Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

Preface

IN RECENT YEARS the role and function of organized labor in the United States have become increasingly popular topics of debate. Scarcely a day passes without some comment on the labor movement. Business and union leaders, prominent political figures, government officials, scholars, journalists, and the general public all have joined in the discussion. Partisans of the labor movement seek to justify its ideas and practices, proclaiming its virtues in enthusiastic terms. Opponents of American unionism, on the other hand, attack its alleged monopolistic and arbitrary powers, as well as the seemingly endless inflationary push given by continuous wage demands. Still others attempt to follow a middle path, looking toward the public interest as their point of reference.

My purpose in this study, however, is neither to justify nor condemn the American labor movement. Nor am I studying its past history to find clues that would help to resolve present problems and issues. Instead I have attempted to assess from a historical point of view the development of the ideology of organized labor as an integral part of American society and culture. For American unionism is more than simply an economic movement. Like other institutions, it tends to reflect the dominant standards and values of American culture. One of my basic assumptions has been, therefore, that unions are simply a microcosm of a larger whole, and I have tried to show why American unionism has developed in its own peculiar manner. After all, unions in America have evolved in a very different fashion as compared with those of England and Western Europe. Why has this been so? My answer, briefly stated, is that American unionism is simply a response to the values which American culture emphasizes. Functioning in a materialistic, acquisitive, and abundant environment, unions have derived their goals and orientation from society at large.

In writing this book, I have profited from a large number of studies by other students, most of whose contributions are acknowledged in the bibliographical essay at the end of the volume. In particular, however, I should like to single out the classic work on American labor by the late John R. Commons and his associates ( History of Labour in the United States, 4 volumes, New York, 1918- 1935). This work, which gained instantaneous recognition as being the authority on the history of American

-vii-

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