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

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Establishment of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1896

I

THE DEFEAT OF REFORM UNIONISM in the late 1880's did not necessarily imply that the trade unions would automatically pre-empt the field to the exclusion of all other forms of organizations and ideologies. Indeed, after 1890 various socialist factions made determined efforts to turn the labor movement toward an endorsement of their peculiar brand of socialism, and even within the ranks of the trade unions there was some uncertainty as to the proper course of action. Yet in spite of the factionalism and ideological differences that divided the working class in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the basic structure and philosophy of trade unionism was institutionalized and made permanent in the decade after the founding of the American Federation of Labor.

The establishment of the A.F. of L. in 1886 marked the culmination of two decades of agitation for a national federation of labor. For a brief time the trade unions had supported the National Labor Union before that organization turned to politics and reform. During the early 1870's many unions espoused such a federation,1 but the depression of 1873- 1878 prevented any further action from being taken. In 1879 the International Typographical Union took the lead in the movement to establish an association of trade unions, and in August, 1881, twenty-one delegates from thirteen unions were present at a meeting called by the Typographical Union in Terre Haute, Indiana.2 Because of the small number of unions that heeded the call, the delegates agreed to issue another summons for a "national labor congress" that would meet in Pitts

____________________
1
For trade union sentiment favoring a federation see the Coopers' Journal, III ( October, 1872), 598-600; International Typographical Union, Proceedings, 1873, p. 13.
2
International Typographical Union, Proceedings, 1879, pp. 39-40; 1880, pp. 63-64; 1881, pp. 25-27.

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