Company gyms, employee education, profit sharing -- it was all happening a hundred years ago.
Workstyle, as we know it, may be a relatively new phenomenon, but concern about the quality of workers' lives goes all the way back to Samuel Slater, who brought modern textile manufacturing to America in 1789. He felt personally responsible for his workers, many of whom were children, and invested considerable time and money in their education, welfare, and religious training. It was not until the 1880s and 1890s, however, that enough companies got involved to constitute a full-fledged movement.
The movement, which lasted about 40 years, consisted mainly of efforts by companies to enhance their workers' physical, social, and intellectual well-being, and to improve the overall quality of work life. These activities ranged from George M. Pullman's town-building (see main text) to Henry Ford's profit-sharing plan. Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. built an employee casino. H.J. Heinz Co. held millinery classes for women workers. The Edison Electric Illuminating Co. of Boston offered everything from tennis courts to bowling alleys. Other companies planted gardens for workers, or constructed baths, or built libraries and athletic facilities. Also included were the first serious efforts to provide systematic medical care and insurance coverage for employees, as well as attempts to improve safety on the job.
This wave of corporate generosity was certainly fueled in part by fear of the growing trade-union movement, but there were other motives. One was greed: the desire to get employees to work harder for less money. Another was sincere altruism: the urge to do good for employees, many of whom were destitute immigrants and farm refugees. There was also the sense, shared by modern workstylists, that looking out for workers was simply "good business." National Cash Register Co., for example, explained in a company publication: "In 1892, registers worth over $50,000 were returned because of defective workmanship. We decided that more interest would have to be taken in our employees to make them better workers, and we . . . found that it paid in a better product."
Yet, good business or not, the movement eventually died, and a major factor in its demise was the indifference or outright hostility of workers. Indeed, some of the most bitter strikes in American history occurred in companies that had been pioneers and leaders of the "welfare work" trend (as it was known at the time): Pullman, National Cash Register, Ludlow Manufacturing, International Harvester, United States Steel, and Ford Motor, among others.
In general, problems arose for predictable reasons -- when, say, the company cut wages, extended work hours, or started speeding up production, while continuing to mouth platitudes about employee welfare. Some workers also resented their employers' intrusion into their private lives. Ford, for one, hired 200 investigators "to gather facts and figures with reference to every employee of the company," according to a contemporary report in the Detroit Evening News.
The Depression killed off most of the vestiges of "welfare work." Afterward, a handful of companies continued to practice it in one form or another, but the movement as a whole was rendered irrelevant by the rise of the welfare state, the consolidation of the union movement, and the prosperity that followed World War II.