generally called the labor problem.? Employers? responses varied.? Companies like the Pullman Car Company and the Atlanta-based Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills imposed what Kaufman calls an ?autocratic model.?? Here employers, in Kaufman?s words, ?set the labor policy and acted as the final court of appeal in disputes? (p. 50).? Managers at Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills forced employees to sign contracts promising that they would refrain from joining labor unions and that they would give at least a week?s notice if they planned to quit; failing to notify management resulted in a deduction of a week?s pay.?

Other companies employed policies that were far more benevolent than the techniques used by Pullman and the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills.? Shoe manufacturing giant Endicott-Johnson Company embraced what Kaufman calls ?the paternalistic model? while department store company William Filene and Sons adopted ?the participative model.?? Led by the paternalistic George Johnson, Endicott-Johnson promoted a workplace culture called the ?Square Deal.?? In return for high pay and company-sponsored social programs, including sports teams and outings, Johnson insisted that his employees work efficiently and demonstrate loyalty.? ?The idea behind the square deal,? Kaufman notes, ?was quid pro-quo ? what the company gave it expected back in equal proportion? (p. 56).? Johnson?s interests were hardly unique.? Indeed, all managers expected their workers to show loyalty.????????????

In part two, Kaufman illustrates the ways in which several companies created professional human resource management (HRM) models after World War I.? This is the most valuable part of the book principally because he used the records of the Industrial Relations Councilors (IRC), a consulting firm that began assisting employers in the 1910s.? The IRC offered consulting services, provided research, and ran courses on industrial relations topics throughout the nation.? Kaufman, the first scholar to examine these records, believes that ?no other [industrial relations consulting firm] before World War II had IRC?s reach and influence? (p. 108).? Given the confidentiality agreements that the various firms made with the IRC, Kaufman does not disclose the identities of the particular workplaces.? But he does provide us with an inside look at the ways in which managers at the ?Top-Grade Oil Company,? ?The Great Eastern Coal Company,? ?The United Steel and Coal Company,? ?The Mega-Watt and Light Power Company,? ?New Era Radio,? and ?High-Beam Steel,? professionalized industrial relations polices.

In several cases, the contents of these internal reports are rather unsurprising: details about company pay rates, the implementation of safety programs, the creation of medical services, and the development of company sponsored housing and social activities.? That the ?Great Eastern Coal Company? sought to, according to one report, ?promote and maintain a spirit of cooperation between the operator and the employee? in the aftermath of a strike is hardly news (p. 137).? In this situation, these sources simply reinforce what historians and industrial relations scholars have long known.?

Yet Kaufman discovered some real gems during the course of his research.? For instance, the context surrounding the coal company?s implantation of a non-union employee representation plan is especially revealing.? Here, the IRC warned the company that it needed to take communist leader William Foster?s critique of non-union representation programs seriously.? Presumably stung by Foster?s statement that such programs served ?to delude the workers into believing they have some semblance of industrial democracy,? the IRC insisted that the company ?recognize these charges and examine diligently the means for preventing their foundation in fact? (p. 153).? The reports are also instructive in highlighting the considerable sums of money that companies spent on various employee benefits.? High Beam Steal, for instance, allocated $95, 000 for ?community affairs.??????

In most cases, these firms, in consultation with the IRC, began to, in Kaufman?s words, treat labor not as ?a short-term commodity,? as was common in previous decades, but rather as ?a longer-term human capital asset (the ?human resource? approach)? (p. 219).? Why?? Pressure from unions and the law were factors, but ?they were less than half the story in the time period we are examining? (p. 228).? In his view, employers? desires to improve ?management and productivity? better explain why companies improved workplace conditions (p. 227).? This argument is somewhat confusing and not entirely convincing in light of his evidence.? Most of the firms he examined confronted pressure from labor unions in different contexts, and employers in general opposed unions primarily because they believed that organized labor impeded productivity.? Most post-World War I employers embraced the open-shop principle and routinely maintained that unions were inefficient third parties that undermined the supposedly natural relationship between managers and workers.? Many supported both carrot and stick methods in the face of labor unrest.?

Nevertheless, for the most part, business and labor historians as well as economists will find Hired Hands or Human Resources? informative and thought-provoking.? Readers may discover a minor error or two (President Rutherford Hayes, not Grover Cleveland, called in federal troops during the 1877 railroad strike to restore order.) but most will certainly appreciate this readable study for introducing us to the private world of pre-World War II industrial relations consulting.?

Chad Pearson is currently writing a book about the Progressive Era Open-Shop Movement.

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Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII