John R. Commons: Pioneer of Labor Economics

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John R. Commons: pioneer of labor economics

John R. Commons has contributed in one way or another to practically every piece of social and labor legislation that has been enacted in the 20th century. Either directly or through students and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Commons has made his mark on such diverse aspects of American labor as apprenticeship, vocational education, workers' compensation, job safety, factory inspection, social security, unemployment compensation, unionism, collective bargaining, civil service, and--not least--the administration of labor law.

Commons belongs in Labor's Hall of Fame because he was the first great American economist--or perhaps better, social scientist--to put his science in the service of improving the conditions of labor. "More than any other economist [Commons] was responsible for the conversion into public policy of reform proposals designed to alleviate defects in the industrial system."1 Indeed, Commons understood better than most not only that injustice hurt working people, but also that the alleviation of injustice was essential to the stability of the society as a whole.

Progressive beginnings

Born in 1862, Commons came of age in the Progressive era of American history, characterized by Theodore Roosevelt's Square Deal and Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom. He said he was "born again" when he moved from his native Ohio to Wisconsin2 and met Governor Robert M. La Follette, another great Progressive who "opened up...a noble idea of patriotism for the state wherein there should be no corruption in politics, no control of governors and legislatures by the lobbyists of corporations, no machine controlling the party conventions. Instead there should be a resurrection of the early American idealism of government by the people themselves."3 The politician and the professor became collaborators in what came to be known as the Wisconsin Idea: a partnership between the State Government and the university...in "instruction, research, extension [and] economics."4

Wisconsin became a great State laboratory for social policy experimentation. Later, students of Commons were to be New Deal innovators, most notably in unemployment insurance and social security. Commons tells his life story:5 Immigration, which took me to the headquarters of practically all the national trade unions. This led to a further investigation of restrictions of output by capitalistic and labor organizations. After 1901 I participated in labor arbitration with the National Civic Federation, representing "labor, employers, and the public," and, in 1906, with the same organization, in an investigation of municipal and private operations of public utilities...In 1905 I drafted a civil service law and in 1907 a public utility law....In 1906 and 1907, I investigated with others, for the Russell Sage Foundation, labor conditions in the steel industry at Pittsburgh. During 1910 and 1911, when the Socialists were in control of the city of Milwaukee, I organized for them a Bureau of Economy and Efficiency. In 1911 I drafted, and then participated for two years in the administration of, an Industrial Commission law for the State of Wisconsin, with the purpose of ascertaining and enforcing reasonable rules and practices in the relations between employers and employees. From 1913 to 1915, I was a member of the Industrial Relations Commission appointed by President Wilson. In 1923 I represented...four Western states before the Federal Trade Commission on the Pittsburgh Plus case of discrimination practiced by the United States Steel Corporation....Between 1924 and 1926, I administered for two years, as chairman, a voluntary plan of unemployment insurance in the clothing industry of Chicago. This plan was similar to that which I had previously devised in 1923, for legislation. The plan, with improvements, was finally enacted in Wisconsin in 1932.

In 1907, Commons cofounded the American Association for Labor Legislation, the most important force behind the labor legislation of its generation. …