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Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. (Reviews).

Bloodless Victories: The Rise and Fall of the Open Shop in the Philadelphia Metal Trades, 1890-1940. By Howell John Harris (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvii plus 456pp. $44.95).

Howell John Harris is a Reader in History at the University of Durham, England, who has been a prominent participant in American historical debates ever since he published The Right to Manage: Industrial Relations Policies of American Business in the 1940s (Madison, 1982). His basic objective in writing this account of Philadelphia's Metal Manufacturers Association (MMA) is to reveal how metal working firms around the United States defeated repeated efforts to unionize their workers and managed their personnel in the absence of union contracts. For most of American history, he argues, the vast majority of enterprises have operated in what would today be called a "union-free environment." The New Deal order, when terms negotiated with unions set norms that prevailed even where no unions existed lasted only from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s.

Historians have previously examined the "open shop drive," which was initiated by employers in Cincinnati in 1901 and subsequently spread throughout the country, primarily by studying the role of the judiciary and of large corporations in combating trade unions. Consequently, Harris' scrutiny of the unusually accessible and rich records of the association formed by Philadelphia foundry and machine shop owners in 1903 and which has survived in various guises until the present day, permits him to offer some extremely valuable insights into styles of industrial relations which prevailed in manufacturing cities around the country until the late 1930s.

Despite the fame of Clarence E. Bonnett, History of Employers' Associations in the United States (New York, 1956) and the fine account of the early decades of the American Iron and Steel Institute found in John N. Ingham, Making Iron and Steel: Independent Mills of Pittsburgh, 1820-1920 (Columbus, 1991), detailed studies of the coordinated labor policies of firms that did not rank among the nation's giants have been limited to the construction, garment, and bituminous coal industries, in all of which trade unions played conspicuous roles.

The MMA was formed by proprietary capitalists, who were closely bound to each other through kinship, social circles, and academic institutions. The city's largest metal-working enterprises rarely needed its services, and the smallest ones could seldom afford membership. The keys to its triumph over aggressive union campaigns of 1898-1903, 1910-16, and 1918-1922 were timely recessions, which provided skilled workers desperate for jobs, and the MMA's Labor Bureau, which screened and dispatched job applicants to its members, while providing acceptable workers ready access to employment.

Under the leadership of Morris Leeds and other (distinctively Philadelphian) Quaker manufacturers and working in close collaboration with Joseph H. Willits and other scholars from the Wharton School of Business, whose research was funded by the Rockefeller and other new foundations, the MMA cultivated welfare capitalism and employment stabilization among its members. It also actively encouraged public schools to produce the types of employees its members needed. It enthusiastically implemented codes of competition initiated by the National Recovery Administration, before vigorous unionizing efforts by its members' workers drove the MMA back to more belligerent activities and sent Quakers like Leeds and academics like Willits off to government service.

In Philadelphia proprietary firms with batch- and even custom-made production remained indispensable components in an economy that historians have more often discussed in terms of its corporate giants and mass production. Their persistence also leads Harris to conclude that the "deskilling" of labor in this century has been misleadingly overstated. All the firms who joined forces in the MMA relied heavily on all-around machinists and molders throughout the period under discussion and represented "'traditional' rather than 'modern' ways of organizing a business." (164) Harris is, however, overly contemptuous of the celebrated influence of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whom he treats as little more than a windbag, obsessed with fashioning the myth of his own importance (unlike, I would protest, the leaders of the MMA, who welcomed Taylor as a guest speaker and introduced various practices he advocated into their own firms--selectively to be sure).

This is not to say that Harris slights the importance of big business and of managerial reformers. Quite the contrary, he shows that Philadelphia companies like Cramp Ship and Midvale Steel not only were major customers for MMA enterprises, but also provided the decisive power in smashing union upsurges in 1910-11 and 1920-21. For all the contribution of the MMA to the recurrent war for the union-free "open shop," its members' corporate neighbors provided the heavy artillery. Moreover, the innovations of professional personnel management, which large firms designed for themselves, entered the practice of smaller proprietary firms through the initiatives of the MMA itself.

Harris' discussion of the Great Depression sharply challenges the view that New Deal reforms served primarily to restrain rank-and-file militancy, and incorporates state and local governments along with new federal agencies in his conception of the increasingly powerful state. It also underscores the importance of government actions in enabling tumultuous struggles in the work place to result in lasting changes in industrial relations. In sharp contrast to their experience in previous strike-filled epochs, MMA firms found in 193 8-9 that even under conditions of heavy unemployment, they could defeat a strike, only to discover that they were still obliged to negotiate with a union.

Harris reinforces his business history with excellent accounts of union strategies, ranging from the martial tactics of the Iron Molders local in the 1910s through the heroic but futile community mobilization of the 1920-21 Cramp Shipyard strike, to the United Electrical Workers' sophisticated manipulation of the union's relationship with Philco to bolster that union's triumph over the MMA's resistance in the 1930s.

Ultimately the MMA had no choice but to accommodate its practices to the new forces that had overwhelmed its resistance. It subsequently grew bigger than ever, still dominated by much the same type of firms, but it did so as a service organization, providing its members information and advice to help them negotiate with unions and lobby government bodies.
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Author:Montgomery, David
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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