When a small group of employers gathered in December, 1902, to form the Employers’ Association of Detroit (EAD), one of their top priorities was to create and staff an employment (or labor) bureau that would provide them with reliable information about the workers passing through their shops. “If a man is an agitator and trouble breeder you will know it when you hire him (and that is a good time to find out,” noted Henry Leland. “If he is lazy, if he is a union man, if he is a drunkard, you will hire him with full knowledge of his characteristics.”
The Labor Bureau became the signature showpiece of the EAD, now ASE. Initially operating out of a rented storefront in Downtown Detroit on Bagley Street, in 1926 the Labor Bureau relocated to newly constructed quarters at 420 Howard Street. In 1906, the Labor Bureau had the names of 40,000 workers on file—and over 180,000 in 1912. By 1927 the EAD Labor Bureau had processed and sent 750,000 potential workers to prospective employers.
Trade unionists naturally distrusted the EAD, fearing that the information workers provided to the Labor Bureau could be used to blacklist them from employment in Detroit. Chester Culver, the EAD’s General Manager from 1916 to 1952, denied that the EAD had ever maintained a blacklist—that is, a list that circulated among employers saying “Don’t hire these men.” Instead, as Culver related in a mid-1950s oral history interview, the EAD operated what he called a “central personnel records file.” This might seem like lawyerly semantics, but Culver was onto something: by the early 1900s, the old-fashioned blacklist (used by the railroads, for example) was giving way to systematic reference checking.
On occasion the Labor Bureau was pressed into emergency service—say when an employer was struck and needed to quickly secure replacement workers. It also played a key role in one of the most publicized events of the era. Concerns about the lingering threat posed by the Industrial Workers of the World, and facing an annual labor turnover rate of 350% at its main plant in Highland Park, the Ford Motor Company made a dramatic announcement on January 5, 1914: henceforth, it would double the wage of its lowest paid workers to $5 per day and reduce working hours from 9 to 8 hours. The company also announced it would hire thousands for a third shift. In the days to come, thousands of eager workers from near and far besieged Ford’s employment department, only to have water hoses turned on them to keep them at bay.
Detroit employers naturally worried that Ford’s Five Dollar Day would destabilize the labor market. Therefore, through EAD mediation, Ford agreed to accept prospective employees only through the Labor Bureau. That’s the moment in January, 1914, that was captured in the photograph that today hangs in the reception area at ASE.
According to way the system worked, anybody seeking a job at Ford first had go there and fill out a brown-colored card disclosing personal and work-related information. They then presented themselves at the EAD Labor Bureau for an interview. If approved, this card was sent back to the Ford employment office which, in turn, might send the Labor Bureau a white card for the applicant to present the next day at the Ford plant. By this method, the EAD lifted pressure on the Ford employment office while checking the stampede of employees of EAD member firms to Ford.
Greed, however, got the better of one young man who worked at the Labor Bureau. In June 1917, 23-year-old Julius Bock was caught selling white introduction cards, guaranteeing the holders jobs at Ford and himself a tidy profit. At the end of the month a top Ford official notified the EAD that it was resigning from the association.
Julius Bock had cost the EAD the top employer of the Detroit area—and Ford did not rejoin until the 1950s. But neither Ford nor the EAD had Bock prosecuted for his grift. Among the surviving EAD records of that era is a letter dated September 10, 1917, from Private Bock of the 31st Michigan Infantry at Camp MacArthur, Texas, thanking Chester Culver for “letting me out of that.” “I figured I could do more for my country here than in the other place,” by which he no doubt meant jail.
Culver replied a month later: “We certainly wish you the very best of success and we know that when you return to your home, having had the discipline that the Army can give you, you will be prepared to take your place in the world and make something of yourself.”
Culver’s gamble on a young man paid off. Private Bock, the son of German immigrants, ended up during the First World War in France, where he was wounded in a poison gas attack and earned a Purple Heart. He returned home and eventually found a position with the City of Detroit taking care of the fish at the Aquarium on Belle Isle.
Thomas A. Klug
Tom earned his Ph.D. in history at Wayne State University in 1993. In 1986, he worked several months at the Employers’ Association of Detroit before taking a position teaching history at Marygrove College. There, he rose to the rank of full professor and directed the college’s Institute for Detroit Studies. He remained at Marygrove until it closed in 2017.
A labor and social historian by training, Klug’s research and publications have focused on the history of Detroit unions, employers, and industry in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Tom has published many scholarly articles on the history of U.S. immigration, Detroit deindustrialization, and unionization in Detroit. He also wrote ASE’s history book published when we turned 100.
Klug serves on the editorial board of The Michigan Historical Review and as editor of the Great Lakes Books series of Wayne State University Press.