- Citizen Employers: Business Communities and Labor in Cincinnati and San Francisco, 1870-1916
Jeffrey Haydu has written a well-researched and thought-provoking study of class formation, labor relations, and upper class civic life in Cincinnati and San Francisco during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He describes the key differences between employers in these two cities, drawing distinctions between the open shop (anti-union) policies practiced by Cincinnati's business community and the more accommodationist strategies embraced by San Francisco's businessmen. While employers in Cincinnati challenged the legitimacy of trade unions and strongly opposed collective bargaining, those in San Francisco, responding to a powerful labor movement, adopted what Haydu calls "practical corporatism" to deal with "responsible" union leaders (4). Like other scholars of organized employers and labor relations, including Philip Scranton, Daniel R. Ernst, and Howell J. Harris, Haydu focuses chiefly on "proprietary firms of modest scale," noting that they "dominated both local economies" (7).
What explains the differences between Cincinnati and San Francisco? In Haydu's view, one must look beyond the shop floor and the picket line to understand fully why these two communities of employers drew different conclusions about how best to approach the so-called labor problem. In Cincinnati, businessmen's collective identities were shaped in large part by their dislike of political corruption, high taxes, and the March 1884 Court House riot, a three-day-long melee that resulted in the courthouse's destruction, hundreds of injuries, and fifty-four deaths. The rioters were disappointed that the jury convicted William Berner of the relatively lenient charge of manslaughter for killing his boss. Cincinnati's civic-minded businessmen were shocked by the rebellion, viewing it as the ultimate threat to order and respectability. In the years following this event, they associated most displays of working class protests and union activities with challenges to what Haydu calls "good citizenship" (16). [End Page 411] Sensitive to public relations, they leveled several complaints against unionists, insisting that they were unruly outside agitators interested in provoking class conflict.
While Cincinnati's employers saw no appropriate place for organized labor in the city, San Francisco's mid-sized business leaders, in Haydu's words, regarded unions "as natural expressions of class interests" (121). San Francisco was exceptional for several reasons: the city was home to a strong labor movement, a divided business community, and anti-Chinese racism that united proprietary capitalists with politically moderate trade unionists. Both held the belief that Chinese laborers "lowered labor standards in the city" (114). Together, they denounced the larger firms for hiring the mutually despised Chinese. This white, cross-class alliance ended in the 1910s. An increasingly militant union movement, climaxing in a major waterfront strike in 1916, marked the end of "San Francisco Exceptionalism." During this decade, growing numbers of San Francisco's employers headed open shop workplaces ("open shop" defined as a company or factory for which employment is not restricted to a particular trade union membership).
Throughout his study, Haydu de-centers the era's influential employers' associations, including the National Metal Trades Association (NMTA), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and local groups. In his view, organizations that addressed broad social and economic concerns, not merely labor relations, were most significant in shaping the views of businessmen and building upper class unity. He stresses the importance of civic events, such as volunteer and philanthropic activities, over labor relations.
Readers may disagree with some of Haydu's judgments. First, some may question why he gives so much weight to Cincinnati's 1884 Court House riot. While the riot was undoubtedly important in influencing the views and actions of the city's businessmen, one cannot help but wonder about the specific ways in which other examples of plebian protests, including strikes, boycotts, and union organizing campaigns, influenced their approach to labor matters. The riot was clearly a critical event, but was it the critical event that forced businessmen to think about threats from below...