Thinking Differently: Josephine Roche

by Mary Goljenboom

Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Apple’s Think Different advertising campaign (1997-2002), used those words to describe 20th century icons—Einstein, Gandhi, Martha Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose images were the other integral piece of the television and print ads. Two of the visionaries in this series were business leaders—Richard Branson (founder Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, etc.) and Ted Turner (founder CNN and TBS).

Businesswoman Josephine A. Roche was not part of Apple’s campaign but the ads’ description fits her, particularly when she took over the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company and changed its management policies.

Forty-year-old Josephine Roche took her seat in the boardroom after inheriting 40% of the Colorado-based coal mining company’s stock in 1927. She knew her positions on pressing issues differed from those of the company’s other directors and her late father, the company’s former president. She’d been educated at Vassar College and Columbia University and, in her professional life, had instituted progressive policies within organizations where she worked as an administrator: the US Foreign Language Information Service, the editorial division of the US Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau, and the Denver Juvenile Court System. She expected to be seen as a troublemaker by her boardroom colleagues.

Disputes over working conditions and wages had caused years of labor-management conflicts for all of Colorado’s coal mining businesses. Seen from today, management’s treatment of labor is harsh and unfair. Miners’ wages and hours fluctuated dramatically and they were not paid for time that was integral to the operation but not “mining,” such as loading coal or building support structures. Pay raises frequently were followed by cuts that zeroed the increase. Often miners were paid not in cash but in scrip, which only had value at the company store. Inside the mine, there was spotty compliance with safety and ventilation regulations. Complainers faced instant job loss. These issues, unresolved for decades, led employees to call strikes and for unionization. Management believed in their inalienable right to control their property (i.e., the business). They chose to quash dissent, ruthlessly and unscrupulously, using their economic power to support their business practices, no matter the cost in dollars or lives.

Josephine Roche saw things differently. She believed the company should be managed for the benefit of all stakeholders—employees, customers, managers, and investors—not exclusively for those controlling the capital. She was sympathetic to workers’ demand for union representation because she’d witnessed their deplorable living and working conditions. Her vision for RMFC was farsighted and progressively capitalistic: She believed the company could both make money and improve the lives of her workers and their families.

In order to realize her vision, Roche first needed a majority of stockholders supporting her. According to biographer Robyn Muncy, Roche contacted non-board investors and received enough authorizations (proxies) to fire the current board of directors and re-build it. The president of RMFC was so incensed that he offered to sell his shares to Roche. She borrowed $35,000, completed the deal, and became RMFC’s controlling stockholder.

Roche installed progressive managers to oversee the business, and named herself as vice president (within a few years she became president). She then invited her workers to organize and choose their own representatives for negotiations with management. They chose the United Mine Workers and in the summer of 1928 Roche signed the labor contract she and the union had negotiated. Its provisions—an eight-hour day and six-day work week at $7 per day (the highest coal mining wage in the state), as well as other benefits—won her increased productivity, labor peace, and the support and gratitude of her employees. She needed it.

Her competitors viewed her as a “dangerous industrial radical” according to TIME magazine and started a price war. These coal operators, including Colorado’s largest, the Rockefeller–owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corp., dropped prices 50 to 75 cents per ton so RMFC’s higher labor costs put the company at a big disadvantage. Some operators gave secret rebates to customers. The predatory practices were designed to force RMFC into bankruptcy and rid the industry of unions.

Roche fought back. She met the competition on price, then, to supplement the loss of income, raised money privately. Six hundred of her workers, according to TIME, voluntarily voted to take only half their wages for three months, thus loaning the company about $80,000. The union-led “Buy from Josephine” campaign to increase sales to households, merchants and manufacturers was pumped up. The United Mine Workers loaned her money, too.

Rocky Mountain Fuel Company hung on, even as the Great Depression added more economic hardship and the newly developed natural gas industry competed for coal customers. Roche was forced to lower wages to $5.25 a day in 1932 but opened company property to farming and provided credit at the company store to help offset the cuts. That same year, the New York Times reported that the company’s costs for digging a ton of coal had steadily declined since the 1928 contract took effect and its sales increased. The company was making money because of the joint efforts of management and labor. In 1935, a nationwide poll of 500 business executives named her the top US businesswoman. By then, all the other Colorado coal mines were unionized.

Josephine Roche was crazy enough to think she could change the world. And she did.

 

Sources

“A Woman Unravels an Industrial Knot,” by Louis Stark, New York Times, February 7, 1932

Restless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth Century America by Robyn Muncy

A Wide-Awake Woman: Josephine Roche in the Era of Reform by Elinor McGinn

Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry by James Whiteside

“Rocky Mountain Gesture” TIME, September 7, 1931

Land Of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado by Frederic J. Athearn
Copyright ©2015 Ferret Research, Inc.

The Campaign for Early Christmas Shopping

by Mary Goljenboom

In the 1890s, as today, stores were often packed with shoppers in the days leading up to Christmas, lured by sale prices and special merchandise. At that time, however, the shopping season only spanned the few weeks before the holiday. Merchants often did not have all their holiday merchandise available until mid-December. Shoppers waited until a few days before Christmas—and especially Christmas Eve—to make their selections and have them packaged and sent to the recipient, with delivery expected before Christmas. This consumer behavior put tremendous pressure on retail employees, and interfered with their own holiday celebrations.

It took a concerted social movement to make store management change their policies and for consumers to buy-in. Ironically the change has led to Black Friday and shopping madness on Thanksgiving Day. But the story of that social movement also illustrates what needs to happen in our own time to cause change for modern workers.

The movement was started by a group of middle- and upper-class women interested in changing the working conditions of women and children with jobs in retailing. At the time there was no minimum wage, no maximum number of hours to the work day or week (and, therefore, no overtime compensation), and no limits on child labor. While some labor organizers were working to improve conditions through unionization, Josephine Shaw Lowell, Maud Nathan, and other like-minded women believed in another strategy—the power of the purse. They reasoned that consumer demand dictated the policies of employers and, therefore, consumer demand could force change to those policies. In 1891, these women organized themselves into the Consumers’ League of the City of New York (CLCNY).

Maud Nathan, who became president of the group in 1896, explained one tactic:

The majority of employers are virtually helpless to maintain a high standard as to hours, wages and working conditions under the stress of competition, unless sustained by the cooperation of consumers.

A woman who joins our league agrees to shop early in the day. She does not insist that her goods shall be delivered on the same day, declining to receive anything after 6 pm. This enables the delivery men and errand boys to finish their labors early. A member of our league does her Christmas-shopping early. She avoids shopping in the evening and on Saturday afternoons. She does not even ring up the grocer or the butcher by telephone on Saturday afternoons and order goods.

Another tactic used by CLCNY was to create and publicize a list of merchants who met the league’s criteria for fair working conditions; league members and sympathetic consumers (who may have seen it in the newspapers) would then patronize those businesses. The league actively investigated conditions by visiting stores, interviewing managers, and separately seeking verification or contradiction from workers. The list was called the White List for it was the opposite of blacklisting merchants. Eleven retailers, including Lord & Taylor, were on the league’s first White List in 1891. Four years later there were 31 including John Wanamaker, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, and F.A.O. Schwarz.

As the CLCNY investigated and reported on workplace conditions, they realized the particular burden the Christmas holiday, particularly Christmas Eve shopping, placed on workers. After a twelve- or fourteen-hour selling day, shelves needed to be restocked, goods packaged for delivery, and deliveries made (gifts were almost never sent early at this time), keeping employees—including children—working far into the night.

In typical league fashion, Maud Nathan’s CLCNY fashioned a multipronged approach, reaching out to retailers and consumers. It encouraged White List merchants to close early on Christmas Eve. For instance, eight days before Christmas 1898, White-List-member Wanamaker’s started announcing in its holiday advertising that it would close early (at 7 pm instead of 10 pm) on Christmas Eve. The next year, Wanamaker’s ran an ad explicitly stating that they were closing early on Christmas Eve so “the thousands of us who will have helped with your good Christmas can get ready for our own.”

The league also discouraged evening hours during the Christmas shopping season and encouraged merchants to display all holiday merchandise earlier than the few weeks just before Christmas, as was the custom, so shoppers could make their selections early. “We found that just as soon as demand for these gifts was made, supply was forthcoming,” Nathan wrote in her book on the league, Story of an Epoch-Making Movement.

Finally, CLCNY, in its annual appeal to members and supporters, urged them to shop early at the White List stores.

Over the next decade these tactics became a campaign to promote early Christmas shopping.

The league amended its fairness standards to cover the evening hours. To comply, a merchant must “not remain open after 7 pm more than four evenings between December 15th and December 25th,” and not remain open “later than 9 o’clock on these four evenings.” The White List was divided into two categories: “Stores not open in the evening before Christmas” and “Stores open in the evening before Christmas” (in 1908, there were 34 stores closed in the evening compared to 14 open). Members pledged to shop early. The White List was printed in newspapers, magazines, and theater programs.

Nathan made speeches, gave interviews, wrote opinion pieces and letters to the editor. She set up a Committee on Arousing Public Sentiment. They produced thousands of flyers, posters, letters, and postcards with the appeal to shop early. These were distributed through churches and synagogues (some 15,000 in 1907 alone), in schools and clubs. At CLCNY’s urging, they were also used as talking points by clergy and teachers. Women’s clubs signed pledge cards to complete shopping before December 15th. In 1909, from November 30th to December 14th, a 25×30 foot banner was hung over 23rd St. between 5th and 6th Avenues. It read Do your Christmas shopping before December 15th to help the workers in the shops and factories. [signed] Consumers League of the City of New York.

The movement and the Consumers’ League spread nationwide. Habits changed. Merchants displayed their goods in November and, in some cases, October. CLCNY reported proudly in 1906 that “one merchant sent notices in October to all of his charge customers, informing them that his full Christmas stock would be on exhibition by October 29th , and that selected goods would be reserved for later delivery if purchased before December 10th.”

In her memoir, Maud Nathan wrote with pride “No longer do shoppers feel that they must wait until the hurried last days before the holiday. . . .Each year holiday goods are displayed earlier and earlier to meet an ever-increasingly early demand.” If she was here today, she would protest shopping hours on Thanksgiving Day. Or maybe start another movement.

 

Sources
Story of an Epoch-Making Movement by Maud Nathan via Haithi Trust Digital Library

The San Francisco Call. 27 May 1902 via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers at the Library of Congress

New-York Tribune. 28 Jan. 1894 via Chronicling America

The New York Sun. 16 Dec. 1898 via Chronicling America 

New-York Tribune. 15 Dec. 1899 via Chronicling America

Volumes of the Annual Reports of the Consumers’ League of the City of New York via Haithi Trust Digital Library

 

Copyright 2014 Ferret Research, Inc.