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With May Day about a week away, it seems quite appropriate to write about labor’s most obvious opponent: employers and the politicians that serve them. It is these men and women who write and pass laws designed to ensure labor’s continued exploitation and the capitalist system’s persistent dominance. It is these men and women who tell working people that they are the backbone of their respective nations while they suck the marrow of their labor, always conspiring to weaken the position of labor and make it subject to the whims of profit and the greed of their market. Sometimes that exploitation is blatant, as in events like John Rockefeller’s massacre of women and children in the Ludlow, Colorado camp of striking mineworkers or the deaths by fire of textile workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911. More often, however, that exploitation is wrapped in silvery speeches expressing ideals of freedom and respect, patriotism and dignity and a shared sense of purpose between laborer and employer.
It is this latter approach that defines Chad Pearson’s 2015 book Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement. Pearson, a labor historian, takes a nuanced look at the anti-union movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States. The text examines four different cases of the open shop movement’s victories in four different regions of the United States. Three of those regions—Cleveland, Buffalo and Worcester, MA—were strong union towns when the open shop movement began its assault on labor unions. The fourth was the US South, never a place of union strength. In telling his story, Pearson adheres to his framing of the debate within the context of the professed American principles of individualism and merit. The details of his stories make it clear that, when this good cop effort to appeal to working people’s sense of pride and individual worth (and competitiveness), virtually every single employer called in strikebreakers (scabs), private security and the police. In other words, when the “good cop” approach failed, the “bad cops” were called in and told to bring their clubs and guns.
Today’s anti-union movement is a direct descendant of the one explored in Reform or Repression. Not only is the methodology the same, but the words spoken and written by corporate management and the supplicant media are almost verbatim. If anything, the captains of the current anti-union movements pretend even less that they are trying to help the worker attain some kind of freedom. Indeed, when combined with the campaign against raising the minimum wage, the exportation of jobs overseas, and the details of CEOs exorbitant salaries and bonuses, any pretense at concern for their US workers (or any of their workers, for that matter) is a joke. This text is a portrayal of an anti- worker movement overwhelmingly populated by company owners and management claiming to be in favor of the worker. By emphasizing individual workers over the working class, the capitalist class convinced other workers and citizens alike that nonunion workers were the true Americans and workers in unions were not. While demanding and cajoling workers into abandoning their organized unions, the employers organized into associations with a primary purpose being to break up unions. They did this by shipping scabs to each other’s workplaces, supporting politicians who agreed with their anti-Union philosophy and in at least one instance, arming strike breakers.
The scenarios Pearson examines point out some of the inherent contradictions of the political movement known as Progressivism. This movement is based on the idea that capitalism can be humane and take care of the greater good. As Pearson explains, the liberal proponents of the open shop described in his text seemed to genuinely believe their approach honored the individual worker and their work. Yet, when challenged by union men fighting for respect and decent pay as a class, the liberal factory owners joined with their reactionary brethren to quash the union. In any economic system that depends on the exploitation of those who labor in that system, this outcome is inevitable. When the bosses want to keep their profits and income high and the rising cost of materials conspires with the lower prices in the market due to increased competition, the difference must be made up on the backs of the laborers. This is the fundamental truth of capitalism. It is also why working people who are not organized as a class can never be certain their pay will not be reduced or their jobs will not be lost.
This basic reality of capitalism is why employers organized themselves to fight unions in the period Pearson discusses in his book. It is also why they organize today. Judicious in its exposition and unemotional in its approach, Reform or Repression is an essential book for those hoping to find a historical explanation for the anti-union sentiment always present in the workplace and political arenas of the United States. By examining its relationship to liberal and progressive politics, he has revealed some of the inherent contradictions in those political philosophies and the struggle of working people to organize for their wages and working conditions.