Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement by Chad Pearson (review)
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Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement. By Chad Pearson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. viii, 303. $55.00 cloth; $55.00 ebook)

Compared to the scholarship on the labor movement, work analyzing the employer side of the struggle is scarce, especially for [End Page 109] the pre-New Deal era. Chad Pearson’s valuable monograph on the formative period of organized employer resistance provides rich detail on the protagonists, strategies, rhetoric, and efficacy of the anti-union campaigns instigated by the employer organizations that emerged in the late Gilded Age and the Progressive era.

The heart of the book consists of four case studies exploring cities and individuals in the Northeast, Midwest, and South. The local-level focus underlines the diversity and potency of employer responses; as Pearson points out, the most searing impacts of the era’s confrontations were felt locally. At the same time, Pearson demonstrates how these local confrontations fit into a broader pattern linked to the growth of anti-union employer organizing. Local employers benefited from the strikebreaking expertise and non-union labor supply provided by national organizations; they drew inspiration from examples of other employers’ resistance to unions; and they added their own inflections to the anti-union movement. Connecting the local and national levels is one of the main strengths of Pearson’s study: it lays bare the replication of employer strategies in multiple localities and highlights how the local-national linkages wove a powerful network against previously successful unions.

Beyond how and why employers won specific local battles, Pearson also aims to understand how employers shaped and participated in the Progressive era’s broader reform ethos. The battle cry of these employers was the “open shop”—a workplace that purportedly employed union members and nonmembers on equal terms rather than acquiescing to the unions’ demands for a “closed,” union-members-only workplace. In the two chapters that preface the case studies, Pearson argues that this emphasis on individual liberty and fairness linked the employers’ efforts to the reform spirit of the Progressive era and reverberated in how some of the era’s most prominent intellectuals assessed labor union praxis.

Throughout, Pearson pays careful attention to the materiality and specificity of the stories he tells, drawing on research conducted in multiple archives as well as local histories and biographical compendia [End Page 110] to provide us with a wealth of detail about the individuals, companies, and towns forming the setting and subjects of the book. Pearson uncovers many mouthwatering tidbits, but the book sometimes leaves one wishing that more analysis would have gone into these morsels, perhaps transforming them into satisfying meals. For example, we learn that before he joined the employer-led crusade “for the protection of the common people” from unions, the “crusading vigilante lawyer” Wilbur F. Sanders defended Montana’s Chinese residents against the anti-Chinese agitation of the labor movement (pp. 67–68). And in perhaps the most original chapter of the book, we are told that as a boy, the future anti-union leader N. F. Thompson had witnessed the Civil War and had induced the breakdown of labor discipline among the slaves on his father’s plantation, “forcing [him] to come to terms with the labor problem a decade before” most of his northern counterparts (p. 187). Such stories throw a fascinating sidelight on the sometimes unexpected contexts of the employer antiunion crusade—but what exactly should we make of them?

Overall, this work is a welcome analysis of actors who have received too little scrutiny in proportion to the “tremendous amount of authority over the lives of millions of people” they wielded—and continue to wield (p. 2). Particularly helpful is Pearson’s insistence that the impact of the employer movement reached beyond the manufacturing belt into the South and West and beyond the factory into the discourse of the Progressive era, with repercussions echoing down to our own day. [End Page 111]

Vilja Hulden

VILJA HULDEN teaches history at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She is currently finishing a manuscript on employer organizations, the idea of the closed shop, and democratic governance.