Abstract: Organized Employers, Strikebreaking, and Individual Rights in Progressive Era Cleveland

Chad Pearson


Cleveland's organized employers, a multi-industry coalition of forward-thinking men, successfully fought strikes and promoted the supposed soundness of the open-shop, anti-union principle throughout the Progressive Era. In this paper I explore the ways in which the city's employers' associations engaged in workplace struggles, made sense of the seemingly omnipresent labor problem, and related to public sector authorities in a city celebrated for its progressiveness. I note that Cleveland's organized employers seldom viewed labor conflicts as simply narrow workplace clashes. Rather, they saw their open-shop campaigns as part of a glorious history that championed the rights of individuals against what one union-fighter calledthe "dictation of others." Yet, despite their individualist beliefs, during labor struggles they demanded, and typically secured, help from prominent public sector authorities, including judges, well-known reformers like Mayor Tom L. Johnson, and police forces. As they worked to protect managers and non-unionists during labor conflicts, Cleveland's employers regularly invoked the law, believing that they were entitled to help from municipal authorities. Members of this civic-minded partnership—strikebreaking coordinators, judges, police chiefs, and politicians—believed in protecting the rights of individual workers and thus supported the open-shop principle. Together, they saw their efforts as part of a broad progressive campaign to improve workplace and community relations in Cleveland. By highlighting their efforts on behalf of "free," non-union workers, this paper, in contrast to most scholarship on the open-shop movement—which tends to highlight tensions between anti-union businessmen and urban reformers—underscores the compatibility of Progressive Era reform with the open-shop principle.