The Origins ofAmerican Segmentalism
According tohistorian Howell Harris, in his illuminating study of majorAmerican employers and during the 1940s, “the roots of the modern American industrial relations system were more likely tobe found outside the labor movement than within it. ” Labor, he concluded, “looked more like a reactive than aninitiating force in the process of social change: a weakinstitution in a powerfully organized, pervasively capitalistsociety. ” In America, “the business community wasthe dynamic force. ” 1 Eventhough many major employers only begrudgingly acceptedcollective bargaining under pressure from the state during theNew Deal and the political exigencies of war, executives likeCharles Wilson of General Motors ultimately accommodated itonly on their own terms.
In other words, unionismshaped itself into an existing segmentalist mold, the system ofhigh-wage and company welfare practices of the period before World War II. Militant pressures, of course, influenced the practicessignificantly in the process. In any case, as Harrisargues,
bargainedfringe benefits continued to serve many of the old purposes ofstabilizing the employee population of the plant andincreasing its attachment, if not to the work, then at least tothe job. Reducing labor turnover of prime adult males, andincreasing the seriousness of the threat of disciplinary discharge (which came to mean loss of accrued seniority and welfareentitlements), increased management's control over theworkforce.
In sum, “Unions, as wellas firms, tried to strengthen the ties which bound plantcommunities together. ” 2
Thus, evenwhere American unions seemed to exercise so much power over management—in the realm of seniority rights, for example—they did soby building on a principle that management, not labor, hadintroduced. So concluded historian Ronald Schatz, writing onGeneral Electric (GE). 3 Inother