- Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement by Chad Pearson
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016; 303 pages. $55.00 (hardcover), ISBN 9780812247763.
When I first began my job at the City University of New York, I was amazed that the university had such a strong and influential union. It seemed like a throwback to another time that I had only seen movies about. I found myself actually attending meetings and becoming involved in a heated union battle over faculty salaries that had gone unraised for six years. The union threatened to strike, and I found myself in the strange position of having to sign on to the strike or not. My surprise at the health of the union is probably the experience of many in academia—one of the few remaining strongholds for labor. Yet organized labor, even in academia, has dwindled to a few strong unions located in the few remaining truly progressive states. The weakening of labor has a long and little-told history that spans almost a century and a half. In his book Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement, Chad Pearson lays out the beginning of this history and the roots of why unions seem like such strange things to so many U.S. citizens, and entities so few of them are a part of. Pearson structures the book into two sections that describe the national anti-labor movement, as well as individual regions’ fights against labor organizing. The root of the anti-union legislation we see as the status quo now began, in Pearson’s telling, with the Open-Shop Movement, an ideological and calculated plan to shift power from the worker to the shop owner at whatever the cost.
Reform and terror. These words describe the intense period of reform from 1890 to 1917. Chad Pearson describes this period of reform as one in which citizens were obsessed with issues of vice, corruption, food and water [End Page 190] safety, and alcohol. When the period came to an end “the state responded to the most aggressive examples of working-class combativeness and acts of sabotage with arrests, and sometimes even executions” (1). The Open-Shop Movement, Pearson explains, was the product of this age of contrasts. This was the era of reform in both public and private life. Reformers wanted to get alcohol out of the private lives of those they saw most prone to abuse it, and the same reformers wanted labor protections for women and children. However, this period was also defined by “immigrant anarchists, western miners, and socialists of various stripes” who were revolution inclined (1). So much of the history of this period has focused on the progressive reforms that Pearson saw the need to write about “an often overlooked and under-explored group, employers and their allies” who “helped shape this period of contrasts” (1–2). The closed shop, a workplace in which all workers were part of a union, became a common arrangement for a lot of working people at the beginning of the twentieth century. Employers came to feel at this time that their power was threatened by “labor trusts—the term employers and their allies used to describe . . . subversive unions that demanded recognition and collective bargaining rights” (2). Their response was the open shop, “workplaces run by employers who refused to recognize or negotiate with labor unions” (3).
The troubling aspect that Pearson uncovers in the book is the success of the Open-Shop Movement to instill in “public opinion” that “the open-shop principle . . . constituted a fundamentally fair, progressive, economically sound, and ultimately American alternative to the closed shops” (7). Employers who supported open shops deployed this sort of rhetoric and went so far as advertising themselves as “progressive employers” (7). Pearson’s first two chapters focus on the nationwide movement to instill in the public imagination the idea that open shops were “a force for good.” One can easily see this rhetoric as a precursor to the arguments for right-to-work legislation and the arguments that unions keep “bad” employees from...