Published by EH.Net (February 2014)

Jean-Christian Vinel, The Employee: A Political History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. v + 335 pp. $47.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4524-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by William Komiss, CNA (Alexandria, VA).

At various junctures in American history, businesses have worried that employees – such as foremen and nurses – would strike. Jean-Christian Vinel’s book provides a detailed account of the conflict between institutions fighting on behalf of businesses or their workers. He focuses on the century and a half following the Civil War.

The source of the conflict is the unequal relationship between workers and the American business class.  This unequal relationship motivated some pro-labor thinkers to conclude that collective bargaining would be the best method to resolve labor conflicts. With respect to this conclusion, the business class has been concerned that the right to organize is incompatible with faithful performance.

In Chapter 1, Vinel describes the relationship between businesses and workers in the late nineteenth century. At the time, the terms “master” and “servant” were commonly used in reference to these parties, while the terms “employer” and “employee” were thought to be vague and not reflective of common law rights. Americans gradually began to use these terms after the Civil War as the need for white-collar workers grew and Americans became more economically mobile. Greater use of the term “employee” was a crucial development as legal interpretations of the term would eventually determine which workers possessed the right to organize and the right to bargain collectively.

In the early twentieth century, America saw the beginning of a transition to a contract relationship between two equals before the law (Chapter 2). Vinel explains that this transition was spurred by Progressives who sought the right to organize. These were the same Progressives who had previously sought other gains for workers, such as shorter work hours. Progressives were opposed by those who favored a strict interpretation of legislation and the Constitution. Vinel discusses (Chapter 3) how it was the Wagner Act that eventually protected the right to organize for those workers classified as employees – a distinct group from management. For the next several decades, businesses tried to limit the ability of workers to exercise this right through economic coercion and the courts.

The remaining chapters and epilogue examine how businesses and workers fought over who the legal system would determine is a manager or an employee. Vinel’s central figure (Chapter 4) is the foreman – the top voice on the shop floor – who stood between management and laborers. For a time, the law recognized foremen as their own collective bargaining unit because they performed no manual work and possessed no decision-making authority. Labor’s momentum after the Wagner Act did not last long (Chapter 5). After the Second World War, demand for American goods rose, and American public opinion saw organized labor as an impediment to a greater supply of goods. Ultimately, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 by, among other things, defining “employee” to exclude foreman from the collective bargaining rights. Foremen were a different type of worker – “supervisors.” After 1950, organized labor continued its attempts to expand the right to organize (Chapter 6). Their attempts were less successful as “knowledge workers” grew in numbers faster than production workers. Knowledge workers were harder to organize because their skills and responsibilities were less homogenous. At the end of his book, Vinel brings the reader up to date on the movement to expand the right to bargain collectively (Chapter 7). His discussion of the little-known Kentucky River Cases is eye-opening. In 2006, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that nurses acting as “charge nurses” have no substantive bargaining rights because they are supervisors not employees. While the case involved workers in a particular occupation, the decision could someday be applied to a much larger group of workers – as many as 8 million as estimated by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations at the time of the decision.

The book provides comprehensive coverage of the right to organize after the Civil War. Readers looking for an even more exhaustive coverage will surely find it in the footnotes of Vinel’s chapters. The book is good reading for labor historians; and, it should be read by those interested in industrial economics and the political economy of labor.

William Komiss, Senior Research Scientist with the Resource Analysis / Environment and Energy Team at CNA, is the author of Essays on the Temporary Help Industry: Origins and Tempnapping (VDM Verlag 2009).

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