Trade Unions Mirror Society in Conflict between Collectivism and Individualism

Article excerpt

Trade unions mirror society in conflict between collectivism and individualism

Two competing ideas run through the labor movement, as they have run through the American past. The first is the notion of community--the sense that liberty is nurtured in an informal political environment where the voluntary and collective enterprise of people with common interests contributes to the solution of problems. Best characterized by the town meeting, collective solutions are echoed in the temperance, abolition, suffrage, and educational reform societies of the 19th century and have become a cliche of 20th-century political and social life. The collective impulse lends itself to egalitarian values in that all citizens are deemed equal in their capacity to participate in democratic decision-making processes. The second idea is that of individualism--a belief in the hard work and ingenuity characteristic of our Puritan forebears and of legendary frontiersmen and women; and faith in the capacity of people to rise by their own wills to the highest vistas of the American dream. Embodied in the notion of "free labor,' the ideal assured the dignity of honest toil and posited that its result would be economic success. Because in this conception, the rewards of earthly existence are earned by those who demonstrate initiative, thrift, and tenacity in the pursuit of a goal, its thrust is towards eliminating the constraints engendered by the collective impulse.

The evident tension in these two sets of ideas, characteristic of many American institutions, informs the structure and ideology of American trade unions as they developed in the post-Civil War period. It also tells us something of their impact. The conglomeration of unions that formed the National Labor Union and the 15,000 assemblies of the Knights of Labor responded to the onslaught of industrialism after the Civil War by searching for ways to reestablish the community of interest that was threatened by a new and rapidly spreading organization of work. In the view of the Knights, the successful operation of a democratic republic based on the full participation of all of its citizens required a recognition of the "dignity,' "autonomy,' or "independence' of the working person. That meant fighting for workplace conditions that respected the capacities of all toilers and permitted their moral and intellectual development.1 At bottom, the Knights believed that only the elimination of the wage system could guarantee such respect and ensure that manhood was equated with citizenship and some possibility for exercising it. In practice, protecting the dignity of the individual required what has come to be knwon as social unionism: collective activity in the community, the workplace, and above all in the political arena. Individual dignity was not the end product; it was the means for assuring social harmony.

AFL redefined relationship

Impatient with the visionary quality of the Knights' endeavors, the skilled craft workers who founded the American Federation of Labor redefined the relationship between collective and individual interests. For them, the restoration of social harmony would come when workers aggregated sufficient power to hold dominant industrialism in check. That could only be achieved by a tightly knit organization. So the American Federation of Labor adopted a class-based definition of community and set itself to secure "more, more now' in the cacaphonous phrase of the day. Within this form of unionism, sometimes called market unionism, dignity was defined not as participation in the polity, but as the reward of work. Progress was measured by the "economic betterment' of individual members. In the short term, at least, collective well-being was transformed from a vision of a better world to the immediate object of mutually self-interested societies. For the Knights, dignity for the individual worker resided in a conception of work that harbored the possibility of participation in a democratic society; it derived legitimacy from arguments for equality. …