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Commission on Industrial Relations Book reviews


Labor's Great War Review
Age of Industrial Violence Review
Age of Industrial Violence Review
Age of Industrial Violence Review
Age of Industrial Violence Review

Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921.

Review Author[s]:
Patrick D. Reagan

The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 59, No. 1. (Mar., 1999), pp. 239-240.

Between 1912 and 1921 economic, social, and political actors vied with one another struggling to define and implement differing versions of industrial democracy. Wartime mobilization proved a watershed not only in business-government relations, but also in labor relations. McCartin argues that "the growing crisis of workplace management, the transformation of the labor movement, and the rise of an increasingly powerful national state. . . allowed and encouraged Americans to recast the labor question around the demand for industrial democracy" (p. 4).

In ten well-crafted chapters, McCartin explains the creation and destruction of a fragile alliance among progressives led by Frank P. Walsh (chairman of the U. S. Commission on Industrial Relations, 1913-1915), conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) leaders, local union militants, and Wilsonian Democrats forged in the election of 1916. This alliance led to the creation of a series of labor agencies culminating in the National War Labor Board (NWLB) that briefly brought federal regulation, union organizing, collective bargaining, company unions, and enlightened management. While wartime conformity and postwar reaction set limits to this transformation, the debate over industrial democracy continued in later years as the privatized system of company unions and welfare capitalism in the 1920s, then was recast as collective bargaining and industrial unionism in the 1930s.

McCartin implicitly argues that wartime developments linked Progressive era new unionism and the mass production unionism of the 1930s. In chapters 1 to 3 he argues that Frank P. Walsh served as the central figure in anew labor-Democrat alliance that brought industrial democracy into the arena of public debate. Changing wartime economic conditions brought new hopes to workers on the job, while early in the war federal intervention both weakened managerial control and created new opportunities for union leaders. Well- turned case studies in chapters 4 and 5 show that workers' expectations about work, management, and democracy changed during the war. AFL leaders saw changing conditions as both an opportunity for growth and a threat to their own power. In unintended and unexpected ways, state intervention strengthened the hand of local militants while setting precedents for industrial unionism. Chapters 6 through 8 detail the limits of federal regulation and conservative union leadership in the steel and textile industries, the impact of postwar demobilization in destroying the labor coalition, and the shift from public debate during wartime to postwar privatization under control of business managers and industrial relations experts.

McCartin presents sophisticated description and analysis of the complicated debate among Wilsonians, craft unionists, progressives, militants, corporate managers such as Eugene Grace of Bethlehem Steel and Owen D. Young of General Electric, and the swing role played by NWLB chair William Howard Taft. Drawing on comprehensive research at the National Archives, Library of Congress, George Meany Archives, Hagley Museum and Library, newspapers, journals, union publications and convention proceedings, and government documents, McCartin presents fascinating portraits of not only such well known people as Felix Frankfurter, Samuel Gompers, and Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, but also lesser known individuals such as William H. Johnston, socialist president of the International Association of Machinists (lAM); Bridgeport, Connecticut lAM activist Samuel Lavit; Birmingham, Alabama steel organizer Ulysses Hale; northern steel union organizing directors John Fitzpatrick and William Z. Foster; Walsh assistants Basil Manly and W. Jett Lauck; and labor experts such as Otto S. Beyer, Meyer Bloomfield, Henry L. Gantt, William Leiserson, and W. L. Mackenzie King.

Most strikingly, McCartin successfully integrates business, labor, economic, political, and social history. Chapters are tightly organized, artfully written, logically developed, and coherently united as part of the broader interpretation. The epilogue notes the postwar ubiquity of "industrial democracy" as a term; the legacy for later developments such as a labor-Democrat coalition, new labor leaders, and rank and file unionism; and the implications of postwar privatization of labor management for both the 1920s and the contemporary interest in privatization models devoid of interest in workplace democracy. McCartin assumes that rank and file militancy in the key war-related industries of the metal trades, shipbuilding, coal mining, and copper necessarily represented all parts of the wartime economy. Although most of the wartime strikes and federal regulation occurred in these sectors, further research in non-war-related industries is needed before definitively concluding that the wartime period was a watershed in labor relations.

Superb scholarship raises as many questions as it answers: Labor's Great War suggests the need for more attention to the managerial perspective through company histories, biographies of key business leaders, and study of the new profession of industrial relations. While McCartin's political preferences among the congeries of historical actors come through clearly, he discusses the range of individuals, ideologies, and factions in the struggle to define industrial democracy sometimes left out of other accounts. This historically nuanced study-the new standard work on the subject--should serve as a model for future work by scholars of wartime America.

PATRICK D. REAGAN, Tennessee Technological University

Age of Industrial Violence 1910-1915: The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations; Labor and Liberty: The La Follette Committee and the New Deal

Review Author[s]:
Louis P. Galambos

The Business History Review, Vol. 41, No.2. (Summer, 1967), pp. 240-242.

Organized labor in America is now struggling with the problems of maturity. New ideas and more sophisticated techniques are needed if labor is to cope with automation and with the challenge of organizing the white collar worker. In the 1960's the problems of the unions are more subtle than they were in the days before World War II, when the very existence of labor organizations was continually threatened.

Historians who might be inclined to forget the earlier struggles of labor should read these two books, one on the period prior to World War I, the other on labor during the New Deal years. Both studies began as doctoral dissertations under the direction of Professor William Leuchtenburg of Columbia University. Both approach the general subject of industrial relations hy looking at a particular government investigation.

Graham Adams, Jr., has actually given us two-books-in-one: as his title indicates, he has written a study of an Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-1915; as his sub-title tells us, he has also done an analysis of The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations. His treatment of the Commission is excellent; his research is thorough; his analysis convincing. This is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of these years of progressive reform. His examination of the age of violence is, however, much weaker; it unfortunately raises many more questions than it answers.

How characteristic of the period was industrial violence? Since the Commission concentrated its attention on violent episodes, one would hardly expect to find in its hearings a balanced account of labor-management relations. In a series of chapters devoted to specific areas of conflict which the Commission studied, the author does nothing to correct this image. He chooses not to place these episodes in a larger historical context which would include the peaceful relations and the moderate attitudes which were characteristic of organized labor in this country. The author says that he was not looking at these encounters "as studies in economic history," but then he concludes that "turbulence in industrial relations flared all over the United States" (p. 228). Most readers will undoubtedly enjoy and learn from each of Adams' carefully researched and well-written vignettes: of the Colorado mine battles, the San Francisco bombings, etc. Few, however, will accept his general conclusions about the so-called age of violence.

The author's history of the Commission itself is excellent. He analyzes with great care the original legislation, the appointments, the development of the final reports, and the feuds within the group. As he shows, the Commission provided a training ground for public-minded citizens who later had an important effect upon American labor policy. The Commission's hearings and reports influenced the passage of such labor legislation as the Adamson Eight-Hour Act. This was a subject which deserved the research and balanced appraisal it has received in this study.

Jerold S. Auerbach's Labor and Liberty: The La Follette Committee and the New Deal is a far better book because, for one thing, the author has focused more carefully upon the investigating committee that he is investigating. The La Follette Committee's probe into labor relations and civil liberties (defined as those liberties associated with constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and belief) produced a wealth of data on the means by which employers resisted unionization. Its investigations came at a crucial turning point (1936-1940) for both labor and management in America. Auerbach places this important Committee and its work against a general historical background which involves three major themes: first, the function of investigating committees in the American system of government; second, the development of federal concern for civil rights and liberties; and third, the progress of the labor movement, particularly during the New Deal years.

The author gives considerable attention to the findings of the La Follette group, and he never lets his reader forget that the Committee had a strong bias. One of the most impressive features of the book is the fair-minded way in which the author examines the committee's handling of evidence and questioning of witnesses. Although one senses that Auerbach has strong liberal sympathies, it is apparent that he has presented an objective account of the committee's work. He fully explores the touchy subject of Communist influence. The evidence, he says, points "unerringly toward the conclusion that Communists sought and secured places on the La Follette Committee staff." He concludes that: "With a nucleus of at least half a dozen staff members sympathetic to Communist Party Doctrine, it is not surprising that incidents were selected, witnesses chosen, and reports drafted that stressed the theme of class warfare and placed responsibility for it squarely on the shoulders of American capitalists" (p. 169).

Despite this bias, the Committee's findings can certainly not be ignored; the investigation uncovered widespread violations of the workers' civil liberties. By working hand in glove with the NLRB and the CIa, the La Follette team was able to produce abundant evidence of management's violent and illegal efforts to prevent unionization. Until the Wagner Act was sustained by the courts and widely accepted by management, the kind of pressure that was exerted by this Committee was needed in order to protect the workers and to push business leaders toward an accommodation with the unions. In his final chapter the author suggests that "the New Deal .left a glowing civil liberties record which has not received the plaudits it deserves" (p. 216). After reading this book, historians will, I think, correct that interpretation.

Auerbach has given us an outstanding study of this investigation. The book is solidly based on a wealth of manuscript sources and secondary materials. It is extremely well-written and bears none of the blemishes of the customary doctoral dissertation. The author's judgment is restrained, his analysis subtle and probing. He has given us a valuable book on an important and heretofore neglected subject.

Age of Industrial Violence 1910-1915: The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations.

Review Author[s]: George W. Brooks

Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 20, No.4. (Jul., 1967), pp. 712-714.

Labor Organizations

Here is happy evidence that a high level of scholarship is not inconsistent with a high degree of readability. Graham Adams has organized a vast amount of material about industrial relations in the period just before the First World War, some of it new, much of it from difficult sources. The problems of selection and organization in this intrinsically interesting book must have been extremely difficult, and Adams has done well with them. Part of his success is due to the wise choice of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations as a coordinating theme.
The detailed accounts of some of the major labor disputes of the period cover familiar ground but are well told. These include the bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building; the Paterson, New Jersey silk strike, led by the IWW; the strike of the New York City garment workers; the struggles between the railroad shopmen and the Illinois Central and Harriman lines; and the bitter struggle at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, where the Ludlow Massacre occurred. Other disputes of the period are touched upon more briefly. One of the most interesting incidents concerns the single foray of the Commission into the South: an investigation of the plight of the tenant farmers in Texas. This was a brief and isolated incident, however, as southern Democratic congressmen and senators were able to prevent further investigations of the kind.

The description of the Commission contains a good deal of hitherto unpublished material. There is a careful account of the reasons for its creation, of the political forces at work, and of some of its own inner workings, all of which makes fascinating reading. The role played by Chairman Frank P. Walsh is carefully described. There is also a description of the work of the Commission's research division. headed by Charles McCarthy, which is a noteworthy chapter in the history of research in support of public policy. For many readers, the dispute between Walsh and McCarthy over the function of research may seem more dramatic than the strikes, which are the main theme of the book. McCarthy gathered into the Research Division an astonishing array of talent including, among others, W. Jett Lauck, Basil Manly, Robert F. Hoxie, George Creel, Sumner Slichter, Selig Perlman, Leo Wolman, Paul Brissenden, Edward A. Fitzpatrick, and David J. Saposs. John R. Commons was a member of the Commission.

Adams attributes to the Commission a substantial role in the determination of subsequent labor relations policy in the United States. It cannot be denied that the Commission received an enormous amount of publicity and that it focussed attention upon serious malfunctions in the American economy. Since Frank P. Walsh later became cochairman, with William Howard Taft, of the War Labor Board during World War I, it may be assumed that some of the ideas developed in the Commission found their way into national policy. But it is an exaggeration to assume that the Commission was the principal, or even a major, cause of subsequent developments and to attribute to it, as the author does, the development of "a more steeply graduated tax structure, promotion of collective bargaining, minimum wage scales, and the eight hour day... ."

The Commission, made up of labor, business, and public representatives, was unable to agree on any report or recommendations and, in fact, issued three separate reports. The effects of the group are of course hard to trace, but there is nothing in this volume which would support the view that the Commission ever had the importance of the La Follette or McClellan Committees, to give two examples. The effectuation of changes in national policy are better achieved through legislative inquiry than through presidential commissions.

Nor does violence, as such, appear to have the significance suggested by the title or the introduction. There is no doubt that American industry was going through a series of rapid and difficult changes in the period before World War I, with violence as one aspect of this change. But there is in the study a little too much of the "scare" of the period; a little too much acceptance of the tone of some of the contemporary publications that the nation was about to be engaged in "class war" on a large scale. From our present vantage point, this seems to have been a false estimate of the events of the time.

Whether or not the Commission was important, as the author suggests, in the development of subsequent national policy, there is no doubt that this work is excellent background for an understanding of contemporary labor-management relations.

George W. Brooks
New York State School of
Industrial and Labor Relations Cornell University

Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-15: The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations

Review Author[s]:
David Montgomery

Technology and Culture, Vol. 8, No.2. (Apr., 1967), pp. 234-237.

Investigation of industrial violence by agencies of the federal government was something of a tradition by the time Congress authorized the appointment of a Commission on Industrial Relations in 1912. Since the abortive effort to create a comparable body in 1871, furthermore, congressional supporters of such surveys had been spurred on by the vision of votes that might accrue to "friends of labor" just as congressional foes had dreaded the exposure of industrial practices within their own constituencies. In the Hewitt committee hearings of 1878-79, the three-year study of the Blair committee which ended in 1886, and the probe conducted by President McKinley's Industrial Commission, partisan concerns made such questions as the tariff and the currency overshadow both the conditions revealed and the panaceas so often proposed by witnesses. The uniqueness of the efforts of the Commission on Industrial Relations between 1913 and 1915 lay in its staff of Wisconsin-trained experts and in the steadfast refusal of its nine members to allow any diversion of their attention from immediate problems of industrial relations. These very qualities paradoxically imparted to the commission a political significance greater than that of all previous investigations combined, for out of its work emerged both a labor program for the Democratic party in 1916 which shattered the narrow limits of its 1912 platform and, through the minority report of John R. Commons and Mrs. J. Borden Harriman, a series of proposals that were to become widely infused into the welfare capitalism of the 1920's.

Age of Industrial Violence relates the career and the findings of this commission with the drama and the fury they deserve and thereby makes an indispensable contribution to the political and social history of the Progressive Era. The sensational 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building and the subsequent trial of the McNamara brothers provoked Congress to create the new commission as the living embodiment of the Progressive illusion that class conflict could be healed by a fearless pursuit of truth. But the evidence of the hearings seemed only to substantiate James McNamara's post-trial conclusion: "You see? . . . The whole damn world believes in dynamite." From Wheatlands, California, and the timber fields of the Northwest, across Ludlow, Colorado, through the tenant-farmed regions of east Texas, to Patterson's silk mills, Philadelphia's transit lines, and New York's garment district came repression by police, judicial, and military agencies, which envisaged themselves as the defenders of society's "good people." And in each case but Philadelphia, where the public as a whole was irate over the general conduct of the transit company, the "good people" in turn indorsed the repression. Small wonder that in all these strikes, and above all in the sanguinary three-year conflict on the Illinois Central Railroad, workers simply took the law into their own hands.

The commission's members were intellectually unprepared for what they encountered. Their common faith that the interests of America's various social classes were basically harmonious was jolted by their discovery of unmistakable class conflict on a nationwide scale and involving native Americans as fully as it did recent immigrants. This revelation provoked a three-way division in the ranks of the commissioners themselves. At the conclusion of the hearings one report was issued by the three business representatives, one by Commons and Mrs. Harriman, and still a third by Chairman Frank P. Walsh and the three labor-union officials. Not only had fearless pursuit of truth failed to harmonize society, the pursuers could not even agree on what the truth was.

Despite the great value in Adams' account of this period, he leaves the reader with many fruitful ideas suggested but not developed. In part this shortcoming arises from the fact that the book is organized around a body of evidence rather than a problem. The years 1910-15 formed the period of the commission's career, but they were not distinct from contiguous years in any other respect. True, the industrial violence of these years eased off somewhat during wartime, but 1916 saw a general strike threatened in Pittsburgh and one called in New York, and 1919-21 produced the most extensive and bloody wave of strikes in the nation's history. The year 1915, in other words, marked the end not of the "age of industrial violence" but only of the commission investigating that violence.

Second, the author makes no effort to explain the social antagonisms he describes so well. Clearly these were not years like the 1860's and 1870's when the labor force was rebelling against its initial encounter with industrial discipline, nor was labor's standard of living falling. Quite the contrary, both money and real wages rose perceptibly during the first two decades of this century.

The novel element, the driving force behind labor's rebellion and business' adamant refusal to make concessions in this period, I find in management's crusade to rationalize production and supervision. Frederick Winslow Taylor and a host of less estimable efficiency experts were then spreading everywhere the gospel of scientific management. While their teachings promised improved earnings and working conditions for employees, they were predicated on absolute management control of the work situation. Collective bargaining and, above all, union work rules were for these missionaries of efficiency only anachronistic impediments to progress. The multiple-loom system in Patterson's silk mills and the piecework system in the Illinois Central repair shops, like young Rockefeller's continued refusal to recognize the United Mine Workers at Ludlow even after the "massacre" and the commission hearings had induced him to initiate the welfareoriented Colorado Industrial Plan, all manifested business' assumption that efficient production presupposes total managerial control. The emergence of the science of management elevated this assumption to a creed. Before the commission, spokesmen of the Illinois Central characterized their resistance to the proposed "systems federation" of workers in shop crafts as a defense of scientific management and of the public's interest in economically operated railroads. Like Colorado Fuel and Iron, the railroad spokesmen depicted themselves as the "Progressives" and the unions as reactionary selfish interest groups.

The implicit link between scientific management and Progressive reforms has been explored ably by Samuel Haber in Efficiency and Uplift and Milton Nadworny in Scientific Management and the Unions. The inevitable collision between trade unions and the new cult of efficiency was best explained at the very time of the commission's work by Robert F. Hoxie in his classic Trade Unionism in the United States. But Adams perceives the relationship of the new management practices to the violence of the age only dimly. In passing he describes Hoxie's Scientific Management as "by far the most important single book that emanated from the Research Division" of the commission, but neither the insights of that book nor the revelations of Haber and Nadworny supply significant aspects of Graham Adams' analysis. The intransigence of both labor and capital, behavior that the spread of scientific management made wholly reasonable on both sides, appears in Age of Industrial Violence simply as the nocturnal clash of "ignorant armies."

Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-15: The Activities and Findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations

Review Author[s]:
Joseph G. Rayback

The Journal of American History, Vol. 53, No.3. (Dec., 1966), pp. 630-631.

In December 1911, as the McNamara case was drawing to a close in Los Angeles, the editors of Survey published a symposium on industrial relations. The contributors-intellectuals, businessmen, and labor leadersagreed on one point: the confrontation of capital and labor in previous years had revealed that the nation was on the verge of a violent social upheaval; something needed to be done about it. A conference of social reformers thereupon petitioned President Taft to establish a commission to conduct a searching inquiry into industrial relations in order that the problems involved could be solved "along democratic lines." Taft bought the idea and secured the necessary legislation.

Adams' analysis of the efforts of the reformers, the American Federation of Labor, the railway brotherhoods, the National Civic Federation, the National Association of Manufacturers, various senators, and Edward M. House to influence the membership of the commission is a revealing lesson in pressure politics. Confirmation of Taft's proposed commission, named after the election of 1912, was blocked by the Democrats. President Wilson's commission, headed by Franklin P. Walsh, had a more liberal bias.

The major portion of the book is an account of the backgrounds and activities and thinking involved in five major episodes investigated by the Commission: the Los Angeles Times dynamiting of 1910, the Paterson strikes of 1911-1913, the garment workers' strikes in New York City in 1909-1910, the shopmen's strikes on the Illinois Central in 1911-1915, and the coal conflict in the Rockefeller empire of Colorado in 1913. He also includes several less important conflicts. All were characterized by violence and brutality, by a total disregard of workers' civil rights, and by signs of deep class antagonisms.

Others have written on all these events before. What makes this book
different and significant is the quality of the research and writing. The work is based largely on the hitherto neglected and voluminous testimony presented before the Commission, on publications of the Commission's staff, and upon previously unused manuscript collections and a wide variety of newspapers. The documentation is more thorough than anything done before. Adams' writing is dispassionate, highly lucid, and spritely. Moreover, he has mastered the fine and dying art of letting contemporaries speak for themselves by integrating well selected and illuminating quotations into his own writing. Undoubtedly his work will supplant all previously published accounts on the same subjects.
The book concludes with an analysis of the controversy within the Commission over the Final Report, which was signed by only four of the nine commissioners. The Report emphasized four points causing unrest: unjust distribution of wealth and income, denial to workers of an opportunity to make a living, denial of workers' constitutional rights by employers and authorities, and denial of workers' right to organize. The Report influenced the decisions of the War Labor Board and the authors of New Deal labor legislation.

Adams has produced a most notable addition to the growing list of monographs in labor history.
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