The Business of Labor

Article excerpt

The Business of Labor

Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello

Jeremy Brecher, a historian, and Tim Costello, a labor activist, are coauthors of the books Global Village or Global Pillage and Building Bridges.

Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, by Paul Buhle. Monthly Review Press, 1999.

Running for president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, John Sweeney characterized the Federation as a "Washington-based institution concerned primarily with refining policy positions" instead of a "worker-based movement against greed, multinational corporations, race-baiting, and labor-baiting politicians." He charged that the American labor movement was "irrelevant to the vast majority of unorganized workers in our country" and added that he had deep suspicions that "we are becoming irrelevant to our own members."

To find out how the "house of labor" became that way--and why it has proved so difficult to change--read Paul Buhle's new book Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. Taking Care of Business provides portraits of three of the four top AFL and AFL-CIO leaders whose reign spans an incredible 115 years of American labor history. But this book goes far beyond its subtitle to present the intertwined stories of labor's top leaders and those who opposed them from below and from the Left.

The Early American Labor Movement

For a century, labor historians have described the tension between exclusion and inclusion in the structure of American trade unions. A major strength of Buhle's book is to integrate this description with a more contemporary understanding of the politics of race and gender.

The work force of colonial America, Buhle observes, consisted of Melville's "mariners, renegades, and castaways" drawn from every race and corner of the globe--including women, of course, as well as men. In the years following the Civil War, the labor movement had strong roots in both the anti-slavery and the women's rights movements. The National Anti-Slavery Standard renamed itself the National Standard and advocated the rights of workers, women, freed slaves, Chinese immigrants, and Indians. Wendell Phillips, a leading anti-slavery agitator, ran for governor of Massachusetts on the Labor-Reform ticket. In 1871, feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the convention of the American Labor Reform League and were thereupon voted vice presidents. The next year, charismatic socialist Victoria Woodhall and the great abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass ran for the nation's highest offices on the same ticket.

Yet from early on there was another side to the American labor movement. The International Typographical Union refused to apprentice women--whereupon Susan B. Anthony trained women privately and encouraged them to take nonunion jobs. By 1870, the Workingmen's Advocate declared of the Chinese, "`Bond' or `free' they are a curse to our country." Woodhall and her supporters were expelled from the American section of the International--with Karl Marx's personal written consent.

The Gompers Era

In the 1880s, the broad tradition of inclusive labor reform found expression in the Knights of Labor, which by 1886 had more than one million members. The Knights officially welcomed all workers except lawyers and liquor dealers; while to their shame they participated in the anti-Chinese bigotry of the West, they welcomed black workers in a way almost unique in the era and aligned with Mexican-American movements in the Southwest.

But the Knights met opposition from another labor organization, the American Federation of Labor, and its leader Samuel Gompers, formerly a Marxian socialist. Gompers recalled in his autobiography that, in 1886, his forces had "roused the trade unionists of the country to an understanding of the menace which the Knights interposed to trade unions. …