Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 335-336
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The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940
Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. By Howell John Harris (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 456pp. $44.95
In the academic division of labor, labor historians study unions and workers, business historians study employers and management, political historians study government and politics, and economic historians study technology and economic growth. Although many bemoan this compartmentalization, the knowledge and time needed to complete larger, more complete histories can be intimidating. Fortunately, a few brave souls try to construct a picture of the development of industrial and labor relations in an entire history. Harris joins this elite group, helping to set a new standard for history.
The focus of Harris' study is the development of an employer association, Philadelphia's Metal Manufacturers' Association (MMA). Many of the records of the MMA survived, and Harris began working with them in the early 1980s, after they were donated to Temple University. Supplementing these records with data on economic activity, labor militancy, [End Page 335] and political action, Harris tells of the MMA's rise from a late nineteenth-century "gentlemen's club" to a powerful anti-union association.
Defeating concerted campaigns to unionize the Philadelphia metal trades, the MMA led the campaign in Philadelphia for the "open" (or non-union) shop. From the early 1900s into the New Deal of the 1930s, the MMA successfully averted unionization. Providing innovative leadership for Philadelphia's employers, the MMA effectively seized control of the labor market in the skilled metal trades from the craft unions by establishing its own Labor Bureau to coordinate worker recruitment, and to provide a ready source for replacement workers during labor disputes.
Through the early 1920s, the MMA's story is standard fare. Proprietary owners fiercely resisted the unionization of their workers as an invasion of their family firm. But Harris shows how the MMA moved beyond this traditional anti-unionism during the 1920s, providing new insight into the development of bureaucratic labor relations and the growth of modern management. After World War I, the MMA briefly evolved into a progressive employer association, providing expanded personnel services to its members and encouraging the development of welfare capitalist programs, such as pensions and unemployment insurance. Moving away from simple anti-unionism, the MMA of the 1920s even tolerated collective bargaining while working with unions, as well as public-school and other government officials, to expand training and apprenticeship programs in Philadelphia's metal trades. This progressive turn came from the moral concerns of a few Quaker-born MMA activists to ameliorate unemployment and to raise wages; it was also driven by a more widely shared concern to reduce the costs of labor turnover and economize on the training and replacement of expensive human capital.
The MMA's progressive era was briefly interrupted by the Great Depression. Initially, the organization responded to the rising labor militancy of the 1930s with reborn anti-union militancy, spending more than ever before to hire thugs, spies, and lawyers to defeat unions. Against militant labor allied with a strongly pro-labor local and national governments, the MMA was forced to concede, and members accepted unionization. The MMA has survived by returning to the orientation of its progressive period. It operates as a service body providing expertise and lobbying services for its members and their personnel departments.
Harris integrates this labor history into broader concerns of business, economic, and political history, tracing the rise of the modern bureaucratically managed firm, the changing role of human capital in modern industrialization, and the impact of government regulation on the economy.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst