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

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 303 pp., $55.

Chad Pearson’s book provides an alternative perspective on the growth of the anti-union movement in the US. Through studying employers’ associations and civic organizations, the author argues that the open shop movement not only involved conservative businessmen, but was also composed of a rather diverse group of citizens who thought of themselves as working in the progressive tradition.

In the US the question of class consciousness or the lack of it has been the subject of extended debate. There have been periods of heightened class consciousness in American history. During one such period, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) represented important insurgencies. Eugene Debs ran for president as a Socialist several times and garnered almost a million votes while he was in prison for resisting World War I. In addition, the prairie populist publication Appeal to Reason had a wide circulation in the Progressive Era.

Despite these outcroppings of dissent and protest, America was never ready, it was said, to embrace a class conscious Socialist alternative. This failure has been subject of much analysis ever since Werner Sombart, the German sociologist, published his book Why Is There No Socialism in the US? Sombart famously said that “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie socialistic Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom.” In short, when capitalism raised the standard of living of workers it was difficult to sustain class-based antagonism.

But the question of why socialism had difficulty winning the allegiance of Americans is much more complicated and involves many factors. These include: the importance of individualism in American society, the development of a consumer-based economy, the hold of craft unionism on workers’ consciousness, and the substitution by American employers of company-inspired social benefit programs. These factors, combined with the repression and deportation of radical immigrants during the post- World War I Red Scare, made it difficult for socialists to retain public support.

Responding to the question of Why No Socialism in America? is not easily confined to simple explanations or capitalist bromides. It is an intricate puzzle which requires a deep understanding of the intersection of race, class, gender, and immigrant status, and the role of ideology in marginalizing the appeal of socialist arguments. As Steven Fraser has argued in The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, there was a protracted struggle in the US to contain the appeal of radical alternatives. And by the time of the second Gilded Age, the capitalist class had basically won the social and cultural argument.

Chad Pearson’s present book adds an important piece to the puzzle by examining the options facing American business from the early twentieth century on. With a careful historian’s eye for detail, Pearson charts the course of American business in its effort to contain and control the appeal of unionism to American workers. In doing so, he sheds light on the consciousness of businessmen and their associations and demonstrates that they were confronted by a strategic choice: whether to coopt or repress the American labor movement. Of course they did both, depending on the level of working-class resistance.

Pearson’s case studies of employers’ anti-union measures in the South and in places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Worcester help to advance the discussion of employer agency and coordination. They demonstrate that social control was achieved through a complicated battle on social, cultural, political, and economic fronts.

Pearson gives historical background on the creation of the so-called “right to work” ideology, shedding light on its continuing appeal in the twenty-first century. Pearson is masterful in describing the landscape of political alternatives available to business and its supporters. He describes how their efforts to blunt union insurgencies were grounded in ideological appeals to the common good, individual rights, industrial progress, and virtuous citizenship.

In this admixture of ideological strains that sought to disrupt the creation of working-class consciousness, American business tested out ideological constructs which would bolster capitalist hegemony. It was not a simple process, but it would eventually manufacture consent among employers and some workers. Moreover, it would serve as a model which incorporated individualism and freedom, and fragmented the working class by stressing the value of the “practical” working man unencumbered by ideologies deemed un-American.

As Pearson remarks in the introduction, his employee-centered approach contributes to a greater understanding of “the dynamics of class relations, the rhetorical power of progressivism, and the workings of the era’s political economy.” The open shop movement developed by employer organizations appealed to “free” men who according to the theory should not be confronted by the pressures of labor organizations to join them in order to find work. Pearson selected Cleveland as one of the places to examine because he wanted to know how the open shop movement could thrive in a city with a progressive reputation. He found that the coalition behind the open shop movement contained not only businessmen but progressives, including journalists, academics, clergy, and former trade unionists, along with political figures who were interested in promoting a pro-growth coalition and stable civic organizations.

There were, of course, contradictory elements within this coalition, but proponents used the rhetoric of the progressive era to suggest that the coalition had the interests of working people in mind – not revealing that their real goal was to expand profits and extend social control. As Pearson suggests, many open shop advocates thought of themselves as reformers and saw themselves in the tradition of abolitionists, antimonopolists and promoters of peace (217).               

Yet, it was difficult for open shop reformers to attain consensus. For instance, the National Civic Federation, which tended to favor cooptation of workers, clashed with advocates for a much more hard-nosed and repressive approach. Many employers introduced the “American Plan” as a way of thwarting independent unions. Company unions, to the dismay of business, occasionally backfired and created cultures of solidarity among workers who eventually joined independent unions.

Despite their differences, employers had their eyes on the prize – avoiding unionization. Pearson’s account emphasizes that their definition of the common good was “a properly arranged society, one that valued the law, rewarded individual hard work, promoted workplace harmony, and honored America’s political history and institutions” (218). The goal was nothing short of reinforcing stability and avoiding class conflict. In promoting so-called “independent workmen” and in opposing the closed shop, employers sought to defuse conflict, expand their profits, and promote individual liberty.

In some cities the business-led strategy provided a viable alternative to independent unions and working-class solidarity. However, when the Great Depression hit the US, the hold of business ideology and the efforts of civic organizations were unable to dampen class conflict. Many of the same splits which business encountered in an earlier era emerged again, with some in the business community suggesting that President Franklin Roosevelt was a purveyor of socialism and others suggesting that he was a savior of capitalism.

The ideologies which the author argues were constructed during the period before the Great Depression didn’t disappear despite renewed class conflict. They were repackaged in the post-World War II era. As the author makes clear, the current wave of anti-unionists in the US who promote the so-called “right to work” stand on the shoulders of the original creators of the open shop ideology.

This book makes an impressive contribution to understanding the diverse roots of the open shop movement. By focusing on employers’ agency, the author has helped us see the crucial role of ideology in reproducing capitalist hegemony.

Reviewed by Peter Seybold
Dept. of Sociology

Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

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