Representation and Rebellion
The Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914–1942
by Jonathan H. Rees
In response to the tragedy of the Ludlow Massacre, John D. Rockefeller Jr. introduced one of the nation’s first employee representation plans (ERPs) to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1915. With the advice of William Mackenzie King, who would go on to become prime minister of Canada, the plan—which came to be known as the Rockefeller Plan—was in use until 1942 and became the model for ERPs all over the world.
In Representation and Rebellion Jonathan Rees uses a variety of primary sources—including records recently discovered at the company’s former headquarters in Pueblo, Colorado—to tell the story of the Rockefeller Plan and those who lived under it, as well as to detail its various successes and failures. Taken as a whole, the history of the Rockefeller Plan is not the story of ceaseless oppression and stifled militancy that its critics might imagine, but it is also not the story of the creation of a paternalist panacea for labor unrest that Rockefeller hoped it would be.
Addressing key issues of how this early twentieth-century experiment fared from 1915 to 1942, Rees argues that the Rockefeller Plan was a limited but temporarily effective alternative to independent unionism in the wake of the Ludlow Massacre. The book will appeal to business and labor historians, political scientists, and sociologists, as well as those studying labor and industrial relations.
Early employee representatives at the CF&I weren’t stooges and they weren’t suck-ups, concludes the author of a new book on the company’s employee representation plan.
The groundbreaking plan, covering workers at the Pueblo steel mill and the company’s far-flung mines, is the subject of “Representation and Rebellion: The Rockefeller Plan at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, 1914-1942,” by Jonathan Rees, associate professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Rees will sign copies of his book at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Bessemer Historical Society’s Steelworks Museum of Industry and Culture, 215 Canal St.
“It surprised me just how active the people (employee representatives) were,” Rees said. “They got in management’s faces. The image of a ‘company union’ was that they were pliant, suck-ups to management, and there was no real conversation between workers and management, but from the moment I first saw minutes of the meetings, I could tell just how active they were, how forceful.”
Rees said there were a few similar plans that predated the CF&I’s but the local one — often called the Rockefeller Plan — got the attention because of Ludlow and because of the Rockefeller name.
On the advice of Canadian labor expert William Mackenzie King, John D. Rockefeller Jr. instituted the employee representation plan as a way to improve the CF&I’s tarnished image after the Ludlow Massacre, as an attempt to discourage labor union activity and prevent further strikes, and because he genuinely was interested in reform, Rees said. At the time of the massacre, the Rockefeller family owned 40 percent of CF&I stock and a large proportion of its bonds, and the younger Rockefeller headed the family foundation.
Rockefeller visited Pueblo and Southern Colorado for three weeks in fall 1915 to announce the plan, under which employee representatives were elected and met regularly with company representatives to discuss workers’ grievances.
Rees’ book revisits the events at Ludlow and the United Mine Workers of America’s campaign to blame company owners for the tragedy. It discusses early-20th-century industrial relations and follows King’s influence on Rockefeller and in crafting the employee representation plan. It explains the plan and notes the creation of Colorado’s Industrial Commission in 1915, which was to administer the workmen’s compensation law and mediate labor disputes.
Rees writes that of all the rights given to CF&I workers under the representation plan, the right to join an outside union caused management the most concern. That right, plus the fact that workers could appeal to the Industrial Commission, made the CF&I plan the “most extraordinary” of employee representation plans.
Rees discusses employees’ differing reactions to the plan and notes that some reported not even knowing it existed, in part because they didn’t speak English.
Rees said the CF&I’s employee representation plan wasn’t the same as a “company union,” many of which were created to circumvent the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
“This (CF&I) plan and those plans were not even remotely similar. This one was much more liberal.”
In the end, though, the local plan didn’t work because it created “a crisis of rising expectations,” Rees said. “You tell them (the workers) they have rights and they still will press for more.”
The plan didn’t put an end to strikes, but Rees thinks the workers would have said they were better off with the plan — even though it had limitations — than without it.
He said he aimed for “the middle ground” in writing his history of the ERP, and his book is of wider interest than just Southern Colorado because it is about managing personnel.
“That’s not like handling machines, because the people talk back.”