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.

Alva Belmont’s 1914 Conference of Great Women

“A friendly gathering of women of note whose work lies in different fields, but who feel the same big purpose inspiring them all”

by Mary Goljenboom

As I read old newspaper and magazine articles about historic women, I am always curious about who knew whom. It is a small triumph to come across a story that puts several of these historic women together. One recent triumph begins with a plate.

Written on the plate’s rim in blue script is Votes for Women . The plate is a reproduction from a set of stoneware found at Marble House, the home of Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont (aka Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont). Today, Marble House is one of the mansions in Newport, RI, that is open to the public. I bought my reproduction at the gift shop. According to Professor Kenneth Florey, the original set of stoneware was made in 1913; Belmont probably had it made for her July 1914 “Conference of Great Women”.

An ardent suffragist, Alva Belmont’s conference was not only about votes for women. According to journalist Doris E. Fleischman, it was “a friendly gathering of women of note whose work lies in different fields, but who feel the same big purpose inspiring them all, to make practical the connotation of the vague term betterment.” It allowed Belmont to draw attention to issues important to her: American women’s status and accomplishments, and her own status in New York society. She liked publicity.

Belmont used the visit of her daughter, the Duchess of Marlborough (née Consuelo Vanderbilt), as the celebrity hook to assure newspaper coverage and attendance by members of New York society. The duchess was more than just a society matron; in England, her work providing help to the wives and children of men who were in prison and building hostels for young working women was respected.

Eight women shared the dais with the duchess. The ones most interesting to me all had notable careers as leaders and administrators. They worked to improve social welfare and believed that women’s suffrage improved their chances of accomplishing their goals.

Florence Kelley, the general secretary of National Consumers’ League since 1899 and leader of the organization’s efforts to abolish child labor and secure legislation for a minimum wage and an eight hour work day.

Rose Schneiderman, vice president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (later president), who, throughout her long career as a union administrator and organizer, championed working women and sought work rules and legislation to protect them.

Mary M. Bartelme, the assistant judge of the juvenile court of Cook County, IL, (later circuit court judge) whose innovative practices for dealing with girls in the justice system became a model for other juvenile courts.

Maud Ballington Booth, the co-founder of Volunteers of America and leader of its work in rehabilitating prisoners and assisting prisoners’ families.

Katharine B. Davis, the newly appointed commissioner of corrections for the city of New York, who worked to reform prisons, abolishing widespread graft and corruption.

In addition to the speakers, journalist Doris Fleischman, who covered the conference for the New York Tribune, also had a notable career. She wrote feature articles and a book about women’s careers in business and the professions, and was an executive in the public relations firm her husband founded, Edward L. Bernays.

The results of the “Conference of Great Women” were mixed. The speech by the Duchess of Marlborough was covered in newspapers across the country, as was the new Chinese Tea House on the grounds of Marble House (another hook Belmont used to get publicity). Most of the speakers were listed in articles, so they received some attention, but the duchess got most of the space. The New York Tribune gave Doris Fleischman’s coverage of the conference, which included a synopsis of each talk along with photos and an opinion piece, a full page—far more than most other publications.

The conference received publicity for its causes, but some felt Belmont had simply put on a publicity stunt. Even speakers had opinions. According to historian Sylvia D. Hoffert, Rose Schneiderman felt afterward that very little would be accomplished. “I was furious with myself for attending,” she wrote in her memoir.* Florence Kelley wrote a thank you note to Belmont full of gratitude and praise. “No one could fail to feel at the time that the audience was receptive and responsive. The editorials which have come to me from many parts of the country show the press to have been respectful and largely sympathetic. You must feel great satisfaction in having helped, on a nationwide scale . . .”**

One hundred years after the conference, the replica of the plate is a reminder of these women, whose careers as managers and administrators are usually overlooked, and of the day they stood together to publicize women’s abilities and the importance of votes for women.

 

Notes and Sources
The other speakers were: Kate M. Gordon, president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference; Helen Ring Robinson, Colorado’s first female state senator; Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and president of the Women’s Political Union.

* Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights by Sylvia D. Hoffert, p. 103

** The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-1931 edited by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Beverly Wilson Palmer, p. 197

Read Doris E. Fleishman’s coverage in the New York Tribune, July 12, 1914 at Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress

A reproduction cup and saucer from Alva Belmont’s Votes for Women set  are for sale at the Newport Mansions website of The Preservation Society of Newport County (scroll down towards the bottom of the page)

For more information about Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and her daughter, Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, see Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s book Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt

 

Copyright 2014 Ferret Research, Inc.