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

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER ONE
Introduction

ON THE MORNING of December 5, 1955, delegates representing the affiliated unions of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations ratified a document healing the schism that had divided labor's ranks for two decades. Scores of prominent figures, from the mayor of New York City to the President of the United States, joined in paying homage to the power of organized labor. For the American worker it was indeed a climactic moment, symbolizing the importance that his unions had come to exercise in almost all walks of life.

Yet, as Adlai Stevenson so eloquently told the assembled delegates, there lay behind "a century and a half of preparation, of building, of upward struggle, of fighting for a liberty no working man could win alone, but only in company with his brothers."1 There had been a time when labor organizations were regarded by many with suspicion, when employers refused to bargain collectively with their employees, and when the immense powers of the state and national governments were arrayed against organized labor. History was indeed a compelling witness to the notable transformation that had occurred in the century and a half preceding that fateful morning of December 5, 1955. From its minute and obscure origins the American labor movement had at last come of age.

The process of growth and development, however, had been slow and arduous. During the colonial period there was little need for workingclass organization because of the relative lack of distinction between employer and employee. This era was, in the words of one historian, "the age of the individual entrepreneur, who, in such industries as the workshop crafts, performed the labor as well as put up the capital for the venture himself."2 With the gradual expansion of industry, a development made possible by a revolution in transportation and communication, the traditionally close relationship between master and journeyman underwent a significant change. The increase in the size of the industrial unit and the introduction of machinery enhanced the master's position, while at the same time it reduced the journeyman to the status of a paid and dependent worker. The pressure of increased competition induced em

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1
American Federationist, LXIII ( January, 1956), 42.
2
Richard B. Morris, Government and Labor in Early America ( New York, 1946), p. 38.

-3-

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