Abstract: Humanizing the Capitalistic System: Thomas Mitten, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, and the Labor Question in the Early Twentieth Century United States

James Wolfinger


Thomas Mitten came to Philadelphia in 1910 determined to use the city's transit company as a laboratory for the development of his plan to solve the ''labor question.'' Just a year earlier the city had suffered through a transit strike that grew into a general strike where 200,000 people walked off the job and twenty-nine people were killed in widespread violence. Corporate capitalism, in Mitten's eyes, had caused this problem but it also offered the solution. To appease the workers and larger populace, Mitten established one of the best known corporate welfare programs in the United States and received wide acclaim for offering a solution to the labor question. His plan improved his employees' wages and working conditions, gained the trust of the public, and made Philadelphia's transit system one of the most efficient in the country. But he also developed a network of spies, used a company union to make workers think they had power over their workplace when they actually had little, and made himself wealthy on company profits. Mitten won acclaim for ''solving'' the labor question, but his story represents the good and bad of business: he used his company to try to solve a vexing social problem, but he simultaneously controlled and exploited his workers.