In 1801 President John Adams authorized the purchase of a small, private shipbuilding facility on the west side of Wallabout Bay, a swampy inlet of the East River that pushed into northern Brooklyn. On its shore the newly-formed Navy Department established one of the country's first navy yards, popularly known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard.1 For the next 165 years, as the Yard grew around and into the Bay, it gained renown for constructing such capital ships as the battleships Arizona and Missouri, and for fitting-out, upgrading, converting, repairing, and overhauling naval vessels of all kind.2
[1. The official name of the navy yard until 1945 was the U.S. Navy Yard, New York, and was referred to by the Navy Department as the New York Navy Yard. From 1946 to 1966, it was called the New York Naval Shipyard.]
[2. Fitting-out: finishing a ship mostly built elsewhere, especially its armaments (the Monitor was one famous example); upgrading: installing new technology on an older ship; converting: making over a previously civilian ship; repairing: as in war-damage or accidents; overhauling: periodic maintenance work.]
In a city where manufacturing was limited mostly to small industrial factories (e.g., the garment shops) the navy yard was an anomaly in New York City's economic life in that it was a gigantic, heavy-industrial site. With a workforce of more than 10,000 at the announcement of its closing in November 1964 (and with as many as 65,000 employees during World War II), the Brooklyn Navy Yard was once the largest single-site employer in New York City, the source of thousands of well-paid, skilled-trade, clerical, and professional positions. New Yorkers considered these good jobs—-and patriotic ones at that—-and the Yard helped burnish Brooklyn's image as much as did the Brooklyn Dodgers, and its closing in June 1966 proved to be as much a shock to the borough as the baseball's team flight west the decade before. It was a jolt to the city's economic base and a precursor of the industrial flight from the northeast and mid-west United States that was soon to begin
["There's nothing better than civil service, except federal civil service." Bill Hamill, to his son, Pete, c.1951, on the latter's acceptance to a Yard apprencticeship program. Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life: A Memoir (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994). For a brief narrative of the Yard's history see Arnold Markoe, "New York, N.Y., Navy Yard, 1800-1966," in United States Navy and Marine Corps Bases, Domestic, ed. Paolo Coletta; assoc ed. K. Jack Bauer (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). A good sense of the Yard's role in Brooklyn's self-image is found in Pete Hamill, "Brooklyn; The Sane Alternative," New York, 14 July 1969.]
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Over the course of its history many navy yards have existed in the United States.These are still operating:
- Norfolk (Portsmouth, Virginia), 1801-
- Portsmouth (Kittery, Maine), 1801 -
- Puget Sound (Bremerton, Washington), 1891-
- Pearl Harbor, 1899 -
These operated for long periods of time before closing:
- Washington (DC), 1799-1961; known as Naval Gun Factory, 1886-1961
- Boston (Charleston, Massachusetts), 1800-1974
- Philadelphia, 1801-1995
- New York (Brooklyn), 1801-1966
- Mare Island (Vallejo, California), 1854-1996
- Charleston (South Carolina), 1902-1996
For briefer periods of time the Navy also had yards at:
- New London, 19th century
- Memphis, 1845-1853
- New Orleans, closed 1912
- Pensacola (FL), 1826-1911; late became naval air base
- San Francisco, 1941-1974
- Long Beach (California), 1941-1997
In peacetime, the major navy yards had their assigned roles. After 1886 the yard at Washington gave us ship building and turned to producing cannon and armaments for the new steel navy. The navy yards at Mare Island and Portsmouth built submarines; the yard at Philadelphia assembled naval aircraft as well as ships; and the smaller yards concentrated on repair work. In the twentieth century the BNY built its reputation first on constructing battleships, then later, aircraft carriers. It also had other special tasks, for instance, it produced a hefty proportion of the fleet's flags and pennants, and in the 1920s it manufactured submarine diesel engines. It was also a formidable repair base capable of repairing and maintaining every type of vessel, from battleships to the smallest auxiliary craft.
[For a bibliography on the navy yards, click here. On assignments to navy yards, see" “Policy for Industrial Navy Yards,” Letter, ASN (Ernest Lee Jahncke), to Commandant, Navy Yard, New York, N.Y., et al., 3 October 1930, with enclosure, “Navy Dept Policy for Navy Yard, New York, N.Y.,” September 1930. RG181; NA-NY.]
From the founding of the Navy Department in 1798 up through the 1960s, when the political mood changed, navy yards existed: first, because the U.S. government and many citizens felt that in order to advance and defend its place in the world the country needed a navy; second, that building and servicing this fleet was best accomplished by having the government itself perform some large share of the task; and third, once established, navy yards became powerful economic institutions in their localities, taking on their own independent political life as their supporters in government, business, labor, and the workers themselves fought to keep them as a source of jobs and contracts for materials and services. The federal government found it could cut back or close navy yards, as well as other military bases, only at great political cost.
In one memo from the late 1920s the Navy said it ran its own yards to: keep work on certain sensitive parts of its warships under its own control; preserve under its control a necessary corps of workers and yards ready for immediate growth in case of war; maintain a standard in quality and price against which to measure private ship production and forestall price-hiking; and allow for experimentation in design without worrying about costs. There were other reasons, mostly political, which defended the navy's right to construct ships. Some segments of the government, navy, and the public believed that if the government owned the final product it should also own the means of its creation. Sentiment also existed in favor of government ownership of yards and arsenals as a way of countering the perceived profit-mongering of private corporations that manufactured military goods. The case for navy yards from the Department's point of view was perhaps best put in this report from Secretary of the Navy Charles Adams: "The constructing, maintaining, repair and operation of naval structures ashore is so intimately related to military control and . . . adjunct to successful control and operation of the fleet in time of war, that to attempt to eliminate such work from military control jeopardizes the Navy's successful operation as a whole.” And, just as important was the economic motivation. In a bow to political reality the Navy instructed their yards to maintain their operation in times of peace "so as to have stable labor employment, . . . as nearly as may be." The pressure that unions and businesses could bring to bear on Congressional representatives to maintain the navy yards through the first half of the twentieth century was substantial.
[Rear Admiral Crisp, “Comparison of Shipbuilding and Ship-Repairing Procedure - Navy Yards,” in The Shipbuilding Business in the United States of America, vol. 2, ed., F.G. Fassett (New York: The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1948); Extract, from memorandum for the Secretary of the Navy, prepared by Bureaus Construction and Repair and Engineering, 11 March 1927; “Work Load - Assignment of Work, vol.1”; “Cost of building ships in Navy Yards,” Memorandum, W.R. Van Buren, Navy Department, 25 September 1929; “Ships: Construction of”; Letter, from H. Gerrish Smith, President, National Council of American Shipbulders, to Ernest Lee Jahncke, ASN, 8 March 1932; “Ships: Construction of.” All in: RG80; NA-DC. “Hearings before the Special Committee Investigating the Munitions Industry,” United States Senate, 73rd Congress (Washington: GPO, 1934), commonly known as the Nye Committee Report. Letter, from C.F. Adams, Secretary of the Navy, to The Chairman, Committee on Expenditures on Executive Departments, House of Representatives, 28 January 1932; “Policy for Industrial Navy Yards,” Letter, ASN (Ernest Lee Jahncke), to Commandant, Navy Yard, New York, N.Y., et al., 3 October 1930, with enclosure, “Navy Dept Policy for Navy Yard, New York, N.Y.,” September 1930; RG181; NA-NY.]
But warship construction was also, and primarily, assigned to the commercial shipbuilding industry and a fierce rivalry existed between the public and private shipbuilders and their allies. The private shipyards had their own set of arguments justifying their right to build most if not all of the country's warships. One standard argument of theirs claimed that since government production was not disciplined by the need to make a profit, it resulted in inefficiency, high wage costs. And many even questioned whether the federal government as a matter of policy should even be involved in manufacturing. Many naval officers agreed with them, believing that navy yards should be restricted solely to repair work. Command of navy yards was generally given to admirals as their last assigment before retirement and they often found the change to managing civilians a jolting one. One of Brooklyn's commandants, Yates Stirling (1933-1936), wrote a memoir which includes a few, rather dyspeptic pages near the end about his service there and his disdain for being in the construction business. Eventually, the navy yards would lose the argument, but not until the Johnson administration.
[The private shipbuilders’ arguments are laid out in a report by their lobbying organization: National Council of American Shipbuilders, Commercial Shipyards and the Navy (New York: NCAS, 1937). See Stirling's memoir: The Memoirs of a Fighting Admiral (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939). His memoir is particularly noted for his reactionary comments toward native Hawaiians during his term as commandant at Pearl Harbor.]
As a corollary to the creating and maintaining of its navy and navy yards the government itself thereby helped shape the development of various production and administrative processes. The U.S. government is the largest employer in the country [especially if you include the military] and spends hundreds of billions of dollars to pay its own workforce, to buy supplies, and to contract out for goods and services. The switch to a steel navy, for example, the sole owner of which is the Navy and which it shared building with the private sector, played its part in the evolution of the metal-trades and to the standards to which they work. (The Navy was an early supporter of the ideas of Frederick Taylor.) In western states, where urban growth came later, the cities of Vallejo, California, and Bremerton, Washington, grew around the navy yards of Mare Island and Puget Sound and more or less became one-shop towns.
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As to the navy yard workers themselves, they worked within a complex organizational structure.
- Blue-collar trade workers and their helpers worked in the BNY in shops generally organized by trade and these in turn were organized into larger departments. They reported to civilian supervisors in the shops but also took general direction from naval engineer-officers. The upper reaches of management was all naval. It was similar for the white-collar and professional workers except they worked in departmental offices, structured according to administrative function within the Yard.
- Naval administration in the navy yards was both vertical and horizontal. A typical command structure existed in the Yard in which a pyramid of management culminated in the yard's Commandant, who in turn reported to the Assistant Secretary in Washington and then to the Secretary of the Navy, before 1947, a Cabinet official.
- Navy yards were also organized in bureaus which had cognizance over broad areas of production such as manufacturing, ordnance, aeronautics, accounting and such. The officials in charge of these posts in the navy yards reported to their Bureau Chiefs who had their headquarters in the Department office in Washington.
- The Chief Naval Officer, the top military post in the Navy Department also had a say in operations through the assignment of repair work.
- As an executive agency, the Navy Department reported to the President and to Congress, which controlled its budget and set by law its general regulations.
- When questions of law arose they would be directed to the Attorney-General for resolution, and when questions of interpretations of regulations pertaining to working conditions arose they were sent to the Comptroller-General for a decision.
- On top of this, as federal workers, almost all civilian navy yard workers were subject to the regulations of the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
- Pensions and worker compensation was in turn handled by a separate agency.
- As to their own organization, most trade workers and some white-collars were members of the unions that covered their trade or occupation. Trade workers were generally in public-sector locals of otherwise private-sector unions [and until the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 supervisors could have membership in the unions of their respective trades], while most white-collars participated in unions of federal employees that cut across agency boundaries.
- Navy yard locals organized themselves into loose confederations called Metal Trade Councils which reported to the AFL's Metal Trade Department. Due to the uniqueness of these public-sector work sites, the MTD permitted all locals no matter the trade or occupation to belong to their local MTC.
- Periodically in the first half of the twentieth century unions outside of the AFL attempted to organize in the navy yards with little success, until the early 1930s, when the major white-collar local pulled out of the AFL [and the AFL set up a rival union in its place], and in the late Thirties when the breakaway unions of the CIO entered into the navy yards.
- Public-sector unions were subject to labor laws much different from those in the private sector, especially as to their right to recognition and concerted action--like striking--and as such their unions lobbied heavily and often successfully in Congress for their members to make up for their inability to push their agenda in the more traditional ways.
- Veterans and their organizations often proved to be a potent force, especially after World War II.
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Despite its status as one of New York City's historic icons, the historical literature on the Brooklyn Navy Yard is minimal and of what exists there is scant mention of its labor history. This can be explained in part by the disinterest shown to federal-labor history by historians, an interesting omission in that the federal government is the largest employer of labor in America. Labor and working-class history has expanded rapidly in the last generation and historians, attached to liberal and Marxist concepts of labor-value--with its emphasis on the creation and distribution of profit, and to the natural drama inherent in activities such as strikes (forbidden to federal workers), have focused their attention on the private sector to the exclusion of the federal employee.
[A review of the “Forty Year Cumulative Index” in Labor History 43, February/May 2002, shows that of nearly 1900 citations to past articles, only three are easily identifiable as being about American public employees and none are about federal employees. Of close to 2100 book-reviews, nineteen are easily identifiable as discussing the history of public workers: about one-third to one-half cover federal employees in some manner. Joseph McCartin argues that the primary reason historians have neglected the public sector is due to its success in organizing in the last forty years, which runs counter to the accepted notion that the American labor history has been in steady decline since the AFL-CIO merger. (Joseph A. McCartin, "Bringing the State's Workers in: Time to Recify an Imbalanced U.S. Labor Historiography," Labor History 47(February 2006): 73-94.) The history of navy yards in general is rather scant given the general public interest in military affairs and there is little in what is published that mentions their respective labor histories. See the bibliography. There is an extensive literature on public-sector labor, organized and otherwise, in the social sciences. It is, however, oriented towards contemporary issues and is often structural in nature. Much of it is also hostile to organized labor. For example, see the long-running Government Union Review: A Quarterly Journal on Public Sector Labor Relations (1980- ), published by the Public Service Research Foundation, an organization which finds public-sector unionizing an anathema and is hard-pressed to find anything complementary to say about private-sector organized labor.]
Brooklyn Navy Yard workers—as well as other government workers—experienced a working history, that though it shared much with their private-sector brothers and sisters, possessed numerous disparate elements. Foremost is the obvious: that the logic of the private sector is one of profit; it is the reason for its existence, and its labor relations flow out of the resultant struggle between the working-, middle- and the capitalist-classes over who controls its creation and distribution, as moderated by law. The public, government sector in the modern age exists for reasons of politics and administration, its own non-profit economy a secondary factor, although of course run not without concern for operating as efficiently on the taxpayer's dollar as is politically possible. [As to whose interests the government serves is a different question.] Its own labor relations therefore flow from this mix of politics and the desire for administrative productivity. But its labor history and that of the private sector do share the one basic theme of power: how it is acquired, maintained, and contested over by the various parties involved.
To date, theoretical approaches to studying American public-labor history1 begin with the political concept known as the sovereignty doctrine. In essence, the doctrine, which dates back at least to Thomas Hobbes, claims that the government, as representative of the entire domain, cannot be held accountable to its citizens, individually or collectively, beyond those powers it expressly gives to them. This principle holds true in democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes. In practical and legal terms in democracies, this doctrine generally means that people are not allowed to sue the federal government unless they have been given permission to do so.2 It underlies the power of eminent domain, and it justifies the inability of retired shipyard workers to take the federal government to court for damages due to asbestos-related illnesses they incurred while in its employ. In the labor sector the doctrine also condoned the government's refusal to recognize and bargain with employee organizations, such as unions, as it owed a special sovereign duty to the public that would be broached by negotiating with individual groupings of that public.3 As to labor relations itself, it was expressed in mostly a negative fashion and it is not well developed theoretically in the historical literature, although it has been analyzed at length in the social sciences. While President Kennedy partially blunted the force of the doctrine in government labor relations with his partial recognition in 1962 of federal-employee unions and federal-employee locals of mostly private-sector unions, and the federal labor relations system was codified in 1977, the doctrine is still used to this day to keep unions and locals of federal employees as open shops and is the rationalization for what the doctrine is still most famous for in U.S. labor relations: the denial to federal, and most public employees, of the right to strike.4 On the other hand, the doctrine, filtered through various laws, civil service regulations, and the citizen's right to associate, also protected the right of federal employees to openly join unions without fear of (overt anyway) discipline or dismissal and to petition and lobby Congress and the President over their grievances.5 It also permitted the government to pass labor legislation for its employees that at times gave federal employees benefits superior to those in the private sector, or to exempt itself from laws passed to improve the labor and social rights of private-sector workers.6 For instance, federal workers had a pension plan and a workers’ compensation program dating back to 1920; but they also were exempted from the National Labor Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.7
[1. As an analytic category, public-sector labor history also includes state and local level governments, and generally the term “public-sector” labor history has come to mean non-federal government employees. See: Robert Shaffer, “Where Are the Organized Public Employees? The Absence of Public Employee Unionism From U.S. History Textbooks, and Why It Matters,” Labor History (43, August 2002), which adopts this terminology.]
[2. The issue of the federal government being able to remain unaccountable to its citizens has once again been raised in the Patriot Act.]
[3. Sterling Spero, Government as Employer (New York: Remsen Press, 1948, reprinted 1971).]
[4. It therefore also prevents the government from using the lock-out weapon.]
[5. For white-collar, solely government unions, from 1912 on. For blue-collar unions, mostly situated in the private sector, back into the nineteenth century.]
[6. On the sovereignty doctrine, see: Ann Ross, "Public Employee Unions and the Right to Strike" Monthly Labor Review 92 (March 1969); B.V.H. Schneider, "Collective Bargaining and the Federal Service" Industrial Relations 33 (May 1964); B.V.H. Schneider, "Public-Sector Labor Legislation in an Evolutionary Analysis," in Public Sector Bargaining, 2nd ed., eds. by Benjamin Aaron, et al. (Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1988); Louis Imundo, "Strikes and the Strike Issue in Federal Government Labor-Management Relations" Personnel Management 52 (May 1973); David Rosenbloom, Federal Service and the Constitution: The Development of the Public Employment Relationship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971); Grace Sternet and Antone Aboud, The Right to Strike in Public Employment, 2nd ed. (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1982); Kurt L. Hanslowe, The Emerging Law of Labor Relations in Public Employment (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1967); Spero, Government as Employer; Morton Robert Godine, The Labor Problem in the Public Service: A Study in Political Pluralism (New York: Russell & Russell, 1951).]
[7. Howard Samuel, “Troubled Passage: The Labor Movement and the FLSA,” Monthly Labor Review (December 2000); David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Kenneth Davies, FDR: Into the Storm, 1937-1940, A History (New York: Random House, 1993); Suzanne Mettler, Dividing Citizens: Gender and Federalism in New Deal Public Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).]
Being a democracy, the strength of the American sovereign power in its labor relations was tempered by its need to respond to some fair extent to its constituents' wishes. Sterling Spero and Murray Nesbitt, the only writers to date who have attempted lengthy syntheses of federal labor history, derived a model for analyzing government labor relations based on the experience of the employees themselves, who saw their struggle as one between those in politics, labor, and business who argued for the government to be a “model employer” versus those who wanted the government to follow the “prevailing standards” of the private sector.
[Sterling Spero, Government as Employer (New York: Remsen Press, 1948, reprinted 1971); Murray B. Nesbitt, Labor Relations in the Federal Government Sector (Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1976).]
The perception, which can be traced back at least to workers' agitations over the ten-hour day in the early nineteenth century, is succinctly put in the report that the president of the AFL's Metal Trade Department prepared for its convention in 1922:
“When speaking of the government as an employer the common understanding is that the government should be a model employer, furnishing employment to its employees at the highest standard of wages, the fewest working hours and the best possible working conditions, including sanitation, safety and human treatment.‘The government should not attempt to follow after or to hold up as a criterion private conditions of employment but should establish a standard which private employers must come up to.”The historical story shows a complex dialectic between these two poles of labor relations. For instance, in the inter-war years navy yard workers had superior pay and benefits compared to workers in the then non-unionized commercial shipbuilding industry, and federal workers and their unions pressed the government to act as a model employer and maintain wages and benefits during the Depression's early years. Their opponents in the government and in industry lobbied for Congress to follow the prevailing pattern and reduce pays and benefits. They had some initial success but within a few years the political power that the navy yard workers and their allies could exert was sufficient not only to enable the workers to make good their losses but even to make gains in pay during the 1930s. But then, in the mid-1930s as the government-sponsored revival of shipbuilding in general led to the creation of a CIO shipbuilding industry in the private sector--the IUMSWA, and its newly-passed Wagner Act upheld the new union's--and all private-sector unions'--legitimacy [while specifically denying recognition to public-sector unions], the new union proved itself so energetic that by the start of 1941 it had advanced wages and benefits for its workers enough that navy yard workers and their advocates held the upstart union as a model for the government to now follow.
[James O’Connell, “President’s Report,” "Proceedings of the 14th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, 1922." There is a second part to this statement: “And particularly should the government see to it that all its contracts let to private employers are let to firms where the conditions of employment are as good as those under which the government operates its own manufacturing plants.” For a brief history of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century federal-labor history see: Spe Government as Employer.]
[See following historical sections.]
[A related point to remember is that while the "model employer" concept is generally seen as a positive aspect, at least from the workers' point of view, the government can also be a model for the private sector in attacking labor, beyond that of merely following existing prevailing standards. One example would be the fight against unions launched by businesses in the wake of President Reagan's firing of the striking PATCO workers in 1981. Another, whose effects on the private sector have yet to be determined [as of June 2005] is the second President Bush's determination to rid Department of Homeland Security employers of much of their union and civil service rights.]
While this binary is most helpful as a framework for studying the macro-, more public, aspects of government labor history such as wages, hours, and benefits, it presents difficulties as a model for analyzing the nitty-gritty of internal shop relations, where the concept of “sovereignty” resides more or less in the background. Here, the contest is for control of the shop floor, and this is an important theme for many labor historians who study the private-sector but it has not yet received attention from the historians of the public sector.1 Again, as we are studying non-profit corporations, the issue revolves not as to how profit is created and extracted from the shop floor but to its underlying corollary of who controls the floor as an issue in and of itself. In this sector the justification for maintaining shop floor control is not based so much on property rights and the need to grind profits from them, but from the need to maximize efficiency in production methods and costs, which is as always felt best served through a top-down hierarchical power structure. Efficiency [or tax conserving] is generally the stated and often legislated goal of operations [whereas in the private sector efficient production is the means of maximizing surplus value] and political scientists and sociologists have given this complex topic much attention. They stress the inherent contradictions that lie within public administration, as well as within American democracy itself, and they too have created their binaries for modeling the problem, proposing that one of the fundmental problems in public administration is the conflict between the search for “efficiency” and those factors that tug the government in other directions. Some examples of their binaries are: “efficiency versus effectiveness”; “efficiency versus democracy”; “efficiency versus equality”; and “efficiency versus economy.”2 But when it comes to the studying of government labor history these writers keep their emphasis on the theoretical frameworks, such as the general forces driving the evolution of the civil service, and while the fight over efficiency ratings, for instance, is stressed in their studies, it is contextualized in general terms, which shows that their prime goal is the studies of systems and not so much, the people who work within them.
[1. David Brody and David Montgomery are probably the two most well known labor historians who have studied the labor relations of the shop floor. For Brody, see: Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century Struggle, 2nd ed. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1993); Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960). For Montgomery, see: The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Workers' Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).]
[2. On the efficiency concepts, see: Patricia Ingraham, The Foundation of Merit: Public Service in American Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1995); James Fesler, Donald Kettl, The Politics of the Administrative Process, 2nd ed. (Chatham: Chatham House Publishers, 1996); Arthur Okun, Equality and Efficiency, The Big Tradeoff (Washington: Brookings Institute, 1975); Dwight Waldo, The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration (New York: The Ronald Press Co., 1948). One common example of these contradictory impulses is how on one hand the federal government conducts an almost excessive search for efficiency, such as in its often-mandated need to conserve tax dollars by accepting bids only from the lowest reasonable bidder, while simultaneously for political reasons spreading its spending around as generously as possible. Congress may continually rail against "pork," but to suspend such spending would be committing political suicide.]
These two different models for studying federal labor history link up in the most basic tenet of labor relations that derives from the sovereignty doctrine: the issue of formal recognition of representative worker organizations for the purposes of bargaining over the terms of their employment. Ultimately, in the pre-Kennedy era the lack of formal union recognition, in the American legal mode, underlay many of the labor problems that the government experienced. Without an independent union to counter management's prerogatives the efficiency rating system could rake whatever damage its evaluators choose to commit; without recognition government agencies had to deal informally and often in a most complicated way with different unions, often who might be claiming to represent the will of the same set of workers; without recognition management could discipline and spin grievances however it chose; and without representation and the right to strike it meant that a major, if not the primary, theater of labor action was to be in Congress, as only the legislative branch had the power to override the decrees of the executive branch.
The issue of having a different set of legal codes for the private and the public sector is an interesting matter both philosophically as well as politically. Navy yards are just one example of dual ownership in the country, that is, where the government and businesses each manufacture the same item or provide the same service, such as building and repairing armaments, running electrical grids, staffing offices, cleaning those same offices, and there are thousands of other examples. Why does the government in the modern era [post-World War I] feel it can exempt itself from the labor relations it mandates for the private sector? Take the right to strike: why today do workers at the Northrup Grumman Newport News shipyard, building one aircraft carrier after another, have the legal right to strike, and have done so, while their federal compatriots across the Chesapeake Bay in the Norfolk Navy Yard are forbidden by law from doing so because doing so supposedly presents a threat to security and the public good in general? Is the sovereignty doctrine a valid defense or is it more a kind of self-justification--the government no more wants strikes than does the private sector, and is in a position to enforce its will in the matter?Finally, something needs to be said of the Civil Service Commission, of which no real counterpart exists in the private sector. This was an entity [since 1977 divided into three agencies] that intervened between the top-most layers of federal management and the rest of the workforce acrossexecutive and independent departments as a sort of super labor relations office, in the name of protecting the federal worker from political influence and to seeing that the government received the best services possible from its employees. In a sense it was internally conflicted from the start as these two goals are only complementary in the most utopian and naive of academic and professional theorizing. As a result, due to the problems these inherent contradictions continually generate, the civil service has been under political pressure to be "reformed" almost from the moment of its inception in 1883. Supposedly the arbiter of merit and good personnel practices, the Commission easily allowed itself to be manipulated to meet the needs of naval production in times of crisis and was not hard to push in other times. Sometimes, as during the Hoover years, its looking the other way, for instance over the practice of work-sharing, was of benefit to navy yard workers. But clearly, the civil service was a hierarchical organization that allowed for no input as to its structure and operation from the people it was meant to supervise, and executive agencies like the Navy consistently abused its spirit as well as its law. In some ways, it functioned as the classic company union, seemingly affording protection and an avenue for worker input and grievances but in reality being allowed to operate at management's mercy. This is not to totally condemn the organization. It did institute one very important policy: due process, which resulted in job protection. As long as you scored a relatively decent mark on your last efficiency rating, did not get into trouble, and your agency remained generally healthy, you knew your job was protected for at least until the next marking period from the vagaries of management abuse so prevalent in the non-unionized private sector. This is no mean accomplishment and Americans have flocked to take their civil-service exams and tests then and now. But now, in another time of perceived crisis, parts of the American government have decided that again reform is needed in certain executive departments; that the defense of the United States could even be threatened by these most basic protections for its workers.
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On this website I have used these models to help structure the sections about the labor history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There is a dialectic at work here in its labor history: flowing from the competition between the competing goals and values of management and labor. For the Navy, and its political allies, production, preferably done as cost-effectively as possible, outweighed all other considerations, based on the perceived need for a strong navy to advance and protect real and perceived American needs. Coupled with this was the Department's somewhat professional disdain for its civilian workers in general, a disdain it also bestowed upon its sailors. For the workers and their labor, commercial, and to a careful extent, their political allies, the paramount issue was to create and maintain as many jobs, and supply and service contracts as possible.* Then for the workers came their desire to defend and improve their wages and benefits. The fight for respect and fair treatment was an important objective as seen in the workers' disdain for efficiency ratings. And then, especially for those employees holding union membership, there was the issue of recognition, the desire for the Navy to sit down and negotiate with one, legal body, representing all the yard's workers, as businesses did in the private sector. Overarching and controlling their reactions to the Navy's antagonistic attitude was the workers' loyalty to their country and their sense of patriotism. After all, as they saw it, the navy yard was a military institution and its management was not a boardroom of greedy capitalists, and as is shown elsewhere, federal workers and their unions never were able to formulate an organizing strategy that could mesh with their wish to remain Americans citizens in good standing as they saw it, as proud of their product as the rest of the country was.
[*Although when talking of government-owned manufacturing agencies or military bases, most Senators and Representatives suddenly of all stripes suddenly find common cause when talk arises about shutting down any particular base.]
Many of the Navy's decisions that are presented in the section about the Hoover years, such as work-sharing, and declaring the trade workers as “temporaries,” the issue of efficiency ratings, fall into the effectiveness category; the fight over wages and hours [and following sections] into the model- vs. prevailing standards-employer model, and the fight over the shop committee system makes far more sense when we realize organized labor's great fear was that the committees could be a cover for the Navy to establish company unions in its shore establishments. As the term sovereignty doctrine implies, federal labor relations were, and continue to be, an intensely political activity. The government may legislate and police some of the structures and goals of private-sector labor relations, but for itself it is all there is. Especially in the pre-1962 era federal labor relations reflected whatever the balance of political power was between the two sides at any particular time. In the 1910s, trade unions wielded great influence in Congress, enough so that they were able to have the use of overt scientific management banned in the arsenals and navy yards. In the Depression years their power was more ambiguous. In the most public aspects of wages and hours, workers and unions successfully held and bettered their own. In more intimate areas such as efficiency ratings and down-ratings they failed to hold their own. This in turn followed from the workers and their unions' greatest disappointment in this era: the failure to obtain the same right to formal recognition that the government gave to private-sector workers in the Wagner Act. The government's insistence on retaining as much as possible its sovereignty in its labor relations underlies all that occurred in the years between the two world wars. It guaranteed that federal workers would contest their rights not over bargaining tables or on the picket lines, or even in the courts, but in Congress. For only one branch of the sovereign power could contest the power exerted by another. In the end, federal workers lacked the ability to assert the full set of rights against their employer that that selfsame government had granted to workers in the private sector.
John R. Stobo © June 2005; August 2005; March 2006
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