Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Communal Viability and Employment of Non-Member Labor: Testing Hypotheses with Historical Data

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Communal Viability and Employment of Non-Member Labor: Testing Hypotheses with Historical Data

Article excerpt

Abstract A well developed body of theory associates the employment of nonmember labor by collective organisations with their eventual dissolution. Manuscript and published data on hiring of outside laborers by nineteenth century American religious communes allows for tests of two propositions taken from this literature: that employment of non-members increased over time and that such employment was responsible for the communes' eventual demise. The first was upheld but no evidence was found to support the second. In fact, employment of non-members was found instead to be associated with communal prosperity, in economic, religious, and survival terms.

Keywords: Commune, employment, Shakers


Whether to hire non-members is a perpetual thorn in the side of co-operatively organized firms. Particularly when collectives are formed for ideological (rather than strictly profit-maximizing) reasons, waged non-member workers may respond to different incentives than do members, leading to conflicts between the two kinds of labor. Even so, theory suggests that collectives may want to substitute non-member labor for member labor under a wide range of reasonable conditions. As a result, collectives may hire non-member labor despite potential conflict or dilution of the group's ideology. According to this theory over time the proportion of non-member labor will tend to increase until eventually the collective dissolves from lack of members.

While the theory on which this model rests is plausible, opportunities to test these hypotheses are rare. The literature on a particular type of collective, the producer co-operative, has been described as overdeveloped theoretically and underdeveloped empirically (Bonin et al. 1993). The present study is an empirical analysis of labor demand by a particular type of collective, the religious commune. Using data recovered from nineteenth century Shaker religious communes, the following assertions are tested: employment of non-member workers by these communes increased over time and employment of non-member workers increased the risk of communal dissolution. Employment records from early in the nineteenth century and a survey of the communes taken later in the century suggest that, in fact, employment of outsiders rose over time. However, anecdotal and survey evidence fails to associate such employment with communal decline. Non-members appear to have been hired from early in each commune's history. Indeed, me mber and non-member labor was found to be complementary, which may explain the surprising result that greater employment of non-members led to decreased probabilities of dissolution. Communal success in the presence of hired workers suggests that religious communes can benefit from the use of external labor sources, if such employment is carefully monitored.


Define a commune as a group of people who comprise a firm such that each member of the group has an equal claim upon the residual, and each member is remunerated at the same rate regardless of his or her productivity. Further, each member of the group lives at the production location, and that location shall be called the commune. Thus, the commune has the economic characteristics of a producer co-operative, in which member laborers also own the firm's assets, plus social characteristics of a family, in which people of all ages are members of the group, including some too young and others who may be too old to work. Initial motivation for forming such communes may be religious or rooted in some other ideology. Examples of such communes include kibbutzim (Simons and Ingram 1997), Hutterite colonies (Bennett 1967), Cistercian monasteries (Roehl 1972), Buddhist monasteries (Miller 1961) and Shaker communities (Murray 1995).

A commune may wish to hire outside labor for at least two reasons. First, membership may be fixed or nearly so in the case of communes formed for ideological reasons. …

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