a1 ROBERT BUSSEL is assistant professor of industrial relations and labor studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Throughout the twentieth century, the role of workers in the management of business enterprise has been the subject of ongoing debate. Opponents of centralized, bureaucratic management have proposed a series of participatory alternatives—workers' control, industrial democracy, employee stock ownership, and more recently, employee involvement—that have sought to democratize workplace governance. Much of the literature on such initiatives, be it historical or contemporary, has implied that workers favor exercising greater responsibility over shop-floor matters but have been deterred by employer resistance and cautious labor leadership. This literature often fails to capture the complexity of workers' attitudes towards greater participation and the tensions felt by reform-minded business leaders seeking to share power and authority with their employees. It is in this context that the story of the Columbia Conserve Company, an Indianapolis-based producer of canned soups, assumes particular relevance as a pioneering attempt to implement workplace democracy. Between 1917 and 1943, Columbia Conserve's owner, William P. Hapgood, established a system of workers' ownership and management. However, workers at Columbia Conserve, while sympathetic to Hapgood's experiment, were reluctant to accept full managerial responsibility. Instead, they embraced a more familial concept that met their psychological needs for fellowship and security. William Hapgood's faith in worker self-management subsequently waned, revealing an authoritarian streak that undercut his democratic pretensions. The experience at Columbia Conserve illustrates the enduring problems involved in sustaining workplace democracy and illuminates the status of current efforts aimed at empowering workers on the job.
Robert Bussel is assistant professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Pennsylvania State University and coordinates labor education programs in eastern and central Pennsylvania. For ten years he was an organizer and representative with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Bussel holds a Ph.D. in American history from Cornell University and has just completed a biography of Powers Hapgood.