Trade Unions Mirror Society in Conflict between Collectivism and Individualism

By Kessler-Harris, Alice | Monthly Labor Review, August 1987 | Go to article overview

Trade Unions Mirror Society in Conflict between Collectivism and Individualism


Kessler-Harris, Alice, Monthly Labor Review


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Trade Unions Mirror Society in Conflict between Collectivism and Individualism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.