Employer Organizing: The Importance of Hobnobbing

June 13, 2023

Political cartoon. The top of the image is a drawing of a factory encircled by a banner reading "protected by the citizens". A figure labeled "organization" holds back two groups, one of figures labeled “oil trust” and “beef trust” and “coal trust”; the other group held back reads “labor trust” and “striker.” The bottom of the image is a drawing of a scene with burning buildings and a man chasing a group of people with a gun. That drawing is encircled by a banner reading “governed by the labor trust.”

As depicted in this cartoon from Square Deal, a magazine published by the Citizens’ Industrial Association of America, organized employers portrayed their project as defending the common good from what they claimed were equally self-interested “trusts” on either side of the labor struggle. Battle Creek (MI) Square Deal, Dec. 1905, cover page.


This piece is a response to our Call for Submissions: Histories of Labor in the U.S. For our submission guidelines, click here.


The focus of labor history is often—unsurprisingly—workers’ organizations and what has made them thrive or languish. But employers organized, too. Examining their efforts to do so illuminates the problems of collective action for both workers and employers.

One of the best-known employer organizations is the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The NAM, which still exists, was founded in 1895 mainly to promote foreign trade, but in 1902–1903 it pivoted to opposing the rising labor movement. This line quickly brought results—while labor unions’ growth and lobbying successes stalled for a decade, the NAM gained members rapidly.[1]

The NAM was national in scope. As the map below shows, it had active members in most industrial cities in the eastern half of the United States. Its goals, too, were national: among other things, it aimed to undercut the American Federation of Labor (AFL) nationwide and to ensure that no pro-labor legislation could be passed in the U.S. Congress.

Map of the continental United States, with spots of varying darkness, concentrated mostly in the midwest and northeast.

Figure 1: Heatmap of active NAM members, 1902–1912. Data compiled from NAM correspondence and geocoded with GPS Visualizer, https://www.gpsvisualizer.com/geocoder/. Map made with MapBox Studio, https://www.mapbox.com/. For more technical details on this and other figures, and for the data used to construct them, see Vilja Hulden,“Documentation of Digital Work in the Bosses’ Union,” Github, https://github.com/vhulden/bossesunion/.

Despite its national orientation, the NAM’s power largely stemmed from the local level.[2] Quite deliberately, the NAM mapped out which political notables its members knew personally, and then used those personal connections to strengthen its lobbying efforts. This strategy was particularly useful since the NAM’s main goal was not to pass legislation but to prevent its passage, which did not require mustering majorities. Instead, the NAM could block legislation by exerting pressure on key players in Congress. This might mean convincing a committee member or two to change their minds about whether a bill should be reported out of committee, for example, or persuading the Senate’s Steering Committee to keep a bill off the calendar for debate and voting.

Using its members’ personal connections with Congressmen was central to one of the NAM’s first antilabor campaigns in 1902–1903, which aimed to block an AFL-promoted bill that would limit the workday for government contract work to eight hours. The bill was quite popular in Congress, having passed the House multiple times. Fearing that the bill might soon pass in the Senate, the NAM looked to leverage personal influence to stall the legislative process.

In the House, the NAM targeted Richard Bartholdt from Missouri, a Republican who sat on the House Committee on Labor and who had a reputation for being a moderate on labor issues. The NAM discovered that one of its members, Adolphus Busch, had a great degree of influence over Bartholdt; indeed, the NAM vice president James Van Cleave indicated that Bartholdt “dances like a jumping jack whenever Mr. Busch pulls the string.”[3] At the NAM’s direction, Busch convinced Bartholdt to extend hearings on the eight-hour bill, thereby keeping it from progressing toward passage.

In the Senate, the NAM particularly wanted to influence Senator William J. Stone, also from Missouri but a Democrat. Stone had recently been made a member of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor. The NAM’s plan was to engineer a delay by getting the committee to refer the eight-hour bill to the Department of Commerce and Labor for further study, and Stone’s was a key vote in the committee. Here, too, personal connections were important. James Van Cleave, for example, wrote to Stone about the bill, and later explained to the NAM’s secretary that the “Senator and I were barefoot Kentucky boys in adjoining counties, and we have hob-nobbed together some.”[4] Stone, though he was unwilling to actually vote as the NAM desired, agreed to stay away from the crucial committee meeting, and the committee voted 4-3 to refer the bill for further study.[5]

Personal connections forged on the local level were, then, key to the success of the NAM as a lobbying organization. But the local level is also interesting from another perspective—namely, it helps us understand the advantages employers had over workers even in the project of getting organized.

Both workers and employers faced the problem of collective action. As Mancur Olson explained in his classic Logic of Collective Action, that individuals often act in their self-interest does not mean that groups can easily do so. On the contrary, individual self-interest tends to get in the way of groups achieving goals. Even when achieving a particular goal would benefit each member of the group, individual effort is hard to secure, as each member is tempted to let others do the hard work and simply reap the benefits. This so-called “free rider problem” is a perennial issue in any collective action project. It is not merely due to selfishness—after all, since no individual’s effort is sufficient to secure the goal, it seems irrational to work for it unless a sufficient number of others participate to make success plausible.[6]

As Olson noted, smaller and more cohesive groups have an easier time overcoming the free rider problem. This was true of employers versus workers as well. Through a case study of a particular city—St. Louis—we can see how preexisting connections among employers facilitated their efforts to create business organizations. St. Louis was an important city for the NAM: the NAM counted over 100 members there, had gotten involved in local strikes, and its president from 1906 to 1909, James Van Cleave, lived there. To reveal the overlapping social and business networks in St. Louis, we can use computational methods on two publications from the early twentieth century—a biographical compendium and a club directory. For our purposes, the relevant data is social club memberships and residential patterns of St. Louis organized businessmen, here defined as men who were members of one or more businessmen’s or employer’s organizations. In the St. Louis case, these organizations were the NAM, the local Business Men’s League (BML), the Manufacturers’ Association (MFA), and the Citizens’ Industrial Association (CIA).[7]

In the early twentieth century, St. Louis was a growing hub of manufacturing and commerce. The well-to-do classes had begun to move from downtown into the proverbial leafy suburbs, especially to several “places” on the edge of Forest Park. Designed by well-known architects, these private streets came complete with sculptures and arched entrances. Organized businessmen largely lived in these fashionable areas.[8]

A map of St. Louis, with dots representing NAM members' residences. Many are concentrated on the upper left.

Figure 2: St. Louis NAM members’ residences. The dashed square contained several of the “places” (Westmoreland, Portland, Westminster, and Kingsbury). Addresses extracted from The Book of St. Louisans, geolocated with U.S. census geocoder, https://geocoding.geo.census.gov/geocoder/. Map created with MapBox, n = 87.

Residence in the right neighborhoods often coincided with membership in one or more of the city’s exclusive social clubs, which had a variety of purposes and fell into a clear hierarchy. Using membership lists, we can construct a network of St. Louis social clubs by examining which clubs shared members.[9] The resulting network reveals a core of about ten clubs that were central and interconnected; other primary and secondary sources tell us that these clubs were some of the most exclusive in St. Louis.[10]

Image with labeled dots connected by lines of varying thickness.

Figure 3: St. Louis social clubs. Connections based on shared membership. Thickness of connecting edge [line]  represents the percentage of shared membership between two clubs (max 27 percent, St. Louis to Noonday; min 0.03 percent, Missouri Athletic to Cuivre). Size of node indicates total membership of the club (max 2,718, Missouri Athletic; min 20, Log Cabin Club). The triad at the upper edge of the image (Morning Choral, Wednesday Club, and St. Louis Woman’s Club) are women’s clubs; the dyad at the bottom (Columbian and Westwood) are Jewish clubs. Central clubs that enrolled much of the city’s elite are marked in purplish red. Network drawn in Cytoscape using the default Prefuse Force Directed Layout.

About one-third of St. Louis organized businessmen belonged to the city’s core clubs. Roughly another third listed memberships in the second-tier clubs, with the semi-elite Mercantile Club and the slightly lower-ranking Glen Echo Country Club being especially prominent.[11] In addition, some members of the core clubs also belonged to one or both of the two clubs that were so exclusive they only had a handful of members, the Log Cabin Club and the Cuivre Club. Membership in these clubs did not come cheap. The Cuivre Club, for instance, had an initiation fee of $500 and an annual membership fee “not to exceed” $200 (some $15,800 and $6,300, respectively, in 2020 dollars).[12]

The clubs provided an opportunity to network with the cream of the town. The Noonday Club, for example, had a membership of a few hundred, including many of the top businessmen and politicians in the city (although there was a strict prohibition, a contemporary history noted, against discussions of “any political or religious questions.”)[13] But it is the smaller clubs that especially vividly illustrate the links between the business, political, and opinion-making elites of St. Louis. The Log Cabin Club, for instance, enrolled a prominent St. Louis newspaper editor and publisher, a former Republican candidate to the U.S. Senate, and the mayor of St. Louis, in addition to a variety of bankers, stock brokers, and top-echelon businessmen.[14]

One factor that made the collective action problem less dire for St. Louis businessmen, then, was that they could be fairly confident that when they spoke, People of Note would hear them. Another factor that smoothed the way to effective collective action was preexisting relationships. Using data culled from entries (like the one for August Busch in the image below) in a local biographical compendium, we can construct a network of organized St. Louis businessmen based on whether they lived near each other and whether they belonged to the same clubs.[15]

Excerpt from a book. The text reads: "Busch, August Anheuser, vice president Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association; born, St. Louis, Dec. 29, 1865; son of Adolphus and Lilly (Anheuser) Busch; educated at Lyon (public) School, St. Louis, Morgan Park Military Institute, Chicago, Ill., and Kemper School, Boonville, Mo.; married, St. Louis, May 8, 1890, Alice Zisemann; five children: Adolph, Jr., Marie, Clara, August, Jr., Alice. After leaving school was sent to Germany, where received practical course of instruction in the brewing schools of that country; returned to United States and spent time to similar purpose in New York; then served for three years as brewer's apprentice with the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association; then entered general office as scale clerk; now first vice president of the association. Member A. F. & A. M., B. P. O. Elks, and Legion of Honor. Clubs: St. Louis, Mercantile, Missouri Athletic, Noonday, Liederkranz, University, Racquet, etc. Recreations: hunting, fishing, yachting and all outdoor sports. Office: Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. Residence: Busch Place.

Figure 4: August Busch’s biographical entry in The Book of St. Louisans (1912 edition), 98. These entries were converted into tabular format using Python and OpenRefine (https://openrefine.org/).

In the image below, each node (filled circle) in the network is an individual who was a member of the NAM and/or of one or more of the local business organizations (BML, MFA, and CIA). Each edge (line linking the nodes) represents either membership in at least three of the same social clubs (in red) or residence within 0.1 miles (about one city block) of each other. What the network reveals is that these men were quite closely linked to each other even without the organizations they created for themselves; indeed, 187 of the 472 individuals who belonged to one of the business organizations shared either social or geographical connections. Of these, about 100 individuals were closely connected by both club memberships and geography.

Figure 5: Members of BML, CIA, MFA, and NAM in St. Louis; network based on shared membership in 3 or more clubs and on geographic proximity of residence (edge drawn if distance < 0.1 miles). Each node [filled circle] represents an individual. Grey edges [lines linking nodes] are on the basis of residential proximity, reddish edges on the basis of shared club membership. Thick dark edges in the center indicate links based on both. Network drawn in Cytoscape using the Allegro Fruchterman-Reingold layout.

Of course, a connection in this network graph does not guarantee a personal connection, but rather indicates only social or geographical proximity. However, even in the absence of personal acquaintance, at the very least such residential and social club ties served as the basis for recognition of shared membership in the “better classes.”

Furthermore, the connections captured by the network are only a small slice of the many links between these men. Besides being members in the same social clubs and living in the same neighborhoods, these men were joined through business connections: buying from and selling to each other, subcontracting, being hired by one firm and then leaving to set up one’s own business, and so on. And these business connections were further cemented by family relations.

The marriage ties of the Busch family—makers of Budweiser—illustrate the multiple links between St. Louis businessmen. The storied wedding of Anna Busch to Edward Faust raised Edward Faust from a well-to-do restaurateur to the very top of the wealth pyramid. As the son-in-law of Adolphus Busch, he became the second vice president of the massive Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. The firm had itself been solidified by marriage, as Adolphus Busch had married Lilly Anheuser, his business partner’s daughter. Industrial ties, then, intermingled with ethnic ones (all these families were of German origin), which in turn were cemented by marriages.[16]

The upshot of all this is that, regardless of their own organizations, St. Louis organized businessmen were already a clique among themselves. Requests to get involved in employer activism likely came from men they already knew, respected, and possibly also needed to please. They were also well placed to influence both local policy and, through their connections with politicians and other important people, national politics, making effective collective action seem plausible.

Now imagine the St. Louis pattern writ large, happening in almost every industrial city in the eastern half of the United States and in several western cities as well. Think about what that meant for the likelihood and efficacy of employer organization. Workers (at least beyond one workplace) were often divided by ethnicity, skill, and residence; they were also well aware that any joint project would struggle to muster sufficient solidarity and would encounter significant and powerful opposition. By contrast, employers were getting together with people they already hobnobbed with, and they were confident that when they took their concerns to People Who Mattered they would likely be listened to—because they hobnobbed with those people, too. No wonder employer organizations could grow and become effective so rapidly.

Vilja Hulden is teaching associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her first book, The Bosses’ Union: How Employers Organized to Fight Labor before the New Deal, was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2023 and can be downloaded for free thanks to a TOME grant. Her new project is “Speaking to the State: A Computational Analysis of Group Representation at U.S. Congressional Hearings since 1877,” a born-digital publication drawing on the metadata and full text of over a million instances of testimony at hearings before the U.S. Congress.


[1] On the NAM in general, see Jennifer Delton, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism (2020). On the NAM and labor, see Vilja Hulden, The Bosses’ Union: How Employers Organized to Fight Labor before the New Deal (2023); and Julie Greene, Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881–1917 (1998), chapter 3.

[2] For several local case studies as well as broader analysis of early twentieth-century employer organizations, see Chad Pearson, Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (2015).

[3] James Van Cleave, quoted in Greene, Pure and Simple Politics, 96. See also Richard Bartholdt, From Steerage to Congress: Reminiscenses and Recollections (1930).

[4] J. W. Van Cleave to Marshall Cushing, Nov. 24, 1903, United States Senate, Maintenance of a Lobby to Influence Legislation: Appendix. Exhibits Introduced During the Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, 1–4 vols. (1913), 124.

[5] Secretary [Cushing] to Ferdinand C. Schwedtman, April 16, 1904, United States Senate, ibid., 330–31.

[6] Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (1965), esp. chapter 1.

[7] John W. Leonard, ed., The Book of St. Louisans: A Biographical Dictionary of the Leading Living Men of the City of St. Louis and Vicinity (1906); Albert Nelson Marquis, ed., The Book of St. Louisans: A Biographical Dictionary of the Leading Living Men of the City of St. Louis and Vicinity (1912); Gould’s Blue Book for the City of St. Louis (1913).

[8] Horbury L. Wayman, “Central West End,” History of St. Louis Neighborhoods, https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/archive/neighborhood-histories-norbury-wayman/cwe/subdivisions8.htm. On St. Louis, see also James Neal Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764–1980 (1998).

[9] Gould’s Blue Book.

[10] Julius K. Hunter, Westmoreland and Portland Places: The History and Architecture of America’s Premier Private Streets, 1888–1988 (1988), 43; William Hyde and Howard L. Conard, eds., Encyclopedia of the History of St. Louis: A Compendium of History and Biography for Ready Reference, vol. III (1899), 1441, 1653; James Cox, Old and New St. Louis: A Concise History of the Metropolis of the West and Southwest, with a Review of Its Present Greatness and Immediate Prospects. With a Biographical Appendix (1894), 225; Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, and Gary Kremer, Dictionary of Missouri Biography (1999), 789; Jeannette Cooperman, “Dinner at the Club, Darling?” St. Louis Magazine (2006), https://www.stlmag.com/Dinner-at-the-Club-Darling-/.

[11] It should be kept in mind, however, that half the NAM companies in St. Louis could not be found in The Book of St. Louisans, presumably indicating the lower status, on average, of their owners and managers. Together, the 1906 and 1913 member directories of the NAM list 107 companies in St. Louis as being members of the association. Of these, 53 are represented in the Book of St. Louisans data. The Book of St. Louisans (1906 and 1912 editions) contains biographies of some 140 individuals connected with these companies (as owners or upper management). National Association of Manufacturers, American Trade Index: Descriptive and Classified Membership Directory of the National Association of Manufacturers of the United States, Arranged for the Convenience of Foreign Buyers (1906); National Association of Manufacturers, American Trade Index: Descriptive and Classified Membership Directory of the National Association of Manufacturers of the United States, Arranged for the Convenience of Foreign Buyers (1913); Leonard, ed. Book of St. Louisans; Marquis, ed. Book of St. Louisans.

[12] Howard Louis Conard, ed., Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri: A Compendium of History and Biography for Ready Reference, vol. 3 (1901), 204. The price conversion is from Samuel H. Williamson, “Purchasing Power Today of a US Dollar Transaction in the Past,” 2020, Measuring Worth, https://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ppowerus/.

[13] Hyde and Conard, History of St. Louis, 1653.

[14] The newspaper editor was Charles Knapp of the St. Louis Republic, who was also on the board of directors of the Associated Press and the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association. The candidate for Senator was Thomas K. Niedringhaus. The mayor of St. Louis was Rolla Wells.

[15] Leonard, ed. Book of St. Louisans; Marquis, ed. Book of St. Louisans.

[16] For the biographical information, see the entries for Edward Faust and Adolphus Busch in Marquis, ed. Book of St. Louisans, 191, 98. See also Hunter, Westmoreland and Portland Places, chapters 3 and 4.