During the first two decades of the twentieth century, both managers and workers in America’s large-scale factories sought to reorganize the human relationships involved in industrial production. The authority of foremen and the autonomy that skilled craftsmen had customarily exercised in the direction of their own work and that of their helpers came under attack from two directions at once, as the scale and complexity of industrial enterprises grew. From one side, the craftsmen themselves developed increasingly collective and formal practices for the regulation of their trades, both openly through union work rules and covertly through group-enforced codes of ethical behavior on the job. The rapid growth of trade union strength in most sectors of the economy between 1898 and 1903, the eagerness of workers to undertake massive strikes to obtain or preserve union recognition, such as the coal strike of 1897, the steel and machinists’ strikes of 1901, the meat packing strike
of 1904, and the revival of sympathetic strikes all increased the ability of skilled workers to impose their union work rules and standard rates (minimum wages) on their employers.
From the other side, the owners and managers of large enterprises developed more direct and systematic controls over the production side of their firms. By the end of the 1890s many metallurgical, textile, and machinery-making companies had erected new plants, which were well adapted to the unencumbered flow of materials through successive operations, introduced large numbers of specialized machines, developed careful methods of cost accounting, and experimented widely with systems of incentive pay, which, the managers hoped, would entice their workers to greater exertion. After 1900, a veritable mania for efficiency, organization, and standardization swept through American business and literary circles.
The scientific management movement of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his disciples was the articulate and self-conscious vanguard of the businessmen’s reform effort. Although fewer than thirty factories had been thoroughly reorganized by Taylor and his colleagues before 1917, the essential elements of their proposals had found favor in almost every industry by the mid – 1920s. Those basic elements were as simple as they were profound: (1) centralized planning and routing of the successive phases in fabrication, (2) systematic analysis of each distinct operation, (3) detailed instruction and supervision of all workers in the performance of their discrete tasks, and (4) incentive wage payments carefully designed to induce workers to do as they were told. All of these points undermined the traditional autonomy of the craftsman, and the last three were incompatible with the wage scales and work rules of trade unions. As its impact spread, therefore, the scientific management movement not only clashed frontally with the growing power of trade unionism but also exposed basic weaknesses in the craft-based structure of American unionism and inspired many workers to experiment with new forms of struggle.