Working conditions at the Westinghouse Works

The companies that made up the Westinghouse Works prided themselves on being modern and progressive. This opinion is probably what led them to allow motion pictures to be taken of the working conditions in these plants, since they felt that their progressive ideas were in particular evidence there.

MICA Splitting Department An example of these forward-thinking ideas was the institution of the 9-hour workday and the 55-hour work-week in 1869 in the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, one of the first companies believed to have done this. It was also reputed to be the first company in American industry to adopt half-holidays on Saturday afternoons.

When the Westinghouse Air Brake Company relocated to the suburban town of Wilmerding, the company furthered its image as progressive by instituting a series of measures of welfare work aimed at bettering the working and living conditions of the employees. Wilmerding was clearly a "company town;" the town's fortunes rose and fell with that of the Westinghouse Company, giving the company a sense of responsibility to its employees which it to some degree acknowledged through these programs. The Westinghouse Company also hoped that by offering educational and cultural activities, a better type of employee could be procured and that the attrition rate of workers would lower. These measures included providing buildings, parks, and cultural activities for the town, as well as providing housing and some educational classes.

As mentioned, when it relocated to the town of Wilmerding, PA, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company recognized the need to provide adequate housing for its employees. The company built houses on a tract of land it purchased, then sold the dwellings to employees "at about cost and upon terms which enabled them to pay for the properties in monthly installments extending over a period of ten or fifteen years." The plan was later altered so that...

...the purchaser of any property is required to pay about one-fifth of the purchase money in cash upon delivery of deed. He then executes a purchase-money mortgage, payable in five years, with interest payable quarterly at the rate of 5 per cent per annum. While no requirement is made, it is expected that the purchaser shall reduce the principal of the mortgage quarterly by such payments on account as he may be able to make. This plan enables him, during hard times to keep the transaction in good shape by merely paying the interest, while on the other hand, when good wages are earned, he can discharge such part of the principal of his mortgage as he may desire." (The Wilmerding News, November 23, 1904)

The Westinghouse Air Brake Company was also instrumental in the setting up of educational and cultural institutions through the local Y.M.C.A. The company provided the location for the institution and through it offered courses and activities for its employees.

The relief department of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was established in May of 1903, its intent being... insure a certain income to employees who might become unfitted for work through illness or injury and in the event of death to pay the beneficiary a stipulated sum. [woman] Any employee under 50 years of age is entitled to membership, subject to successful physical examination, but membership is not compulsory. Members contribute according to the class in which they belong, there being five, the class being determined by the wages received, varying from $35 to $95 or over per month, the contribution ranging from 50 cents to $1.50. A member may receive benefits for 39 consecutive weeks, in event of disability extending so long a period. The air brake company is the custodian of the funds, but being such does not benefit the company pecuniarily, as it pays four per cent interest on monthly balances to the credit of the relief fund. The company goes further and guarantees payment of all benefits, and if the money received from the monthly contributions be insufficient to meet the requirements the company makes good such deficit." (The Wilmerding News, Nov. 23, 1904)

Membership during this period was 76% of the total number of employees, according to The Wilmerding News.

The Westinghouse Air Brake Company was not unique in offering welfare incentives to its employees. The trend of offering welfare policies to the employees seems to have been initiated by companies as a way to improve contact between employer and employee in what was an increasingly depersonalized industrial age. Many of the employers that instituted welfare systems also employed a large number of women and children to whom they felt a certain sense of responsibility to provide good working and living conditions. (p. 114, Daniel Nelson, Managers & Workers: Origins of the Twentieth-Century Factory System in the United States, 1880-1920)

The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company also prided itself on its progressive ideas and touted itself as "the largest and most modern workshop in the world." A promotional book published by the Company in 1904 went into great detail describing the benefits available to workers there:

Much care has been given to the sanitary condition of the shop, and the comfort of the employees has been carefully considered. In the offices and Works an even temperature is maintained by means of the most improved ventilating systems. The shop is lighted by Bremer arc lamps and Nernst lamps; the offices by Nernst and Sawyer-Man incandescent lamps. The Cooper-Hewitt Mercury Vapor lamp is also used for lighting the drawing offices. Several artesian wells in the shop furnish drinking water for the employees. Well-kept wash rooms, coat lockers, and toilet rooms are distributed at convenient points throughout the Works. On the sixth floor of the office building the Company has provided a retiring room and a lunch room for the lady employees in the various offices...

Winding large rotating and stationary armatures

The interest taken by the Company in the welfare of its employees is further shown by the recent erection of the "Casino" at East Pittsburg. Here dining rooms are maintained where meals are served to employees at reasonable rates. For the recreation of the men, bowling alleys and pool rooms have been provided, and there is also a library where technical periodicals, books, and popular magazines are kept on file.

The East Pittsburg Club is another institution managed by the Company for the accomodation of its office employees.

The spirit of cooperation which Mr. Westinghouse and this Company have endeavored to instill into the employees has resulted in the organization of the "Electric Club," the membership of which is composed of apprentices and employees of the various Westinghouse Companies...Lectures of a technical and popular nature are given twice a week. Some of these lectures, as well as items of interest to the members of the Club and to technical men in general, are published in the "Electric Club Journal," edited and managed by members of the organization." (Works of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, 1904)

Blacksmith Shop Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company also offered training courses to its employees. The course of Ordinary Apprenticeship was available to non-technical men, while the Engineering Apprenticeship was open only to graduates of technical schools and colleges.

The progressive ideas touted by management did not include, however, support of labor unions. By paying higher salaries and offering better working conditions, Westinghouse hoped to keep the unions out of its companies, an end which became impossible to achieve with the rise of unionism in the United States. The response of the Westinghouse Company to unionism during this period is exhibited by the strike which occurred in 1903 at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. Rather than accede to the workers' demands, Westinghouse hired outside workers until the strike was finally called off by the International Association of Machinists. Many of the workers were unable to return to jobs at Westinghouse since their jobs had already been filled by others.

(Photos taken from Works of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, 1904)

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