- Representation and Rebellion: The Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914-1942
On April 20, 1914, Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) guards set fire to a strikers' tent camp near Ludlow, Colorado, during the 1913-14 miners' strike. Eleven children and two women died in the blaze and three miners who surrendered were summarily executed shortly thereafter. The Ludlow Massacre, as the event came to be called, subsequently became one of the one most widely discussed events in all of American labor history. The Rockefeller family was the principal owner of CF&I, a vertically integrated industrial corporation that produced 30% of Colorado's coal, employed about one tenth of Colorado's work force, and ran the largest steel plant west of the Mississippi. For the Rockefellers, long vilified for their Standard Oil activities, this event was a public relations disaster.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had already started to take over much of the management of the family business from the family patriarch, the original John D., not only wanted to repair the family reputation, but also fancied himself as a humanitarian and Christian philanthropist. The following year, with much fanfare, the CFI instituted an Employee Representation Plan, popularly known as the Rockefeller Plan. Its creators hoped that The Rockefeller Plan would not only solve the labor relations problems at CF&I, but also serve as a model for an enlightened capitalist solution to the problem of class relations in modern American industry. Although some prominent observers praised the idea as visionary, the contemporary press tended to see the plan as a public relations ploy and a sham. Labor historians have almost universally agreed. Author Jonathan Rees argues, "the Rockefeller Plan does not fit attacks from the left [End Page 253] that denounce such arrangements, nor...praise Rockefeller's comparatively benevolent action...often elicits from the right. The total story is much more complicated...(xvi)." The author does not explicitly state the nature of this complexity, but his position appears to be that the truth lies somewhere between the two poles, a potentially plausible argument but one that doesn't strike me as especially complex.
The author acknowledges that CF&I officials maintained ultimate authority over all aspects of the plan as well as all details of daily company operation, that these officials were ideological anti-unionists who hoped the plan would undercut support for independent unions, and that a substantial portion of the CF&I workforce was committed to independent unions and actively opposed the plan. Nonetheless, Rees argues that the humanitarian desires of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and other program leaders were genuine, that the plan enjoyed real support among some segments of the workforce, that those who did participate successfully adjudicated grievances and improved safety and working conditions, and that company-provided public facilities and social services made life better in the company's most important towns. Workers who used the plan were better off than they would have been without it.
Support for the plan among CF&I employees appears to have been strongest in the plan's earliest years. In an initial employee authorization vote among Company miners, 2,404 voted yes while only 442 voted no, and 35% did not vote. The author's description of the voting process is not detailed enough to judge whether these yes votes in the company sponsored referendum constituted freely given consent, but the numbers do imply some level of support. Subsequent events demonstrate, however, that such support among coalminers must have been spotty. The UMWA claimed that 90% of the Company's miners maintained their membership in the UMWA. Company officials disputed that number but acknowledged that 50% of its miners probably were UMWA members, an extraordinarily high figure for a union without any bargaining rights or workplace presence in a region where miners' strikes had been repeatedly and violently suppressed and active unionists routinely blacklisted.
The Company's steel workers participated more actively...