The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America. – Review

The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America. – Review – book review

Daniel J. Walkowitz

The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America. By Andrea Tone (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997. xii plus 264pp.).

In the early l990s, George Bush pressed to replace state welfare with the voluntarism of “a thousand points of light.” By the end of the decade, Congress had enacted legislation designed “to end welfare as we know it” and put the unemployed in workfare. This study of the efflorescence of welfare capitalism during the Progressive Era reminds us that a long history of welfare capitalism and a tradition of voluntarism have shaped America’s truncated welfare state.

Important earlier work by Stephen Meyer and Olivier Zunz elaborated welfare programs within individual corporations such as the Ford Motor Company and Met Life; nearly forty years ago, Loren Baritz’s path-breaking book on Chicago’s Hawthorne Works placed such efforts within the tradition of scientific management in the 1920s; and more recently, Lizabeth Cohen has emphasized the New Deal as a rupture with welfare capitalism. [1] Tone’s panoramic analysis of welfare capitalist programs across the industrial landscape of Progressive era America challenges all these works, even as she acknowledges her debt to them. Arguing that an under-appreciation of the legacy of welfare capitalism has led historians to exaggerate the degree to which welfare statism replaced it in the last half of the century, Tone documents the widespread adoption of welfare programs by private industry and notes both the acceptance and resistance to it by workers. Rather than seeing corporate welfare programs as a device of social control or cooption, Tone argues they were a site of negotiation in which workers claimed benefits and improvements even as they usually recognized these programs came with a price. The extent to which most workers resisted these enticements is more asserted than proven, but there seems little doubt many heard what managers often said (and the book’s title denotes): corporate welfare was not simple beneficence; in increasing productivity and worker loyalty, it was good business.

The book begins with a review of the antistatist corporate logic which led many, though not all, managers to spend money voluntarily to advance workplace reforms, leisure activities and insurance programs and similar policies for their workers at the turn of the century. With the threat of Progressive labor legislation hanging over them, these programs sought to build company loyalty, decrease high turnover rates, encourage workers in habits associated with middle-class respectability, and decrease oppositional class politics through association in activities such as team sports. Welfare capitalists then mobilized company magazines and a new corporate public relations apparatus to broadcast a positive image of their programs and to highlight workers who expressed satisfaction with them.

As paternalist social policy makers, welfare capitalists not surprisingly made special appeal to women workers, and in a long middle chapter Tone documents the gendered character of welfare programs. It may also be Tone’s most original contribution. Having documented well the complicated objectives of uplift, control and benevolence which directed corporate efforts, Tone details the gendered character of different policies directed toward men and women. If Progressive protective labor legislation often sought to remove women and children from factory work, welfare capitalism sought to domesticate and tame the female workplace. By re-imagining the factory as a finishing school (with echoes of 1830s’ Lowell), amenities such as women-only lunchrooms and well-appointed laboratories sought to transform she who had long been stigmatized as the factory girl into the woman “worker-as-prospective-wife.” (164)

Benefits for men were gendered, too, but in ways that would cast them as manly accouterments. In the case of men, welfare capitalism focused first on redefining masculinity in respectable (read ‘middle class’) team pursuits. Second, though, as labor surpluses in the 1920s made companies less concerned with sustaining loyalty, reduced programs tended to emphasize financial benefits that would enhance men’s breadwinner status.

The final third of Tone’s book turns to the question of how workers responded to welfare capitalism and then suggests the importance of the triumph of this antistatist private welfare tradition to late twentieth-century [anti]welfare policy. The discussions of labor’s responses, though relatively brief and more of a catalogue than analysis, are most welcome. Organized labor responses, if not always well known, were predictable: the AFL defended its support of welfare capitalism and alliance with the National Civic Federation as limited but worthwhile gains; in a gendered response, socialist and syndicalist labor left leaders (presumedly male), derided bosses as “sissies” and attacked the programs as co-optive. Rank and file workers’ responses were situational: they rejected what they saw as charity and did not promise unconditional loyalty for any benefit. Nonetheless, while examples of worker responses abound and suggest the complex ways in which workers received such “benefits”, the catalogue of views note d does not make it possible to fix on which worker attitudes predominated.

In her concluding sections, Tone notes several significant developments over the next half century. First, scientific management transforms welfare capitalism into personnel management programs to supervise workers. Second, while workers may prefer wages, they come to expect certain provisions as “rights”. Third, private welfare programs come to benefit men disproportionately, much as do New Deal programs. Welfare social provisions, from which women mostly benefitted, decline during the 1920s, as financial benefits such as life insurance and stock ownership plans, disproportionately given to men, come to characterize private industrial welfare. Finally, private sector benefits become the basis for a contractual antistatist safety net in union contracts.

In all, Tone has written a compelling history. I would have liked to see more attention to the women and men who are employed to supervise these programs; she never once discusses the emerging field of industrial social work. Her tendency to ascribe middle classness to welfare capitalist policies, as if workers never spent money, valued cleanliness or believed in respectability is also unhelpful, even if conventional. Finally, she makes no mention of the Hawthorne experiments in which workers responded positively even to worsening conditions, suggesting that the psychology of welfare capitalism demands some attention, especially as it moves into strategies of worker counseling. But, in the final analysis, these quibbles do not detract from a first-rate study which goes a long way to helping us understand why the American welfare state is so weak and so easily eviscerated today. The author offers compelling evidence of the “unchallenged strength of the private model” (253) and support for her contention that “[e]mployers eager to check and repel the tide of government regulation proferred welfare capitalism as an alternative to welfare statism” (7) One only wonders, if private welfare is so extensive, why do so many policymakers bemoan the removal of the social welfare net and the vast numbers of people with inadequate or no benefits from their employers?


(1.) Stephen Meyer, III, The Five Dollar Day: Labor, Management, and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908–1920 (Albany, 1981); Olivier Zunz, Making America Corporate, 1870–1920 (Chicago, 1990); Loren Baritz, The Servants of Power: A History of the Use of Social Science in Industry (Middletown, CT, 1960); Lizabeth Cohen, Making A New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York, 1990).

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