Professor Chad Pearson
of Collin College, author of Reform or Repression: Organizing America's Anti-Union Movement
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015) traces the roots of modern anti-unionism in the U.S. to the early 20th century open shop movement and a push by business interests nationwide to break unions and stall the momentum of organized labor.
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.
Beth A. English is director of the Liechtenstein Institute's Project on Gender in the Global Community at Princeton University. She also is a past president of the Southern Labor History Association.