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Companies worried about worker turnover could try baseball

At the turn of the 20th century, big business embraced ‘employee welfare work’ to keep people happy

A job fair in Los Angeles last September. Thanks to the Great Resignation, companies are searching for ways to better retain workers. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
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Over the past two years, the “Great Resignation” has left employers scrambling to figure out what to do about the high turnover of their workforces. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that voluntary resignations accounted for 25 percent of vacancies in 2021, with overall turnover a whopping 57 percent. It isn’t stopping, either. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index estimates that 2 in 5 workers globally will leave their jobs this year.

Many businesses are trying to figure out how to stem the tide of turnover and retain workers, just like companies as diverse as Goodyear, National Cash Register, Kellogg’s and Union Pacific did in the early 20th century. These companies understood that worker turnover undermined productivity, so they devised a solution called “employee welfare work” — and their solutions from over a century ago can help businesses today grapple with the expensive cost of employee turnover.

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In 1892, National Cash Register shipped $40,000 worth of cash registers to London, only to have all of them returned as defective. NCR President John H. Patterson was livid and moved his desk to the factory floor to try to figure out the problem. He quickly discovered that his factory was like all the others in the United States — hot, dark, loud, smoky and dangerous. He couldn’t work in that environment, leading him to realize that his employees couldn’t, either. Patterson quickly began formulating employee welfare work.

The plan evolved into a massive program to put sunlight in factories, feed hot lunches to workers, and create programs to build greater work spirit through spectatorship at company baseball games. Other companies jumped on the bandwagon to use welfare work to reduce turnover, fight unions and increase profits. Patterson once noted that “there is no charity in anything we do. Isn’t it just good business to lose three cents on a girl’s lunch and get back five cents’ worth of work?”

Goodyear President F.A. Seiberling agreed. He embraced employee welfarism with a wide-reaching program in Akron, Ohio, that included an improved working environment, a thrice-a-week employee newspaper, a housing development and even a company baseball team to make workers feel like part of the “Goodyear family.” Confronted with the same problems, his crosstown competitor Harvey Firestone followed suit.

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These companies met others on baseball fields in a league they organized that spanned at least two other states. The brick stadium where the Firestone Non-Skids played (named for the company’s first treaded tires, “non-skids”) seated 4,500 cheering workers, and it still stands in front of the old company headquarters. The idea was that when employees sat in the stands and cheered for the company, they’d be more loyal, and as a result, they were encouraged to do so. Goodyear told workers in 1920, for example, that attending the games alone wasn’t enough; “moral support, organized cheering, [and] boosting 24 hours a day” were critical as well.

The quality of baseball had to be good enough to attract these fans, though. In rising industrial cities like Akron and Michigan’s Flint and Grand Rapids, where there were no professional teams, fans typically watched amateur clubs compete. Industrial teams played as part of that environment, and so increasingly, companies hired men who were good baseball players. During World War I, Frank Stefko remembered hearing from a fellow soldier, Glenn “Speed” Bosworth, that Goodyear was hiring ballplayers in Akron, so after the war, he traveled to the Rubber City from Scranton, Pa. The personnel office said the company didn’t have openings until he mentioned Bosworth’s message. “Oh, you’re the ballplayer!” They hired him on the spot.

Rooting for the company team, usually named for a product — the Firestone Non-Skids squared off against teams such as the Kellogg’s Corn Flakers and Flint Buicks — was a crucial component of building a positive culture with loyal workers who stayed at their jobs and didn’t join unions. By and large, these programs succeeded in reducing turnover and stemming unionization efforts, at least according to management reporting to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There is no evidence that workers were opposed to any of these efforts, from free lunches to baseball teams. In a way, companies were trying to “out-union” unions by rendering them unnecessary. The fact that unions seldom formed in companies with strong welfare programs suggests that bread-and-butter issues such as wages or job security did not suffer, at least in the eyes of workers.

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Henry Ford took another approach to improve his business by providing a higher standard of living for his workers. At that time, Ford’s moving assembly line reduced the time to build a Model T from more than 12 hours to just 93 minutes, but there was a catch. Jobs like putting doors on Fords all day were mind-numbingly monotonous — so much so that workers left in droves. By the end of 1913, the company’s turnover rate was a staggering 370 percent. Ford’s response was to start paying every worker a minimum of $5 a day, more than double their current pay.

But such benefits came with strings attached. He also imposed lifestyle conditions on workers — don’t drink or abuse family members, keep the house neat and clean, save money. Ford’s approach was much more invasive than welfare work programs. Ford operatives visited workers’ homes to ensure they were living the kind of lives Henry Ford expected.

Welfare work programs, on the other hand, were strictly voluntary. Workers could use the company lunchroom, read the company newspaper and attend baseball games if they wished, or they could simply ignore these efforts. The programs were generally popular — for example, Firestone Stadium seated more than 4,500 spectators, suggesting that attendance at baseball games could be several thousand workers.

As companies cut operating costs during the Great Depression, many of the perks of welfare work were reduced, including industrial baseball teams, which were replaced by intracompany softball teams. In fact, when companies such as tire and rubber manufacturers cut back on these programs and reduced workers’ hours during the Depression, workers turned to unions to negotiate both the wages and benefits they had come to expect. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration supported these efforts with legislation such as the 1935 Wagner Act — also known as the National Labor Relations Act — which led to the creation of the powerful Congress of Industrial Organizations union.

In the decades after World War II, some aspects of welfare work returned. The employee newsletter and cafeteria (or lunchroom) even became part of union negotiations in many cases. New programs reflected the values and tastes of postwar suburban workers during the era of the baby boom, such as family-oriented company picnics or special company days at amusement parks or baseball games. Like NCR’s Patterson and others, companies sponsored such activities to build a sense of loyalty and camaraderie among employees to retain them.

Today, companies are also experimenting with ways to boost worker welfare in the context of the Great Resignation. Baseball spectatorship has been replaced by team-building activities that include workplace climbing walls, wine-tasting events, table tennis, family picnics, free lunches and special doughnut days. At the turn of the last century, employers experimented to identify which perks resonated with workers. While the jury is still out on whether such programs will be successful today, companies are following in the footsteps of NCR, Goodyear and Kellogg’s in experimenting with programs that employees find meaningful and useful — enough so to stay in their jobs.