Employer Organizations' Influence on the Progressive-Era Press

Article excerpt

One of the major issues of public debate in the early twentieth century was "the labor question:" what rights did workers versus employers have and what forms of production and ownership were fair? This article examines the attempts of organized employers to shape this debate by influencing press coverage in the early twentieth century. It focuses on the two main business organizations of the period, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Civic Federation. They ostensibly advocated different approaches to industrial relations, but this study argues their public disagreements ultimately had the effect of constricting the boundaries of discussion about labor in not only small newspapers but even the sophisticated press-respected daily newspapers and prominent magazines.

At the close of the nineteenth century, the American labor movement pushed for rapid expansion and made an energetic push to remove legal impediments to organizing. After a promising beginning on both fronts, by 1906 progress was stalling on membership growth as well as legislative efforts, partly because of organized employer reaction.

Publicity was a key battleground in the contest between organized workers and organized employers, and its significance intensified in the opening years of the twentietli century as workers and employers navigated the growing web of state presence. The upheavals brought by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization had resulted in numerous calls for the state to take more of an active role. As employers and workers well understood, the exact shape ofthat role would crucially affect labor relations. What labor union strategies were to be considered legal? How would the state strike a balance between protecting workers from excessive hours or unsafe conditions and protecting employers' property rights? Would the state use its coercive power to break strikes as it had done several times in the nineteenth century? Would it force the parties to arbitrate? The answers to these questions depended partly on how effectively both labor and capital succeeded in convincing politicians that their position had greater support among voters and opinion leaders.

Support from the general public was especially important for labor; business, after all, undoubtedly held the advantage in gaining direct access to congressmen, judges, and administrators. Business could offer (or withhold) campaign finance, and businessmen were far more likely than workers to move in the same social circles as politicians.1 Traditionally, support from the local community had sustained many individual strikes, but as labor issues increasingly moved onto the national scene, organized workers could not rely on personal or community relationships.2 Rather, a more amorphous "public opinion" became key.

This study analyzes the attempts of organized employers to shape public opinion through influencing press coverage of labor issues in the early twentieth century. It focuses particularly on the two main business organizations of the era: the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the National Civic Federation (NCF). These organizations advocated different approaches to Iabor relations. The NAM exhorted all employers to band together against organized labor while the NCF advocated reasoned discussion and conciliation and cooperation between labor, capital, and "the public." Viewing each other as rivals, even enemies, the organizations repeatedly clashed in public. The NCF ridiculed the NAM's extremist rhetoric, mocked its inconsistency in exhorting employers to band together against labor while telling laborers to remain "independent," and warned that strident anti-unionism paved Ae way for revolution. It even implied the NAM secretly admired the socialists because they shared the NAM's extremism even i£ihey came from the opposite end of the political spectrum.3 ?» NAM,. Iq. tern, accused the Civic Federation of being a dupe of organized labor and therefore "a menace to free American industrialism. …