The Workers of NCR

By the 1880s Dayton had begun to shift from being a large town serving the commercial needs of the surrounding agricultural area to the major industrial center it would eventually become. In 1881 25 percent of Dayton's population worked in industry, with 32 firms employing 75 or more people. The largest of these was the Barney and Smith Manufacturing Company, makers of railway cars, the employed over 1,500. The National Cash Register Company, then still owned by tavernkeeper James Ritty, was far down the list with only 123 employees. Besides railway cars and cash registers, Dayton's early industries produced cigars, farm machinery, paper and printing machinery, pumps, and turbine power wheels.

Various AFL skilled craft unions flourished in Dayton, such as the typesetters and the cigar makers. For less skilled workers in the city's larger establishments it was a different story. Dayton Malleable Iron Works and Barney and Smith both recruited large numbers of Hungarian immigrants, who agreed not to join unions as a condition of their employment. Barney and Smith went even further, requiring these workers to live in a "company town" in a Dayton neighborhood near its plant, known as the "Kossuth Colony." In 1910 the company paid its workers an average wage of about $9 a week for 6 twelve-hour days. The workers received their pay in scrip that could only be used at the company store inside the Kossuth Colony. One worker's wife found the penalty stiff for not buying "at home":

It was in 1910. I was outside the Colony for some reason and I decided to buy some cabbage. I bought it and was coming back into the Colony when I noticed that Mr. Moskowitz [the company's agent who managed the Colony] was looking at me. He followed me home and when I got there he asked me what I had in the bag. When I didn't answer, he opened the bag and put the the cabbage on the table. He didn't say anything but just walked away. Then, My husband came home from work that night and told me that he had lost his job at the Car Works and that we had to leave the Colony. The next day we left.

-interview with Mrs. Joseph Nagy, November 14, 1963, quoted in Virginia Ronald and Bruce Ronald, The Land Between the Miamis: A Bicentennial Celebration of the Dayton Area (Dayton, Ohio: Landfall Press, 1996), p. 214.

By 1920 the Barney and Smith company had gone out of business, its factory complex heavily damaged in the 1913 flood, and the market for its ornate, old-fashioned wooden railway cars having disappeared.

Crusading for the "Open Shop" in Dayton

Another local industrialist, John Kirby, was president of the Dayton Manufacturing Company, which made railway car furnishings. In 1899 he discharged 17 of his employees in the polishing and buffing department when he learned they belonged to the Metal Polishers, Buffers, Platers, and Brass Workers Union. This led to a strike at the plant, which Kirby finally broke in 1901 with the help of police arrests of pickets and a permanent court injunction. Kirby went on to found the Employers' Association, which evolved into the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). This group called for the "open shop," which meant that workers in their employ were forbidden to join or organize labor unions. NAM appealed mostly to small and medium-sized companies in the Midwest and South, often those under competitive pressure from larger firms.

The industrial union movement was held at bay in Dayton over the next few years, as most of the city's manufacturers fell in step with John Kirby's philosophy. A statement in a 1910 publication of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce is revealing on this point:

Dayton, while it is known as the City of a Thousand Factories, has in reality twelve hundred and sixty-five manufacturing industries in activeoperation. In the number . . . and amount of capital invested it ranks as the third city in Ohio. . . . The annual value of its annual output is $70,000,000. . . . It has a greater variety of manufactures than any city on the Western Continent and NO LABOR TROUBLES.

-quoted in Ronald and Ronald, The Lands Between the Miamis, page 222.

The Labor Question at NCR

John H. Patterson did not join John Kirby's anti-union organization in 1899. He prided himself on an "enlightened" policy toward his workers and doubted that unions and strikes would be a problem at NCR. When a defective shipment of cash registers to England in 1893 was returned with evidence of deliberate damage on the part of a worker, Patterson quickly investigated and discovered employee discontent with some practices and conditions they found intolerable. He tried to correct the situation and went on to inaugurate his program of "welfare work" In the late 1890s.

In 1901, however, NCR workers went out on strike because a foreman, James McTaggart, had summarily fired several active unionists who worked in the brass-molding foundry. Angered by the strike, Patterson completely shut down the factory for seven weeks and loudly denounced so-called "union bosses." The American Federation of Labor's efforts to have merchants boycott NCR failed, and Patterson went to New York City to meet with Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, to negotiate. As a result, the strike was called off and the workers returned to their jobs in a company now firmly committed to the "open shop." But plant foremen lost the power to hire and fire, all such matters now to be handled by a centralized "Employment Department." The workers also received a 12.5 percent pay increase, and Patterson forged ahead with his system of "welfare work," including the building of the famous NCR Auditorium. And in 1905 he finally joined Kirby's Employers' Association.

NCR would remain a nonunion company until 1938. Then, during the height of New Deal Era labor activism, it recognized an independent company union not affiliated with either the AFL or the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). NCR's relatively high wages and paternalistic approach to labor relations kept most workers satisfied. By the late 1960s, competitive pressures began to force NCR to take a tougher stance in labor negotiations. This led in 1968 to a workers' vote to organize as a local of the United Auto Workers (UAW), and a lengthy strike in 1969. This era was short-lived, however. The swift end to cash-register production in the early 1970s largely eliminated the company's blue-collar workforce, leaving a very different NCR to compete with other high-tech companies in the contemporary "information age."

 

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