Current Research in Digital History


Vilja Hulden

Labor and Business at Congressional Hearings, 1877–1990
Unequal Power and the Significance of Elections

from volume 2 (2019), https://doi.org/10.31835/crdh.2019.07

Abstract

Testimony before Congressional committees forms an important body of evidence in many scholarly works, but as a subject in its own right, testifying before Congress is relatively little studied. Yet, as the most accessible form of (federal) lobbying, Congressional hearings offer a wide-angle view of attempts to gain the ear of the state, one that in no way excludes the influence of powerful financial interests but also encompasses the presence of representatives of ordinary Americans, such as labor unions. Using metadata on testimony at Congressional hearings, this paper makes a first attempt at combining a historical overview approach with a focus on labor both as a topic and an actor, examining both Congressional attention to work-related matters and labor's representation at hearings. The birds-eye view presented in the paper underlines a crude yet important point: politics matters, but to make a mark in politics, one needs a base of power. Political alliances and electoral shifts have mattered greatly to labor's Congressional fortunes both through access to hearings and by potentially shaping the testimony of the many government and party witnesses, but such political alliances are insufficient in themselves unless labor is able to assert power outside of electoral politics.

Testimony before Congressional committees forms an important body of evidence in many works of historical and political science scholarship, providing source material for students of topics ranging from labor-capital relations to working-class culture to business ideology.1 As a subject in its own right, however, testifying before Congress is relatively little studied. Yet, as the most accessible form of (federal) lobbying, Congressional hearings offer a wide-angle view of attempts to gain the ear of the state, one that in no way excludes the influence of powerful financial interests but also encompasses the presence of representatives of ordinary Americans, such as labor unions.

The main work on historical patterns in testimony before Congress is by Daniel Tichenor and Richard Harris, who, pointing out that “political scientists know precious little about the contours of interest group politics in the United States before the 1960s,” use Congressional hearings metadata to map out a broad overview of the rise and fall of interest groups for the period 1833–1917.2 With regard to labor, some scholarship exists on the internal dynamics of specific committees, like the famous La Follette Committee on Civil Liberties in the 1930s. Recent work has also made use of late-20th-century Congressional testimony data: Kyle Albert, for example, uses it to investigate the differences between union legislative strategies.3

This paper makes a first attempt at combining a historical overview approach with a focus on labor both as a topic and an actor, considering Congressional attention to work-related topics over time and comparing labor’s testimony frequency to that of business particularly on such topics.

The American labor movement and its allies have repeatedly debated the wisdom of engaging in politics or asking for state protection, even as unionists of all stripes from voluntarists to socialists have well understood the significance of the state, not only as a potential source of pro-worker legislation but also as a repressive force deployed against labor.4 These divisions have been intertwined with debates about whether a labor union is fundamentally a social movement or an institution, whether workers are best served by “responsible” negotiation strategies and political alliances aiming to build long-term institutional presence or by radical protest and critique from the outside, and whether American “business unionism” has done too little to engage the state on broader social issues.5 Examining long-term shifts in Congressional attention to work-related issues and the access of labor representatives to Congressional hearings on such subjects can shed partial light on each of these questions.

A preliminary analysis of the patterns in the presence of labor topics and witnesses over time suggests that labor’s concerns have included social issues, and that both short-term, radical disruptions and long-term institutionalized strength have played a role in getting the Congress to pay attention to work-related issues. At the same time, the hearings data offers a sober view of labor’s power: business representatives outweighed labor witnesses on nearly on all topics and in all periods.

An overview of the data

The data set used here is metadata derived from the ProQuest Congressional database, extracted from XML files.6 It contains the hearing title, hearing date, committee and subcommittee, witness name, subjects, and other assorted fields for all Congressional hearings held between 1877 and 1990.7 Due to the structure of the files, some of the fields are very reliable (e.g., hearing title, date, witness names) while others are less so (organizational affiliation cannot always be successfully extracted even when it is present, for example.)

The data set contains between 62,500 and 85,000 unique hearings and a total of 941,302 instances of testimony.8 The number of Congressional hearings increased dramatically over the course of the twentieth century: from a handful of hearings per year before 1900 to hundreds per year in the early twentieth century, with over one thousand hearings per year in the 1940s, and approaching two thousand per year by the 1970s.

The basic data was further processed to attempt to assign witnesses to broader categories by their organizational affiliation; such category designation was assigned to about 40 percent of the witnesses.9 Overall, the largest category of witnesses thus identified were representatives of political parties (usually legislators) and of the federal bureaucracy and executive branch. Among non-state witnesses, the largest group of testimonies came from companies and trade associations; labor and workers accounted for only just over 2 percent of all testimonies. Labor has, however, been much better represented on hearings related to work, jobs, industrial relations, and the like. Such concerns have been a significant part of Congressional hearings activity, hovering at about 10 percent of all hearings for most of the twentieth century and rising to about 20 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Figure 1 shows the strength over time of selected groups of witnesses at hearings related to work, jobs, labor and related topics.10 In two notable ways, the figure reveals the significance of electoral politics.

Line graph showing the representation of different groups at congressional hearings from eighteen seventy-eight to nineteen ninety.

Figure 1. This graph shows how the representation of different witness groups at Congressional hearings has shifted over time, as percentage of all witnesses that year. Note especially the bulge of labor witnesses at mid-century and the very high proportion of witnesses representing political parties and the (federal) bureaucracy.

First, the sustained heavy presence of witnesses from party and government bureaucracies underlines the need to have allies in the halls of government: if all such partisan or expert testimony ignored or opposed one’s concerns, outweighing it would be a momentous task. And indeed, even the American Federation of Labor’s early-twentieth-century leadership, known for its skepticism toward the state, nevertheless took very seriously the importance of the Bureau of Labor and starkly opposed watering it down by folding it into a Department of Labor and Commerce.11

The second pattern that catches one’s eye is the solidity of the labor representation from about 1934 to about 1969—the height of New Deal liberalism and an era when labor’s alliance with the Democrats (who mostly controlled Congress) was at its most robust. Even though companies and trade associations, if added together, still overshadowed labor in these years, the presence of labor witnesses was substantial.

The usefulness of labor’s alliance with the Democrats, of course, was linked to labor’s strength in the broader society. Union power made labor a more attractive political partner, and increased the resources that unions could invest in sustained contact with Congressional staffers, essential in ensuring that unions received invitations to testify.12 Union density was an important measure of this power, and in the 1930s–1960s it was far higher than before or since. It is worth noting, however, that the timing of the shifts in labor’s presence at hearings does not entirely track the rise and decline in union density: labor’s presence rose before the surge of new union members in the war years, and persisted through the 1960s despite union density peaking in the early 1950s.13 Nor does the timing entirely fit strike statistics: although strikes in the primary sectors declined in the 1970s, the story in the public sector was very different, and a fair number of large strikes (involving over 1,000 workers) still took place in the mid-1970s. By the 1970s, however, business interests had thoroughly regrouped and were reasserting their power over workers in the workplace as well as in politics: as Lane Windham points out, for example, while workers’ efforts to organize did not decline in the 1970s, workers’ ability to win union elections diminished significantly.14

Analysis: Topics and committees

Testimony at hearings happens, of course, under the auspices of specific Congressional committees. Labor historians have generally mainly made use of hearings at the labor and judiciary committees and the special investigative commissions that are the most closely linked to the development of labor policy. Yet if we examine what committees over time have considered matters related to work, employment, industrial relations, and jobs—all matters of import to working people—a more complex picture emerges, as seen in figure 2.15

Bubble chart showing the top congressional committees considering work and related matters  from eighteen seventy-eight to nineteen ninety.

Figure 2. The top Congressional committees considering work and related matters, as measured by number of testimonies at hearings related to such matters, 1877–1990. The size of the bubbles indicates weight of testimony at that committee as percentage of all testimony that year, thus giving a visual representation of which committees became focal points in different years for matters related to work.

One pattern in this figure is the shift from sporadic hearings clearly representing the limited-time intense activity of a subcommittee or special commission (e.g. the Industrial Commission with its masses of testimony around the turn of the twentieth century, or the 1883 investigation under the Committee on Education and Labor on labor-capital relations) toward a lower-level but more sustained attention to work-related matters in the latter half of the time period. Probably indicative in part of the overall bureaucratization and regularization of the work of Congress, this trend also dovetails the shift of “the labor question” from early-twentieth-century volatility to a more staid and routinized status in the post-World War II era.16

Another noteworthy pattern is the significance of two committees that are generally not thought of as labor-related but that nevertheless considered a constant stream of work- and employment-related issues: the Committees on Appropriations (House and Senate) and the Committee on Ways and Means (House). Much of importance to working people happens at these committees. The House Ways and Means Committee not only has the power to write tax and tariff legislation, but also has jurisdiction over such important programs as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees, meanwhile, are the committees that hold the power of the purse.

The Appropriations Committees hold few hearings, and the testimony they take comes almost exclusively from the federal bureaucracy and legislators, who together account for about 75 percent of testimonies for which an organizational affiliation was identified. Neither business nor labor, then, has a strong role as witnesses (though they make use of other avenues of influence; an appointment at the Appropriations Committee is generally considered a boon for one’s ability to raise campaign funding.)17 At the Ways and Means Committee, testimony is much more prominent, but labor has not been well represented: even on work-related matters, business testimonies have been twice as numerous as labor ones, although here too labor has been somewhat better represented at times, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s (see figure 3.)

Line graph showing representation of companies and trade associations vs. labor unions at the Ways and Means Committee from eighteen eighty-eight to nineteen ninety.

Figure 3. This figure shows the shifts in representation of companies and trade associations vs. labor unions at the Ways and Means Committee (House), as percentage of identified testimony, 1884–1990. Note that although both fluctuate quite significantly, the years in which labor witnesses equal or outweigh business witnesses are very few.

On the other hand, a closer examination of labor testimony at the Ways and Means committee (figure 4) highlights the breadth of labor’s concerns, especially in the post-WWII years. Labor witnesses have testified on unemployment, social security, national health insurance, and welfare, as well as on trade and tariffs. This calls attention to the significance of labor’s involvement in social legislation, whereas the bulk of scholarship relating labor to the state focuses on collective bargaining and its legal framework.18 It also reinforces recent scholarship arguing that criticism of labor’s indifference toward broad social legislation may be misguided, and that we should instead look for an explanation of the meager social protections in the efficient exploitation of Congressional rules by conservative and business actors.19 A focus on the broader public policies in which labor took an interest can illuminate what unionism meant to workers, as well as delineate the complex ways in which the efforts of labor organizations, activists, and political actors reinforced and fed off of each other and shaped the political climate.20

Chart showing how business and labor testimony was distributed at different hearings held by the House Ways and Means Committee from the nineteen thirties to the nineteen eighties.

Figure 4. This graph displays how business and labor testimony was distributed at different hearings held by the House Ways and Means Committee. It focuses on labor testimony, showing the top 30 hearings by number of labor testimonies. Even so, business dominates at several hearings. On the other hand, this graph gives an idea of the topics of particular concern to labor.

Discussion

The birds-eye view presented here underlines a crude yet important point: politics matters, but to make a mark in politics, one needs a base of power. Political alliances and electoral shifts have mattered greatly to labor’s Congressional fortunes both through access to hearings and by potentially shaping the testimony of the many government and party witnesses, but such political alliances are insufficient in themselves, and are unlikely to pay off in favorable Congressional attention to work-related issues unless labor is able to assert its power outside of electoral politics.

Future work—besides improving the reliability of the results by striving to make the data cleaner—could profitably delve into many more nuanced ways of examining the hearings data than has been possible in this preliminary work. For example, one could tease out the frequency with which labor versus business presence at hearings has indicated representation versus censure (the latter, after all, has also often been the case, as when labor leaders have been required to testify at hearings on union corruption or industrial leaders have been called to carpet by a pro-labor Congressional investigation.) One could also examine different facets of “labor”: after all, “labor” is not uniform, monolithic category. Indeed, at the very moment when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was cooperating closely with the La Follette Committee on Civil Liberties to indict employers for dictatorial behavior, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was busy testifying before the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities to accuse both the CIO and the La Follette Committee of “Communist conspiracy.”21 Less dramatically, multiple political and policy fault lines have run through the labor movement—public vs. private sector, service vs. core industries, social democracy vs. bread-and-butter issues. More fine-grained research focusing on specific labor actors among Congressional witnesses would contribute to a growing body of scholarship emphasizing the need to better incorporate all these different types of unions into our understanding of the labor movement.22 Finally, one could combine overviews of the type presented here with a text mining analysis of the content of testimony, as well as with analyses of the outcomes of specific Congressional hearings to further explore the respective weights of militant pressure outside the political process versus embeddedness in the political process itself.23


Bibliography

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Argersinger, Jo Ann E. “Contested Visions of American Democracy: Citizenship, Public Housing, and the International Arena.” Journal of Urban History 36, no. 6 (November 2010): 792–813. https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144210374315.

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Notes

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the panel commentator Joseph McCartin for helpful comments.

  1. The literature is substantial; for a few examples, see e.g. Greene, Pure and Simple Politics; McCartin, Labor’s Great War; Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union

  2. Tichenor and Harris, “Development of Interest Group Politics in America,” 253; Tichenor and Harris, “Organized Interests.” For an early study arguing for the significance of interest groups in lobbying by the 1920s, see Herring, Group Representation Before Congress. See also Clemens, The People’s Lobby for relevant work on historical lobbying by grassroots organizations. 

  3. Auerbach, Labor and Liberty; Albert, “An Analysis of Labor Union Participation.” 

  4. The literature on labor, politics, and repression is too sizable to cite here; for some overviews, see Robertson, Capital, Labor and State; Feurer and Pearson, Against Labor

  5. See e.g. Moody, An Injury to All; Burns, “Strike!”. See also Nelson Lichtenstein’s new introduction to the reissue of his Labor’s War at Home

  6. Data from https://congressional.proquest.com/. The CU Boulder University Libraries negotiated access to this data, which cannot be distributed publicly. Scripts and some data excerpts are available at https://github.com/vhulden/congressionalhearings/

  7. I have restricted the data to these years because pre-1877 hearings are very different and rather spotty, and because a glitch in the data causes errors in the post-1990 material. In principle everything from the early 1800s to 2018 is available. 

  8. The number of hearings with a unique title is 62,451; the number of unique hearing identification numbers is 85,087. The latter exaggerates the number of hearings as different parts of hearings are assigned unique identifiers, but the count by title likely undercounts as some hearings will have the same title. As far as I can tell, there is no feasible way of gaining an exact count. The number of unique witnesses is of course much lower than the number of individual testimonies. 

  9. At present I have not attempted to identify public-interest organizations (churches, charities, women’s groups, etc.) which in part accounts for the low category designation percentage. The procedure for categorizing was iterative and is not error-free. A number of regular-expression searches were performed on the full list of organizations to try to extract organizations belonging to a particular category. For example, searching for words like “company,” “railroad,” “bank” from the list of organizations and writing those into a file that serves as the basis for a list of businesses. That preliminary categorization is then manually inspected and re-processed to remove false hits like e.g. “railroad brotherhoods” which should be in the labor list instead. The resulting final lists are then used for assigning a category (that is, if an organization is in the labor list, it gets categorized as labor, and so on). Although this serves for preliminary analysis, and seems to tally with results others have come to, future work should invest more time in more careful cleaning of the data. 

  10. The category of “hearings related to work” comprises only those hearings where either the title of the hearing, the title of the committee or commission, or the subjects considered in the hearing relate to work, workers, labor unions, jobs, or industrial relations. This did not include all hearings held by the House Committee on Labor and the Senate Committee on Education of Labor; those were only included if the title or one of the subjects included keywords related specifically to labor unions, industrial relations, workers, or jobs. 

  11. Hulden, “Employers, Unite!” 241–42. 

  12. Obtaining exact and reliable historical union density figures is a non-trivial problem, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics has compiled for overall densities since the 1930s. Southworth and Stepan-Norris, “American Trade Unions and Data Limitations”; Mayer, Union Membership Trends in the United States. On the role of Congressional staffers in issuing invitations, see Leyden, “Interest Group Resources and Testimony at Congressional Hearings.” 

  13. Albert’s analysis of labor testimony in the years from 1972 to 2008 finds a decline in labor’s presence in the 1970s and 1980s and documents it as continuing steadily, tracking the decline in union density, but as the start date is already in the “decline” era, it is difficult to draw more fine-grained conclusions from it. Albert, “An Analysis of Labor Union Participation.” 

  14. Francia, The Future of Organized Labor, 3; Windham, Knocking on Labor’s Door. See also MacLean, Democracy in Chains. Peter Francia argues that by investing seriously in grassroots electoral mobilization in the 1990s, unions managed to recuperate an impact disproportionate to their numbers. As the data here end in 1990, whether this had an impact on labor’s presence in Congress has to be left for future research. But as Francia notes, this has neither been sufficient to counter Republican campaign spending, nor, even when Democrats have done well, translated into significant legislative victories. Francia, The Future of Organized Labor, ch. 4. 

  15. Only the main committee title was used here, i.e., subcommittee was ignored, as was the designation of whether this was a House or Senate Committee. Sometimes, of course, House and Senate committees have different titles (e.g. Senate Committee on Education and Labor vs. House Committee on Labor), but for the sake of the clarity of visualization, listing each committee separately for the House and the Senate seemed undesirable. 

  16. The literature on the extent to which concern over labor conflict dominated the early twentieth century is broad and deep; for one thoughtful treatment, see Stromquist, Reinventing “the People”

  17. The literature on campaign contributions and Congressional voting is of course extensive; see e.g. Fellowes and Wolf, “Funding Mechanisms and Policy Instruments.” 

  18. For overviews of labor and the state, see Tomlins, The State and the Unions; Dubofsky, State and Labor

  19. Roof, American Labor

  20. For an example, concerning how Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) interest in housing shaped social policy as well as American ideas of democracy, see Argersinger, “Contested Visions of American Democracy.” 

  21. Auerbach, Labor and Liberty, 164. 

  22. See especially Windham, Knocking on Labor’s Door

  23. Labor has sometimes also deployed an explicit lobbying-plus-economic pressure strategy, as in the late 1940s, when the CIO pushed for better pensions partly in an effort to reduce employer opposition to guaranteeing the future of Social Security. Wigderson, “How the CIO Saved Social Security.” 


Appendix


Author

Vilja Hulden, Department of History, University of Colorado Boulder, Vilja.Hulden@colorado.edu, ORC ID logo0000-0002-3812-7010