University of Colorado Boulder
Congressional investigations and testimony before Congressional committees is a commonly used source in labor history (as well as, of course, in historical and political science scholarship more generally.) Congressional investigations into the causes of economic depressions (e.g. 1878-79), the problems of industrial relations (1900-01, 1913-15), anti-labor practices (1936-41), and alleged malfeasance within labor unions (1957-60) have provided an important body of evidence for students of labor-capital relations, working-class culture, business ideology, and the like (see e.g. Auerbach, 1966; Greene, 1998; McCartin, 1997; Witwer, 2003.) As a subject in its own right, however, testimony before Congress has received only limited attention from labor historians, and little enough from other scholars, though there is relevant work on specific committees and general lobbying (Clemens, 1997; Harris and Tichenor, 2009; Herring, 1929; Tichenor and Harris, 2002-2003; Tichenor and Harris, 2005).
The focus in this paper is on what these hearings can tell us about the relative power of workers in the society over time. The U.S. has no labor party, and American unions have traditionally been ambivalent about electoral politics and legislation (Greene, 1998; Archer, 2010). Yet they have sought to be heard in Congress. This paper combines metadata about testimony at Congressional hearings and data about union membership and strike frequency in the U.S. to argue that this effort has been most successful when union penetration of the civil society as well as union involvement in electoral politics have been strongest, emphasizing the efficacy of a multipronged and organizing-based approach
Basics about the data and processing
The data set used here is extracted from the ProQuest Congressional database, which contains metadata on hearings and witnesses for all Congressional hearings. These are proprietary, but all publishable data as well as scripts will be available at
https://github.com/vhulden/congressionalhearings/ (along with more detail on the technical procedures.)
The full data set contains between about 62,500 and 85,000 unique hearings (the first is by unique title and the second by unique hearing ID) and a total of 941,302 instances of testimony (of course, many witnesses appear multiple times.) The average number of witnesses (or testimonies) per hearing is 12.2 (it is higher in earlier years and stabilizes to about 10.5 witnesses per hearing after 1900.) The subset under closer examination here consists of those hearings that concerned organized labor, wages, jobs, working people, labor management, and the like.
The basic data was further processed to attempt to assign witnesses into broader categories by their organizational affiliation, which the data contains for 83 percent of the instances of testimony. Since the focus in the current paper is on what hearings data can tell us about workers and their relative strength vis-à-vis business representatives, the main categories considered here are labor, companies, and trade associations; in addition, I have included the two largest categories of witnesses, the federal bureaucracy and the political parties (usually Congressional representatives themselves.)
Labor topics and witnesses
Figure 1 suggests that Congressional attention to matters related to work and labor has been fairly constant.
Figure 1: Hearings related to work and labor as percentage of all hearings, 1877-1990
Unsurprisingly, labor has been better represented at hearings on labor topics than at the average Congressional hearing, as shown in Table 1, which displays what percentage of the testimonies come from different witness categories.
In full data (percent)
At labor-related hearings (percent)
Instances of testimony at Congressional hearings, 1877–1990
Companies and trade association representatives dominate over labor ones in both data sets, but much less so at the labor-related hearings. Moreover, plotting the representation of different groups over time reveals that these percentages have not held constant.
Representation of witness groups over time, by percentage of instances of testimony
In two ways, this chart emphasizes the significance of electoral politics. One, the sheer number of testimonies from inside the federal bureaucracy and the political parties emphasizes that even at Congressional hearings, succeeding in electing friendly politicians mattered. Two, it is clear that labor representation was strongest in the periods when organized labor concerned itself with electoral politics. The New Deal era, when labor unions formed an important part of the Democratic coalition, forms the only period when labor testimonies were consistently on a rough par with business and trade association testimonies. Similarly, significant spikes of labor representation around the turn of the twentieth century and in the Progressive Era coincide with the American Federation of Labor’s campaign to support labor’s friends in either party, while some spikes in the 1920s perhaps relate to the brief but significant challenge to the major parties from the Farmer-Labor Party.
Strikes, union density, and labor representation at hearings
How well labor has been represented at hearings also seems to correlate with labor’s strength outside the electoral context in the form of strikes and union densities.
Number of strikes, percentage of strikers of labor force, and union density correlated with labor representation at Congressional hearings
Note in particular how labor’s representation stabilizes as strike activity becomes more consistent in the 1930s (and union density reaches a plateau.) However, note also how the downward trend of labor representation at Congress tracks declining union density and the decline in “strike density,” despite a spike in the number of strikes in the 1970s.
Discussion and future work
The data at hand is, of course, limited and imperfect. Nevertheless, at the very least these charts underline that labor’s power is consistent mainly when labor is strong by a number of measures, from strike activity to union density to electoral participation; individual strike waves around the turn of the twentieth century did not correlate with consistent labor representation at Congressional hearings, despite occasional spikes in the prevalence of labor testimony. The lack of impact from the spike in the number of strikes in the 1970s also seems to suggest that incidents of labor strife are insufficient by themselves, if the penetration of labor (strike “density” and union density) is low or declining. More careful statistical analysis is needed (on a cleaner data set) to tease out a more exact relationship, but overall, these correlations seem to suggest a multipronged, organizing-intensive strategy to increase representation. Future work might consider electoral campaigns and legislative outcomes to further elucidate labor’s fortunes in Congress.
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