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Unions' struggle to survive goes beyond modern technology.

Unions' struggle to survive goes beyond modern technology

The men who gathered at the Druids Hall on South High Street in Columbus, OH, on December 7, 1886, to form the American Federation of Labor were hardly the types of workers one would encounter at a union meeting today. The majority were cigarmakers, carpenters, tailors, granite cutters, and representatives of other crafts that were central to the late 19th century economy. Missing, of course, were the auto workers, airline pilots, electricians, teachers, and other workers characteristic of the late 20th-century economy and the modern labor movement. The contrast between 1886 and 1986 is a commentary on the role of materials, machines, and physical and intellectual skills, in short the role of technology, in shaping the economy and the union's function in that economy.

Few notions about modern economic life are more common than the assumption that technological change has been and will be a critical element in economic progress. Few prospects are more chilling to late 20th-century Americans than a stagnant technology and all that it implies. Yet technology has been and will continue to be the proverbial double-edged sword, creating dangers as well as opportunities. This pattern is no less true for the labor movement than for other institutions. The history of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) is, among other things, the history of the often uneasy relationship between workers and machines.

In the 1890's, at a time when the linotype machine was displacing hand typesetters and undermining the Typographical Union, AFL President Samuel Gompers conferred with the union's president. Gompers recalled their conversation: ". . . I talked through the problem with [him], urging him strongly to advocate a policy of not opposing laborsaving machinery, but to plan so that the workman could control the use of the machine through the union instead of permitting the machine to control the printers . . .'1 Although he was talking about a specific innovation, Gompers came close to summarizing the relationship between technological change and the labor movement over the past century. His observation is an appropriate starting point for an assessment of that relationship.

For the last two centuries of industrial revolution, technological change has swept aside countless established and seemingly vital skills, and the occupations that are their marketplace expressions, and created a multitude of new skills and occupations. The process has been highly unpredictable and frequently cuts across social class and status. Buggy manufacturers suffered no less than their employees after the advent of the automobile; silent picture stars no less than theater musicians after the advent of talking films. Although lasters, mule skinners, and glass bottle blowers faced declining markets for their skills in the early 1900's, laborers, the majority of workers, enjoyed an ever-widening range of opportunities as machine operators. Today's specialized workers face similar challenges, while others are positioned to take advantage of the new technologies of the late 20th century.

Institutions react

Yet it is possible to make sense of these events if we keep Gompers' observation from the 1890's in mind. A conspicuous development in economic life over the past century has been the discovery by leaders of a variety of institutions of ways to manage the changes that are an inevitable and desirable feature of a healthy economy. In industry, the most important tactic for achieving this end has been systematic scientific and engineering research. Economists' studies have shown a strong and persuasive link between such activity and corporate perpetuity.2 In this century, research has become a key to the generation of new ideas, new technologies and, ultimately, new goods and services. Research is a way to manage technological change.

Such strategies have by no means been confined to business. Among the early leaders of the AFL, a similar goal motivated similar efforts. For union leaders, the management of technological change was actually much easier. It did not require large investments, laboratories, scientists, or other hallmarks of the modern high technology company. For the workers, common sense, a little imagination, and an understanding of the economy were sufficient.

In Union Policies and Industrial Management, Sumner Slichter identified three common union responses to technological change: obstruction, competition, and control.3 The meaning of obstruction is self-evident. By union competition, Slichter meant wage reductions or other concessions that made an old technology competitive with a new technology; by control, the type of approach that Gompers had urged on the printers. Obstruction and competition were short-run palliatives. If pursued for extended periods, they would almost certainly lead to the decline or demise of the organization. While obstruction and competition were important and often valuable strategies for individuals, control was the only viable strategy for an organization. Like most commentators on the relationship of technology and labor, Slichter perceived his subject too narrowly, as a new machine or process that threatened a worker, occupational group or union, and the control strategy as an adjustment in bargaining demands, work rules, and the like. For that reason, his work has limited applicability for the larger history of technological innovation and union policy. Nevertheless, it does pinpoint the strategy that enabled alert union leaders to cope with technological change.

During the first half of this century, craft unionism--the unionism most vulnerable to technological innovation-- gave way to craft-industrial and multi-industrial unionism. There were 28 craft unions in 1915-20 percent of all unions--and only 12--or less than 10 percent of the total-- in 1940.4 Thus, well before the craft-industrial debate reached its celebrated climax, before the appearance of the CIO and the era of dual federations, the issue of craft unionism had been settled. With few exceptions, like today's professional athletes, the craft approach was a formula for institutional suicide.

Union adaptation

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners provide a classic case of successful adaptation. After 1904, the Carpenters' motto became "One craft, one organization.' What did "one craft' mean? In effect, anything that the Carpenters' leaders wanted it to mean. Between 1902 and 1915, they embraced all woodworking industries. After 1915, they went even further. The "essence' of their approach, writes their most perceptive historian, was "a planlessness that left them free, highly mobile, and ready to pounce on any craft intruding on their jurisdiction. . . .'5

Another example was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Electric power created a series of new industries and skills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The industries overlapped; the skills were often ill-defined. No one could tell what changes the future would bring. The union responded logically. By 1930, the IBEW was highly decentralized, with separate, semiautonomous divisions of construction workers, telephone linemen, and factory employees. To the electrical workers, "craft' referred to the underlying technology, not a discrete skill or occupation.6

The Teamsters became one of the great organizing successes of the second third of the century, due both to the role of government and a commitment within the union to ride the wave of midcentury technological change.7

By constantly redefining their scope and constituency-- in effect, their niche in a growing and evolving economy-- and their internal structures, these organizations and many others managed technology as effectively as General Electric or AT&T. And like the research-oriented corporations, they continued to grow steadily through the years. If their growth did not benefit every worker or even every union member, it assured the labor movement a formidable presence in American society.

Achilles' heel

There was, of course, a major flaw in the unionists' approach, not in their response to technological change in general, but in their reaction to one cluster of innovations. Between 1880 and 1900, the expansion of the American market created new opportunities for technological breakthroughs in manufacturing. Inventors and managers responded with new technologies in steel, tobacco, petroleum refining, and meatpacking, which dramatically raised the ratio of capital, materials, energy, and management to labor.8 These industries were economically, technically, and physically distinguishable from others. Notable to contemporaries for their huge plants, profusion of machines, and armies of semiskilled workers, they acquired in the late 1920's the ungrammatical sobriquet that lingers to this day: "mass production.'

The advent of the automobile and the extension of electrical power into consumer goods markets created a second generation of mass production industries. By the 1920's, these industries employed the majority of American industrial workers. But they employed only a handful of union members until the late 1930's. If the unions of the early 20th century were in fact as flexible as we have suggested, why did they have so little interest or success in organizing this important group of industries? The answer is a key to understanding the post-1935 turmoil within the "house of labor' and the enduring public images of the AFL-CIO.

The traditional answer to the supposed "failure' of the AFL is that it was wedded to a narrow craft unionism. A better answer is that it was wedded to a policy of selective recruitment, of organizing strategic groups of workers only, of "policing' rather than organizing industries. In mass production, the strategic groups were hard to identify. Skill was of little importance. There were many skilled workers in mass production, probably, on average, as many as in other types of manufacture, but they were less likely to occupy line positions. Instead, many of them made machine parts and tools or performed repairs, functions that justified their high wages and status, but were hardly a basis for policing the industry. Skilled workers in mass production were no harder to organize than other skilled workers--the unions proved that during and after World War I and in the 1930's--but they afforded the union far less leverage in dealing with the manufacturer.9 They were important but seldom strategic.

However, machine operators in mass production had much more power than the typical unskilled worker. Far from being the automatons of much popular writing, they had the ability to wreak havoc by ensuring that the expensive machines they operated did not perform as anticipated. The workers' potential was not fully apparent until the sitdown strikes of 1936-37 and the World War II years, but union leaders were not blind to the possibilities. To organize strategic workers in mass production, the unions were required to organize almost everyone. In the steel, auto, appliance, or tire industry, that meant enlisting a horde of new members who would, among other things, cause an imbalance in the internal politics of the unions and the labor movement. For some unions, flexibility had its limits. For others, the federal union, operated directly by the AFL, was the answer. In the rubber industry, for example, federation organizers were active among the mass production workers almost continuously after 1910. Although their success depended on factors that affected all unions, for example, the health of the Nation's economy and government policy, their record was one of sustained and persistent action.

Finally, there were the manufacturers. Mass production companies by definition produced for a large regional or national market. As a result, they were immune to most of the pressures used by unions to organize businesses that produced for the immediate locality. Usually, they could afford to be truculent.

The CIO unions that finally did organize the mass production companies were different in many ways from other unions. In terms of their jurisdiction, they were initially narrower than the more expansive AFL bodies. Industrial rather than multi-industrial, they were wedded to an industry and faced the prospect of technological change and possible decline. The challenge came sooner than anticipated. In the late 1930's, CIO unions declined relatively and in some cases absolutely. But even that experience did not always have a salutary effect. In 1940, to cite only one case, leaders of the Rubber Workers refused to organize the Goodyear Aircraft Corp., a burgeoning defense contractor, because the aircraft workers, although employees of a rubber company, did not work with rubber. As a result, the Auto Workers, which eventually did organize the aircraft workers, now has as many members in Akron, OH, as the Rubber Workers.10 Gradually, organizations of the CIO did become multi-industrial, but they were overshadowed by the supposedly more conservative and narrower AFL organizations.

However, we should not lose sight of the fundamental point. The story of mass production unionism is a variation on the larger theme of successful adaptation to technological change. Beneath the headlines, the squabble of leaders, and the immediate challenges, there was a pattern of continuous adjustment that defies neat categorization. From the early 1900's through the World War II period, it is the continuity of union activity that distinguishes the relationship between technology and labor.

Since the 1940's, the picture has become more clouded. In the quarter century after World War II, technological change probably slowed; productivity growth rates for many industries declined and there was nothing comparable to the advent of mass production. The labor movement shared in the generally buoyant economic atmosphere, consolidating its earlier gains, achieving unprecedented respectability and becoming enmeshed in an atmosphere of economic regulation and committed, as never before, to collective bargaining. Perhaps too enmeshed and too committed. In recent years, as that period recedes and gradually comes into clearer focus, the long-term costs of postwar prosperity and more importantly, the complacency and self-congratulatory atmosphere that it spawned, become more evident. It is worth asking whether the "achievement of the workplace rule of law' and the operation of "the labor movement in its finest hour' helped or hurt unions in adapting to the longer term evolution of the economy.11

The business of bargaining

Several points seem clear. First, the "ever greater expansion of the contractual net' accounted for most changes in union internal operations.12 As employers became more adept at managing the bargaining process, union leaders had little choice but to follow suit. They devoted more time to negotiations and employed more lawyers, accountants, and other technical experts to assist them in wringing concessions from employers and administering complex benefit programs. Their preoccupation was the price of success.

Second, collective bargaining became an effective forum for accommodating employer and employee to technological change on the shop floor. The usual bargain involved a tradeoff between mechanization and employee benefits. Some postwar agreements were spectacular. For example, the Mine Workers' contracts with the bituminous mine operators in the 1950's helped shrink the industry's labor force and the union's ranks by three quarters in exchange for seniority rights and union control of the industry's welfare fund. In one of the more flamboyant statements of the control strategy, John L. Lewis took credit for mechanization: "The coal operators never could have mechanized their mines . . . unless they were compelled to do so by the pressure of the organization of the mineworkers,' he claimed in 1952. "We want participation. We ask for it.'13 A similar arrangement helped revolutionize the longshoring industry in the 1960's.

In most cases, however, the stakes were lower and the changes less dramatic. Even when technology was not a major issue, collective bargaining typically curbed rank-and-file efforts to sabotage technological change. Most observers of postwar collective bargaining agree that collective bargaining curbed the shop-floor powers of union militants.14 In the mass production industries, at least, those powers were most often used to thwart the piecemeal innovations that typically account for most productivity gains and create an atmosphere of continuous change. The pattern after 1945 was by no means unambiguous. But as recent econometric studies have suggested, unions appear to have contributed to the advance of productivity.15

A third and more critical issue is far less clear. Did union leaders lose sight of the evolving economy because of the demands of nearly continuous negotiations? Did the imperatives of collective bargaining and the concomitant web of relations with government encourage a narrowing of perspectives and an inadvertent retreat from the aggressive policy of adaptation to technological change that characterized the most successful prewar organizations?16 Did they lose sight of the fact that the large corporations whose union contracts were so widely publicized were in many cases lethargic giants in mature industries? Did the postwar pattern of industrial relations leave the labor movement singularly ill-equipped to confront a new era of labor-saving technologies that began in the 1970's?17

We have no confident answers to these questions. The historical record is not a precise guide. However, one point seems clear. Of the major problems that have confronted unions since Gompers and his colleagues gathered in Columbus, technological change has been perhaps the least daunting, less challenging, for example, than relations with many employers and politicians, the recruitment of competent leaders, and the maintenance of democratic processes. As this article suggests, union leaders enjoyed considerable success in developing techniques for managing technological change. The techniques of the early 20th century may be of little value now or in the future, but there is no reason to assume that the challenge of technological

change is less solvable now than 50 or 100 years ago. Gompers' advice to "plan so that the workman could control the use of the machine through the union instead of permitting the machine to control' the workers seems no less pertinent in 1986 than in 1886.

1 Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography (Ithaca, NY, ILR Press, 1984), p. 111.

2 See David C. Mowery, "Firm Structure, Government Policy and the Organization of Industrial Research: Great Britain and the United States, 1900-1950,' Business History Review, Winter 1984, pp. 510-11.

3 Sumner H. Slichter, Union Policies and Industrial Management (Washington, Brookings Institution Press, 1941), pp. 201-81. Also see Irwin Yellowitz, Industrialization and the American Labor Movement, 1850-1900 (Port Washington, Long Island, NY, Kennikat Press, 1977), pp. 63-93.

4 Christopher L. Tomlins, "AFL Unions in the 1930's: Their Performance in Historical Perspective,' Journal of American History, March 1979, pp. 1026, 1034.

5 Robert A. Christie, Empire in Wood: A History of the Carpenter's Union (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1956), p. 183.

6 Tomlins, "AFL Unions,' pp. 1030-31.

7 Ibid. See Donald Garnel, The Rise of Teamster Power in the West (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1972).

8 Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 240-44.

9 See John Barnard, "Rebirth of the United Automobile Workers: The General Motors Tool and Diemakers' Strike of 1939,' Labor History, Spring 1986, pp. 165-87; and Kevin Boyle, "Rite of Passage: The 1939 General Motors Tool and Die Strike,' Labor History, Spring 1986, pp. 188-203. Barnard reports that in 1939, 15 percent of the auto workers were skilled (p. 166). I estimate that in the late 19th century, 10 percent of the textile workers and 20 to 25 percent of the machinery workers were skilled. Chandler cites textiles and machinery as industries that did not employ mass production technologies. See Daniel Nelson, "The American System and the American Worker,' in Otto Mayr and Robert C. Post, eds., Yankee Enterprise: The Rise of the American System of Manufacturers (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), p. 177; and Chandler, The Visible Hand, pp. 242 and 270-72.

10 This information was obtained from local union officials.

11 Robert H. Zieger, American Workers, American Unions. 1920-1985 (Baltimore, MD, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 157.

12 The quotation is from David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th Century Struggle (New York, Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 201. I am indebted to Melvyn Dubofsky for permitting me to read his unpublished manuscript on unions and technological change. See especially p. 25.

13 Curtis Seltzer, Fire in the Hole: Miners and Managers in the American Coal Industry (Lexington, MA, University of Kentucky Press, 1986), p. 66.

14 See Brody, Workers in Industrial America, pp. 198-210; the Dubofsky paper; and Christopher L. Tomlins, The State and the Unions, Labor Relations, Law and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880-1960 (London, England, Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 247-328.

15 Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff, What Do Unions Do? (New York, Basic Books, 1984), pp. 163, 170. See also Barry T. Hirsch and John T. Addison, The Economic Analysis of Unions (Boston, MA, Allen & Unwin, 1986), pp. 180-207.

16 See Tomlins, The State and the Unions, for this point.

17 See Harley Shaiken, Work Transformed: Automation and Labor in the Computer Age (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), especially pp. 247-63.
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Author:Nelson, Daniel
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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