Theodore Roosevelt, the Rise of the Open-Shop Movement, and the Myth of the “Square Deal”

Wednesday, December 31, 1969, 7:00 PM - 7:00 PM

Type: Single Paper

Tags: Business and Economy; Labor and Working-Class; Politics


Scholars in our post–New Left historiographical period claim that the twentieth century’s first two decades should best be defined as a “Progressive Era.” In this period, many reformers sought to address the excesses of the previous era, the “Gilded Age,” by promoting numerous community and workplace-based reforms. Rejecting the old “corporate liberal” interpretations, such historians have maintained that we must take seriously reforms passed from above, including efforts by president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Square Deal, the name he coined and popularized after establishing a committee to help settle the 1902 anthracite coal strike in Pennsylvania, marked a turning point, since, most scholars insist, he approached the so-called labor question as an honest broker. This paper challenges this perspective by pointing out that Roosevelt’s labor policies helped inspire the antiunion open-shop movement, an employer-led campaign that consisted of individuals from both in and outside of industrial relations settings. Members of the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America (an assortment of union opponents, including vigilantes from the nineteenth century), were thrilled by the Square Deal because it explicitly promoted the open-shop principle, a managerial system that was supposedly welcoming to both union and nonunion members. They named their monthly magazine the Square Deal and often cited Roosevelt during their antiunion onslaughts. Roosevelt’s admirers did not see the president as antilabor; instead, they believed he was fair-minded and committed to protecting both unions and the so-called “free workers” (scabs). The ruling-class remained emboldened and powerful while the union movement suffered.

Session Participants

Presenter: Chad Pearson, Collin College