Elements of paradox in U.S. labor history
In 1834, the General Trades' Union of Boston put forth a "Declaration of Rights' that began: "When a number of individuals associate together in a public manner for the purpose of promoting their common welfare, respect for public opinion, the proper basis of a republican form of government, under which they associate, requires that they should state to their fellow citizens the motives which actuate them in adopting such a course.' Sound familiar? It is of course a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence. The document as a whole, in fact, reads like a rewriting of the Declaration, and so does much else in the rhetoric of the American labor movement of the 19th century. One of its hallmarks was a linking of labor's cause with the Nation's republican heritage. For many years, the 4th of July was a workers' holiday, celebrated by them with such toasts as: "The working men, the legitimate children of '76. Their sorrows left the legacy of freedom and equality. They are now of age and are laboring to guarantee the principles of the revolution.'
A labor movement battling for the principles of '76 could scarcely be attacked on the grounds of un-Americanism. So compelling, in fact, was the free labor ideology that it was appropriated by Abraham Lincoln and the emerging Republican Party of the 1850's in the debate over slavery. But what kind of labor movement could be built on republican principles? First, it would have to be inclusive in nature, open not only to wage earners, but to all who thought of themselves as "producers.' Second, it would have to concern itself above all with defending the equal rights and independence of working people, that is to say, it would have to challenge the emerging industrial order rather than settling for bread-and-butter gains. On these principles of inclusivity and basic reform, the Knights of Labor enjoyed spectacular success in the first half of the 1880's, and an equally spectacular collapse in the second half, repeating a history of organizational failure by labor reform movements that extended back before the Civil War.
In founding the American Federation of Labor in 1886, Samuel Gompers was intent on constructing a labor movement that would survive and grow in the American environment. He and his circle, mainly German socialists, had the advantage of coming out of a tradition apart from republicanism. They appropriated the labor program of Karl Marx (divested of his rhetoric and revolutionary ardor), and called it pure-and-simple unionism. This meant, first, that power alone counted; second, that power depended on economic organization, not political action; third, that only wage earners, organized along occupational lines, belonged in a labor movement. Finally, the movement should devote itself to winning immediate gains for its members. It did not dismiss the possibility of larger change--in trade union unity, Gompers wrote in 1899, lay "the germ of the future state'--but visionary thinking was beyond the province of the labor movement. It was concerned with the here and now. "I am perfectly satisfied to fight the battles of today, of those here, and those that come tomorrow, so their conditions may be improved, and they may be better prepared to fight in the contests or solve the problems that may be presented to them. . . . Every step that the workers make or take, every vantage point gained, is a solution in itself.'
Gompers' was an approach well calculated for building a viable trade union movement. But this was accomplished by distancing organized labor from traditional republican values rooted in America's ideological heritage. Trade union leaders did not question the place of republicanism--with its connotations of equal rights for all--in the larger American society, but they believed that it could not endow their movement with either the organizational structure or the concrete agenda that a workers' movement required in order to survive.
Here, then, is a central paradox of American labor history: To embrace the republican values of the larger society was to have a labor movement that would not work. And to have a movement that would work required some degree of disengagement from those American values.
In the circumstances, the labor movement scarcely had any choice. Gompers' papers, which are now beginning to appear in a major letterpress edition, testify powerfully to the sure hand with which he shaped the American Federation of Labor. But the decision to disengage from republicanism turned out to exact a heavy price on the labor movement, for it thereupon became vulnerable to attack by those better able to clothe themselves in the traditional values of the larger society. It was no accident that antiunion employers enjoyed such great success in mobilizing the powers of the courts on their behalf after the 1880's, or that they dubbed the open shop "the American plan' in the 1920's.
It is apparent, moreover, that the AFL soon recognized what it had conceded. In Gompers' appeals to patriotism after the 1890's, and in labor's embrace of such nativist issues as immigration restriction, we see an effort to regain some of the ground lost by the disengagement from republican traditions. Much more successful were labor's efforts to link itself to the larger struggle for social justice that began during the Progressive era and matured under the aegis of the New Deal. From the 1930's to the 1970's, organized labor enjoyed a high degree of legitimacy as a force for social justice. But it had not lost its vulnerability, and, as is evident in current public opinion polls, the labor movement during the 1980's has been singularly unsuccessful in the battle for public sympathy. Its eroding power is very much a function of the dubious regard in which it is held by the larger society.
The issue of labor's legitimacy has resonated in the historical treatment of the trade union movement. Let it be said by way of preface that history is by its nature a form of legitimization, selecting out of the past what is worthy of inclusion and indicating how that remembered past should be understood by the present. For American trade unionism, problematic as its place has been in the larger society, that legitimizing role of history has perhaps been of special importance. It was no accident that the first histories of American labor appeared at roughly the same time that pure-and-simple unionism began to dominate the labor movement, or that the first generations of labor historians saw it as part of their task to legitimize this form of trade unionism. There was, in fact, a remarkable intellectual confluence between Gompers and his trade union circle and John R. Commons and the Wisconsin school of labor scholarship.
The origins of labor history are found not in the development of the American historical studies--workers were of little interest to the emerging historical profession--but in a bitter struggle over the proper direction of late 19th century economics. The dominant school was classical economics. It had come under attack by reformers, strongly influenced by German scholarship, for its formalistic assumption of an ideal marketplace of perfect competition ruled by the laws of supply and demand and, equally, for the defense of the status quo which this approach implied.
History attracted these critics of classical economics because it offered empirical evidence of a real world of institutions and power relationships that shaped the way markets actually functioned. This was what prompted Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and other pioneering labor economists to begin their historical studies. And, where conservatives had used the classical economics to attack trade unionism as an invalid intrusion on the marketplace, the institutional economists took the opposite tack: for them, historical research was a vehicle for showing why trade unions were a natural response to the power realities governing modern economic life. This legitimizing function was most fully realized in Selig Perlman's A Theory of the Labor Movement (1928), which celebrated American trade unionism as the labor movement most "organically' rooted in the psychology of rank-and-file workers. And, in more workaday fashion, it suffused the prolific monographic literature of the Wisconsin school, perhaps best exemplified in the writings of Philip Taft.
In recent decades, a reaction set in against the established labor history. Within labor economics, a neoclassical approach superseded institutionalism, and with it, the interest in historical research. The field was increasingly appropriated by academic historians, whose horizons have rapidly expanded since the 1950's beyond the conventional boundaries of the discipline. The study of workers has become one of the most dynamic of historical fields, generating a rich literature that has placed it within the mainstream of American historical scholarship.
The new labor history, as it has been called, is technically far more accomplished than the older institutionalism, both in its research and as historical writing, and is likewise more adventurous and far-ranging in exploring fresh lines of inquiry. But this new historical scholarship has not taken up the legitimizing function which institutional labor history had performed for trade unionism. In fact, that identification has been seen by a new generation of scholars as one of the weaknesses of the old labor history, limiting it to the minority of workers represented by trade unionism (10 percent or less until the 1930's) and confining the subject even there to narrow institutional questions. Beyond that, the new labor history was invested with an ideological thrust that was unsympathetic to pure-and-simple unionism. The key influence derived from the English Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, whose The Making of the English Work Class (1963) became something of a model for the new labor history. Many of the younger labor historians, moreover, came out of the New Left of the 1960's, and drew from it a high valuation on the virtues of rank-and-file activity and of workers' control on the shop floor. Seen from that perspective, trade unions seemed to be confining institutions, designed to hold workers in check rather than to liberate them.
So here we have a second paradox. The very sources of scholarly vitality that have enlarged the study of labor history --and indeed moved it to the cutting edge of the descipline --have served also to diminish the historical stock of the American labor movement. There are, of course, countervailing forces at work. The comfortable assumption of a powerful trade union movement under which the new labor historians operated no longer applies. And the questions of institutional power which first stimulated an interest in trade union history once again are engaging the attention of labor historians. So we may anticipate some reversion to the earlier pattern of legitimization. Yet there is no question but that a toll has been taken on American trade unionism. In its time of need, the movement found labor history working at cross-purposes with its ongoing struggle to surmount the liability it had incurred when Samuel Gompers chose to disengage trade unionism from the Nation's republican traditions.…