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Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000) 400-404

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Book Review

Industrial Democracy in the U.S.

Ruth O'Brien

Joseph A. McCartin. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998). Pp. 303. $49.95 cl., $18.95 pb.

Jeffrey Haydu. Making American Industry Safe for Democracy: Comparative Perspectives on the State and Employee Representation in the Era of World War I. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). Pp. 261. $49.95 cl., $21.95 pb.

McCartin's Labor's Great War and Haydu's Making American Industry Safe for Democracy both make important contributions to the growing literature on industrial democracy and the American labor movement. Historian McCartin provides a particularly vivid account of labor conflicts over industrial democracy in the steel and textile industries during World War I. Haydu, a sociologist, offers a more theoretical perspective on industrial democracy, which he terms employee representation.

Both McCartin and Haydu maintain that insurgency played an integral role in shaping wartime labor policy during World War I, but their approaches diverge substantially. For McCartin, industrial democracy became an integral part of the collective bargaining process by transcending the issue of class and being accepted as part of the American political culture. Haydu, by contrast, contends that class matters. Without the struggles of the working class, he suggests, the idea of the employee representation would not have been so deeply embedded in collective bargaining.

McCartin opens Labor's Great War by placing this vague, abstract, and yet significant term "industrial democracy" in historical context. He credits its formulation to Frank Walsh, who headed the U.S. Commission on Industrial [End Page 400] Relations (1913-15). For Walsh, industrial democracy rested on the belief that political freedom must be accompanied by a type of economic democracy that would give workers some control over the workplace.

Walsh's conception of industrial democracy changed over time, however, given the influence of three other political developments that McCartin identifies. First, although the American Federation of Labor and the Democrats developed a close relationship during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson's commitment to the AFL and the newly established Labor Department was not without reservation. Second, Wilson's trepidation manifested itself when he sought legislative solutions to end labor conflicts and strife. Finally, an alliance among progressive labor leaders, nonrevolutionary radicals, and liberal Democrats who supported Wilson's candidacy in 1916 made industrial democracy viable by the time the United States entered the Great War, though only one incarnation of it was partially realized.

According to McCartin, Walsh, AFL labor leaders, and Brandeisian progressives, among others, brought different versions of industrial democracy into the public policymaking arena. In contrast to Walsh's vision of industrial democracy, the AFL used this term to advance the fundamental idea behind collective bargaining--that workers should have the right to join bonafide labor unions. It was the AFL, he argues, that gained the upper hand and advanced its perception of what form the federal involvement should take.

While McCartin suggests that the wartime labor crisis of 1917 heightened expectations about industrial democracy, this climate was not long-lasting. As early as January 1918, the federal government's war labor program fell apart, and with it organized labor's hopes for industrial democracy. What is more, McCartin acknowledges that many employers initiated a union-busting campaign to reduce the number of workers that had been unionized during the war. This open-shop campaign was very successful in the 1920s.

McCartin then explains how what he calls profound changes in labor policy had such a negligible impact on the postwar policy. To do so, he reviews three union drives in the steel and textile industries. Underscoring the peculiarities of each drive, McCartin maintains that federal intervention in organized labor did make industrial-union initiatives possible in steel and textiles and laid the groundwork for mass unionism.

What followed these drives, however, was not more unionization but company-sponsored unionism. As demobilization caused the...


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