Corporate Mergers and the Public Good
The United States of America, during the last years of the Nineteenth Century, witnessed a rash of corporate mergers. The Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold, and the nation was changing rapidly. Millions of Americans who had once been independent farmers or tradesmen now found themselves in the position of what some termed “wage slaves.” At the mercy of their corporate employers, they worked long hours at low pay, and often under appalling conditions. The reasons for the merger mania of this period are many and complex, as are its effects upon the population as a whole. In breaking down the traditional vocational environment, the gigantic new conglomerates also transformed the entire social landscape. Work was no longer a family business shared by all generations. Communities no longer clung together for mutual protection and aid. Suddenly, the citizen of this new world was out on his own. He did what he was told and hoped for the best, though what was deemed the best often fell far short of what was desirable. The corporate juggernaut spawned its own adversaries, corporate greed feeding the new union movement as exploited workers fought for basic rights. More than any other time, the late Nineteenth Century was a time in which the modern world and all its social safety nets was formed. The seemingly unstoppable growth of the trusts and the conglomerates caused many to rethink the basic responsibilities of employers and government.
To begin with, the new conglomerates acted in much the same way as traditional employers. Like the old masters and farmers, they did not attempt to provide any special welfare services for their workers. Employers expanded their enterprises as they were able to do so. In this sense, the corporate merger represented a natural process of growth. Successful companies bought up other companies in order to expand into new markets and eliminate competition. As with the old, traditional-style family business, the new corporations could be a source of pride and social prestige. Yet Americans demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to sell out when the price was right. Unlike their counterparts in certain other countries, Germany for example, the original owners of a business saw nothing wrong with selling out and depriving their heirs of the opportunity to control what had been a family-run enterprise.
Though Germany’s hospitable legal environment for collusive arrangements can be cited to account for the absence of a U.S.-style merger wave, it is imprudent to leave matters at this. Instead, other variables merit consideration. For instance, attitudes toward control perhaps had an impact. Allegedly, as compared with their counterparts in the U.S., industrialists in Germany were more reluctant to relinquish their independence and lose the identity of the firms they had founded. This was because they tended to have deeply -rooted historical ties to the firms providing their income and believed that having a family business provided the basis for their social status.
Given that the owners of the new corporations were increasingly inclined to view their enterprises, not as family business, but almost solely as money-making entities, it is no surprise that workers were increasingly perceived as parts of the manufacturing process rather than as human beings. Many industries relied increasingly on elaborate chemical processes and the employment of huge amounts of energy, usually steam:
The application of heat and involved chemical rather than mechanical methods, improved technology, a more intensified use of energy, and improved organization greatly expanded the speed of throughput and reduced the number of workers needed to produce a unit of output. Enlarged stills, superheated steam, and cracking techniques all brought high volume, large-batch, or continuous process production of products made from petroleum, sugar, animal and vegetable fats, and some chemicals, and in the distilling of alcohol and spirits and in the brewing of malt liquors. In the furnace industries better furnaces, converters, and rolling and finishing equipment, all of which required a more intensive use of energy, did much the same thing.
The typical industrial worker became subordinated to the means of production. Inherently unhealthy processes and conditions led to increased hardship. The factory worker in this period was exposed to hazard after hazard, and risked life and limb almost every day he went to work. The larger the corporation, the more likely it was, as well, that the factory owner would have little knowledge of the actual conditions under which his employees labored. To these owners, they would quickly become little more than figures on a balance sheet. Indeed this situation was exacerbated by the various economic criteria that created the “merger mania.”
Low earnings, however, were also a function of the intense competition that occurred during the 1890s in industries that experienced consolidations … profit rates on capital were on the average lower in consolidating industries than in the rest of the manufacturing sector in 1899
Sadly, these conditions were hardly confined to just a few companies. The companies that participated so readily in the “merger mania” were, in reality, quite dominant in their respective industries.
Brief as the merger movement was, it threatened to make radical changes in the competitive structure of American industry. All told, more than 1,800 firms disappeared into consolidations, many of which acquired substantial shares of the markets in which they operated. [In the case of] ninety-three [of these] consolidations … seventy-two controlled at least forty percent of their industries and forty-two at least seventy percent. Even assuming that none of the remaining mergers achieved significant market power, this still means that more than half of the consolidations absorbed more than 40% of their industries, and nearly a third absorbed in excess of 70%.
As a result, few workers escaped the consequences — good or bad — of the merger movement. Where formerly, a variety of different owners fairly widely dispersed geographically had run their enterprise according to their own ideas of what constituted “good business practice,” a small number of “business plans” now dominated. The new conglomerates could easily make decisions that affected tens of thousands of workers. Scholars of the period were well aware of the potential for abuse of workers’ rights, and for the condemning of workers to labor under horrible and human conditions.
The apparent callousness towards the worker was a natural outgrowth of the entire merger movement. The aim of the merger was, as business decisions usually are, to save money. It is the view of Naomi Lamoreaux that the Merger Mania was set off by the unparalleled price wars that erupted in the late Nineteenth Century.
Hard-pressed to make their products as cheaply as possible, corporations sought all sorts of ways to keep these costs down. The merger movement represented an attempt to control an industry, much as a political and geographical empire might seek to assume large-scale control of markets, resources, and territories. The corporate bosses thought that, if they expanded horizontally i.e. If they controlled as much of their own industry as possible, they would then be able to fix the terms and conditions of production. The more capital-intensive the industry, the more likely it would fall prey to the merger mania. The following table reveals the formulae used to represent growth vs. capital investment:
Capital Investment vs. Output
As companies expanded enormously in size, concern with costs became greater than ever before. Workers were under intense pressure to be as productive as possible. As “means of production” a company’s employees had their abilities measured in terms of their cost to the corporation vs. their productive output. To the extent that technology itself could only do so much, workers were forced to put in long hours, in an attempt to “beat the clock” thereby keeping costs low and productivity correspondingly high.
Each motion of work was now measured in microscopic units and thus the relationship between labor and the physical environment was severed in consciousness. Instead workers were apparently dominated, not only by the machine, but also by the clock that suddenly appeared as an autonomous force of production. Internal time consciousness became a function of the industrial system, and punctuality in appearing for work was a requirement that, in highly “integrated and rationalized manufacturing processes, became even more fundamental than the possession of manual skills.
The gigantic monopolies became thus huge leveling agents. Working conditions were held to the lowest possible common denominator.
The transition from the small, family-owned and staffed, business, to the corporate giant spanning the better part of a given industry, led to significant organizational changes. In order to successfully integrate so many workers into the manufacturing process and in order to ensure that production was carried out as efficiently, and as cost-effectively as possible, a new organizational paradigm was required.
In iron and steel, as well as in industries not delayed by struggles with craft workers, the new model was of an army. A hierarchical structure was instituted, with foremen and supervisors to watch over other employees, and the entire enterprise assumed the shape of a giant pyramid. A direct chain of command was created in which those who were delegated power were made responsible to successively higher and more concentrated echelons. One observer, struck by the “highly militarized” organization of the steel industry, found military terminology appropriate to describe its organization.
Therefore, employers were fully capable of developing new skills when it came to managing these new industrial enterprises. Corporations grew to a size hitherto unimagined, their vastness and complexity requiring the development of a whole new managerial apparatus. Hundreds, or even thousands, of highly trained personnel would be needed to oversee the highly technical means of production, and to superintend armies of unskilled, or semi-skilled laborers:
The operation of the … [New] systems required the creation of a complex managerial structure to assure steady and continuing flows of information and orders …. By careful coordination of flow within and between the large … enterprises, the time involved decreased even more. As the rate of … flow increased, so did output per worker and unit of capital and equipment used
Thus, as profits declined because of the intense competition, money that might otherwise have been available for higher wages or the improvement of the work environment was simply not forthcoming. Business owners were too busy maximizing their resources. Corporations concentrated on intra-industry competition rather than any goal of benevolence toward their workers.
The corporations even tried to exploit the traditional American work ethic for their own ends. Performing ones job dutifully and without complaint were considered signs of the good worker — of the moral individual. Workers were expected to selflessly devote their days to work at the factory.
One of the big issues that divided the work ethic of owners from the work ethic of industrial workers was the length of the workday. Workers hoped for a workday that would permit them some measure of leisure so they could devote themselves to their families, have time for self-education, and enjoy some measure of leisure. They did not want work to completely absorb their lives. Factory owners on the other hand stressed the sunup-to-sundown workday and in the early nineteenth century worked their factory hands twelve to fourteen hours a day. The campaign for shorter hours began early in the nineteenth century with the appearance of the first workingmen’s organizations.
Clearly, as long as the corporations themselves held the upper hand, the “work ethic” was going to be interpreted in ways that were advantageous to industrial production. What factory owners saw as laziness, workers understood in far more human terms.
Indeed, it was the reaction against this corporate view of things; a method of control that only became more far-reaching and draconian with the growth of the monopolies, that ultimately produced a consciousness of what these “ideals” were doing to the average worker. The United States and its similarly industrialized or industrializing European counterparts — England, France, and Germany — had all once been nations of small shopkeepers, skilled tradesmen, artisans, and small farmers. The new technologies of the Nineteenth Century had made obsolete many traditional practices. The expansion of the trusts and conglomerates further emphasized up-to-date and cost-effective techniques. Skilled labor was rapidly going the way of the prehistoric animals, the remains of which were so frequently discovered by some of the Nineteenth Century’s other scientific pioneers. To a greater and greater degree, unskilled, or semi-skilled, labor was coming to dominate both industry and society. This exploitation of the “many” by the “very few” was recognized by the burgeoning unions, the Knights of Labor, in particular:
In their declaration of principles they repeatedly described themselves as the “masses” — the “toiling,” “industrial,” “working,” “laboring” masses …. The Knights … embraced the absence of distinction implied in the term “masses.” They used it to emphasize the fact that the Order was open to all workers — whether unskilled, female, black, foreign-born, or independent craftsmen. And having opened the organization to a much more inclusive group of workers than any other American labor union, Knights leaders attempted to bridge the differences between these workers by continually stressing the importance of solidarity. “An injury to one is the concern of all,” declared the Order’s slogan.
Corporate greed was affecting everyone.
Imperial Germany passed one of the first laws that specifically addressed the question of injuries to workers. It was the result of a movement, in that country, that had seen responsibility for workers’ safety gradually shift from the realm of traditional law to the field of active government regulation and guarantees of protection.
In 1871 a general Law on Employers’ Liability (Haftpflichtgesetz) was passed in the wake of an upsurge in major industrial accidents. 108 Employers could now be held responsible for the medical treatment, income loss, and burial costs of accident victims, but the victims or their survivors had to bear the court costs and to demonstrate negligence on the employers’ side.
In the United States too, the legal regime remained adapted to pre-industrial conditions. Long after gigantic corporations had come to control masses of workers, the law still clung to its time-honored outlook on employer/employee relations. “The common law rules of fellow servant, assumption of risk, and contributory negligence posed a series of daunting obstacles for nineteenth-century workers seeking to recover for injuries suffered on the job.”
The great corporations responded to the problems of worker health by attempting to remove from them the ability to commit mistakes. If workers left to themselves were liable to accident, then a properly regulated work environment would be the antidote. “Scientific” methods were employed to control every aspect of the worker’s day:
Scientific reorganization of the processes of work … allowed management to “substitut[e] . . . science for the individual judgment of the workman.” In light of the presumptive incapacity of the worker to comprehend adequately the processes of production … management specialists … set out to eliminate the discretion of the individual worker …. Hence … A series of new managerial techniques, including standardized and minutely controlled processes of production and maintenance, and stopwatch time-study, to replace workers informal know-how with ostensibly scientific rationality.
The conglomerates attempted to retain the power that they had gained vis-a-vis their workers. Companies were organized as effectively as they could be according to these supposedly scientific methods. Yet, there remained a tug-of-war between the employees on one side, and the employers on the other. Given the complexity of the tasks of creating the modern industrial “super corporation,” and the willingness and ingenuity with which they were met, it is not to be imagined that the greater and more humane task of caring for the new breed of worker was beyond the capabilities of the new factory-owning class. It was simply a matter of applying the techniques of large-scale industrial management to the workforce as opposed to the physical operation. Unfortunately for the average worker, the “bosses” frequently considered such concerns to be a waste of money and time. The fledgling unions tried to organize workers on a grand scale, and to fight for their members’ rights and for humane conditions. Unfortunately, the corporations and their lawyers struck back too. The idea that continue economic growth was essential to the overall well-being of society was so ingrained in the American consciousness that legislators continued to see the need for encouraging corporate development and freedom. More and more, as the Nineteenth Century wore on; the States often undid the good work that the unions and the Federal Government had only just begun to undertake.
As corporate concentration became a feature of the post-bellum U.S. economy, the earlier restrictions were loosened by permitting more discretion in “what economic pursuits corporations could follow and what were the responsibilities of company officers and boards of directors.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the instrument of corporate charters was transformed from a check on the activities of corporations into a device for raising revenues for the various states, who competed with each other to pass less and less restrictive general incorporation laws …. This race to the bottom was led by New Jersey and Delaware, which weakened the rights of citizens while giving corporations the right to “operate in any fashion not explicitly prohibited by law ….” The earlier expectation — that the quid pro quo for a corporate charter was a specific obligation by business enterprise to serve the public interest — also became a historical artifact.
In response to pressure from workers for greater safety, shorter workdays, and improved working conditions, the conglomerates used their considerable financial and organizational powers to fight back. They pursued as far as they could, the policy of industrial expansion and horizontal combination. Practices were standardized and streamlined, and costs reduced. Uncontrollable competitors were bought up or driven out of the market. Corporations acceded only to the minimum of workers’ demands. By way of example, it is fascinating to realize the incredible length of time over which demands for a shorter workday extended. From its first beginning far back in the Nineteenth Century, the battle was won only in the Twentieth. Meanwhile, the age of Merger Mania had come and gone. The corporations had been forced to give in … A little bit … But they had held out for a very long time, and in laws such as the state incorporation statutes that had actually won.
The “Merger Mania” of the late Nineteenth Century developed naturally in reaction to the ideas and practices of laissez-faire capitalism. The general legal climate encouraged such conventions and practices. Corporations expanded horizontally in an attempt to control external market forces and to keep costs down. Workers suffered severely in the new industrial age. They were compelled to work long hours for little pay, and to labor at monotonous tasks under deplorable conditions. The earliest labor unions were formed in an attempt to fight back against the growing power of the increasingly large corporations. Workers also suffered as a result of their reduction from the status of free and independent human beings to that of wage slaves, or “units of production.” In common with the general trends of the time, many factory owners tried to apply “scientific” methods of organizations in the corporate environment. These new methods enabled even fiercer exploitation of the workers. Luckily, they also taught the workers to band together, and to recognize that they share common problems. The workers realized, as had the corporations — that in size lay strength. Eventually worker agitation produced new laws that helped to protect the health and safety of ordinary men, women, and children. The modern worker has the conglomerates to thank for spawning the labor movement, and for encouraging the growth of federal regulation of working conditions. Nevertheless, the battle between employer and employee continues. The weakening of state incorporation statutes, beginning in the late Nineteenth Century, gave to corporations the enormous legal power and influence that they still wield today.
Applebaum, Herbert. The American Work Ethic and the Changing WorkForce: An Historical Perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Aronowitz, Stanley. False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.
Atack, Jeremy. (1985). “Industrial Structure and the Emergence of the Modern Industrial Corporation” Explorations in Economic History 22, 48.
Champlin, Dell P., and Janet T. Knoedler. “Corporations, Workers and the Public Interest.” Journal of Economic Issues 37.2 (2003): 305+.
Chandler, Alfred D. Jr. (March 1973). “Decision Making and Modern Institutional Change.” The Journal of Economic History, 33, 1, 6.
Cheffins, Brian R. (December 2002). Investor Sentiment and Antitrust Law as Determinants of Corporate Ownership Structure: The Great Merger Wave of 1897 to 1903. Harvard: Law School.
Edwards, Richard. Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 1979.
Steinmetz, George. Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Witt, John Fabian. “The Transformation of Work and the Law of Workplace Accidents, 1842-1910.” Yale Law Journal 107.5 (1998): 1467-1502.
Lamoreaux, Naomi. (1985). The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1905.
Brian R. Cheffins, (December 2002), The Great Merger Wave of 1897 to 1903, 41.
Jeremy Atack, (1985), “Industrial Structure and the Emergence of the Modern Industrial Corporation” Explorations in Economic History 22, 48.
Naomi Lamoreaux, (1985). The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1905. pp. 93-94.
Naomi Lamoreaux, (1985). The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1905. p. 2.
Naomi Lamoreaux, (1985). The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1905. p. 6.
Naomi Lamoreaux, (1985). The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1905. p. 14.
Naomi Lamoreaux, (1985). The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1905. p. 17.
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=13575041?Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992) 70-71.
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=100329442?Richard Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1979) 31.
Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., (March 1973), “Decision Making and Modern Institutional Change,” The Journal of Economic History, 33, 1, 6.
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=27625403?Herbert Applebaum, The American Work Ethic and the Changing WorkForce: An Historical Perspective (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998) 93.
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=103669250?Kim Voss, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993) 81.
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=102910592?George Steinmetz, Regulating the Social: The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) 128.
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=5001331370?John Fabian Witt, “The Transformation of Work and the Law of Workplace Accidents, 1842-1910,” Yale Law Journal 107.5 (1998).
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=5001331370?John Fabian Witt, “The Transformation of Work and the Law of Workplace Accidents, 1842-1910,” Yale Law Journal 107.5 (1998).
http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o& d=5001996524?Dell P. Champlin and Janet T. Knoedler, “Corporations, Workers and the Public Interest,” Journal of Economic Issues 37.2 (2003).
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