The labor question that had bedeviled Americans in the 19th century and the early 20th century was framed in the language of cost-efficiency and enhanced productivity. In other words, it was important to identify how to improve the profitability of a business enterprise when businessmen and their employees had inherently competing self-interests. One of the two most serious, scientific, and systematic attempts to resolve this question was made through the application of the Taylor doctrine of labor management and the welfare system of labor management. These attempts and experimentations on how to develop a perfect system led to a scheme called ‘collective bargaining’ that emerged via a policy called the Wagner Act of 1935. Collective bargaining did not resolve all issues related to the labor question; however, it provided a template that employers and employees could use in order to reach a mutually beneficial business arrangement that would allow both parties to profit from the same business framework.
The Labor Question as It Evolved Over Time
The problems that besieged the industrialized nations of the 19th century gave rise to the labor question. These problems were summarized in the article “Taylorism Versus Welfare Work in American Industry: H.L. Gantt and the Bancrofts”, wherein the authors had identified the tension between employers and employees. For example, companies need to have greater output from the application of a particular business framework; however, this goal must be accomplished via using low expenditures and a further reduction in the cost of doing business. A secondary component of the labor question is the need to increase wages in order to keep workers happy. At the same time, there is a necessity to control wage increases in order to satisfy the interests of investors or capitalists. As a result, a push and pull action emerges, and oftentimes, this results in a conflict between employers and employees. Thus, the ideal resolution of the labor question demands not only higher wages and greater productivity from workers but also labor-management harmony.
The labor question emerged in the transition period between the agrarian and industrial eras. This issue was described in greater detail by Gutman who discussed the challenges faced by capitalists when they tried to ‘industrialize’ the United States. Thus, Gutman identified cultural and social factors that made it extremely difficult for employers to make the most profit out of their investment. For example, employers had a negative perception of the laid back attitude of their workers, but they did not understand the cultural background of people who had difficulty transitioning from agri-based work to the factory type of working conditions. Gutman also mentioned that it was not difficult to understand this phenomenon as hired workers had such a mindset even before they began working at the factory. This was how they had behaved themselves in the farm as hired hands, especially during the time when the large part of American farms had not yet started using machines in their work. In labor-intensive activities, such as planting and harvesting high value crops, farm workers would begin their day early and usually work for as long as they could. This kind of work required rest was relatively long. When farm workers transferred to cities in search of a better life, it was inevitable that they would retain this agrarian mindset and its proclivity to rest periods by giving value to social activities when they settled into their new roles as factory workers.
How Collective Bargaining Worked During Its Heyday
The necessity to solve the labor problem became the most important task at the turn of the 20th century. This need intensified when businessmen discovered the prudent use of Taylorism or the system of measuring the performance of workers in order to extract greater productivity from their labor force. However, as the scientific management of factories grew in complexity, the inverse reaction occurred in terms of workers’ satisfaction with their workload, job expectations, and wages. In order to improve the harmony between employers and employees, the welfare system of management was introduced in the early 20th century. This welfare system provided opportunities for workers to enjoy leisure or recreation activities as well as educational grants and pension plans. As a consequence, there was a need to regularize the welfare system after it had been found to be an effective means to resolve the labor question. All these issues led to the creation of such a framework as collective bargaining.
After the ratification of the Wagner Act in 1935, corporate leaders did not have faith in its ability to transform the US industries in the same way that successful movements were able to redefine core aspects of the way people behaved. In other words, they though that it was impossible to implement the tenets of the legal framework that workers were hoping can be utilized to resolve the labor question. For example, Lichtenstein explained how large companies like General Motors and DuPont had tried to use dirty tactics in order to discredit union leaders and their efforts to transform the business model to make it more favorable for workers. Consequently, the insights gleaned from interviews conducted to get the side of union leaders, workers, and other stakeholders in the decades after the Wagner Act had been signed in to law revealed that they had little to say about the positive outcome of this law. Thus, collective bargaining was not the perfect tool that policymakers envisioned it would become in the years after the Wagner Act had been enacted.
Despite above-mentioned issues, the collective bargaining agreement, which resulted in the ratification of the Wager Act of 1935, still had some merits. During its heyday, workers succeeded in attaining periodic bargains when, for example, in certain regions of the USA, were able to achieve significant wage increases. In addition, a few decades after the law had been enforced, labor unions witnessed a significant growth in membership. Nevertheless, there was no real proof that all issues within the scope of the labor question had been resolved. The best thing that one could expect from the collective bargaining framework was the ability of workers and their employers to experience a certain level of co-existence, a compromise in order achieve mutual benefits.
The labor question came into focus when Taylorism demonstrated the effectiveness of using scientific management principles in order to boost productivity and reduce the cost of sustaining business operations. On the other hand, the more employers attempted to improve the production capability of business enterprises, the more it risked creating conflicts with workers who wanted higher wages and better working conditions. Thus, the Wagner Act of 1935 was ratified into law in order to create a systematic way of providing welfare while, at the same time, ensure the balance between productivity and the need for employers to take care of their employees. However, only one good thing emerged from this law. This was the collective bargaining framework that had provided a mechanism that would allow workers and employers to develop a compromise in order to resolve key issues within a particular work environment. During its heyday, this framework enabled workers to achieve significant improvements in their working conditions and increase in wages. Nevertheless, the positive results were limited to certain areas in the United States. For the most part, collective bargaining had served not as the solution to the labor question but merely as a way for workers and employers to co-exist.