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date: 11 December 2017

Employers’ Associations and Open Shop in the United States

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Employers began organizing to reduce the power of organized labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Irritated by strikes, boycotts, and the unions’ desire to achieve exclusive bargaining rights, employers demanded the right to establish open shops—workplaces that promoted individualism over collectivism. Rather than recognize closed or union shops, employers demanded the right to hire and fire whomever they wanted, irrespective of union status. They established an open-shop movement, which was led by local, national, and trade-based employers. Some formed more inclusive “citizens’ associations,” which included clergymen, lawyers, judges, academics, and employers. Throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, this movement succeeded in busting unions, breaking strikes, and blacklisting labor activists. It united large numbers of employers and was largely successful. The movement faced its biggest challenges in the 1930s, when a liberal political climate legitimized unions and collective bargaining. But employers never stopped organizing and fighting, and they continued to undermine the labor movement in the following decades by invoking the phrase “right to work,” insisting that individual laborers must enjoy freedom from the so-called union bosses and compulsory unionism. Numerous states, responding to pressure from organized employers, began passing “right to work” laws, which made union organizing more difficult as workers were not obligated to join unions or pay their “fair share” of dues. The multi-decade employer-led anti-union movement succeeded in fighting organized labor at the point of production, in politics, and in public relations.