Reform or Repression: Organizing America's Anti-Union Movement

Reform or Repression: Organizing America's Anti-Union Movement

Reform or Repression: Organizing America's Anti-Union Movement

Reform or Repression: Organizing America's Anti-Union Movement


Historians have characterized the open-shop movement of the early twentieth century as a cynical attempt by business to undercut the labor movement by twisting the American ideals of independence and self-sufficiency to their own ends. The precursors to today's right-to-work movement, advocates of the open shop in the Progressive Era argued that honest workers should have the right to choose whether or not to join a union free from all pressure. At the same time, business owners systematically prevented unionization in their workplaces.

While most scholars portray union opponents as knee-jerk conservatives, Chad Pearson demonstrates that many open-shop proponents identified themselves as progressive reformers and benevolent guardians of America's economic and political institutions. By exploring the ways in which employers and their allies in journalism, law, politics, and religion drew attention to the reformist, rather than repressive, character of the open-shop movement, Pearson's book forces us to consider the origins, character, and limitations of this movement in new ways. Throughout his study, Pearson describes class tensions, noting that open-shop campaigns primarily benefited management and the nation's most economically privileged members at the expense of ordinary people.

Pearson's analysis of archives, trade journals, newspapers, speeches, and other primary sources elucidates the mentalities of his subjects and their times, rediscovering forgotten leaders and offering fresh perspectives on well-known figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, Booker T. Washington and George Creel. Reform or Repression sheds light on businessmen who viewed strong urban-based employers' and citizens' associations, weak unions, and managerial benevolence as the key to their own, as well as the nation's, progress and prosperity.


Those who have given any thought to the labor question must see
that it is a very inadequate statement to make that it is merely a
controversy between employers and employes.

—David M. Parry, 1904

The period between 1890 and 1917 in the United States was shaped by both far-reaching reforms and episodic cases of violence and repression. Reformminded citizens fought corruption and vice in cities and in official politics, sought to make our food and water supplies safer, denounced the role of alcohol in society, and campaigned for protective labor laws. Some reformers were motivated to improve efficiency; others were troubled by what they considered expressions of immorality in communities and workplaces. In that same era, dramatic strikes pitted militant workers against obstinate employers. Middle-class campaigners helped win legislation designed to protect some workers—namely women and children—at roughly the same time that immigrant anarchists, western miners, and socialists of various stripes preached the need for a working-class-led revolution. Picket-line violence was commonplace, and the state responded to the most aggressive examples of working-class combativeness and acts of sabotage with arrests, and sometimes even executions. The era truly was, as the names of two influential books about the period suggest, both an Age of Reform and America’s First Age of Terror.

This project investigates the ways an often overlooked and underexplored group, employers and their allies, helped shape this period of . . .

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