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

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
Conclusion

THE YEARS BETWEEN the Civil War and the turn of the century were indeed crucial ones for the American labor movement. By this time the industrial worker had found that his bargaining strength as an individual had declined markedly, and that he simply constituted the nucleus of a permanent wage-earning class. During the colonial period, on the other hand, the skilled artisan had occupied a highly respected status in society, and frequently had performed the functions not only of a worker, but also of a manager, salesman, and entrepreneur. As an important member of the community his economic position was relatively strong. But in the new industrialized economy, with its national market, its emphasis on large scale productive units, specialization, and mechanization, the artisan found that all he had left to sell was his labor. In such a dehumanized society the end result was a drastic decline in the status of workers, especially since mechanization had made skill acquired over a long period of time less essential. By the middle and late nine- teenth century the transition from the skilled artisan to the industrial worker was nearing completion.

Faced by the erosion of its traditional position, labor attempted to develop a modus vivendi that would once again restore its status in the community. Initially it endeavored to revive the ideal of an older society, where the distinction between employer and employee did not seem to exist, and where the functions of both were united in the same person. Thus during the first half of the nineteenth century the foundation was laid for a labor tradition which emphasized that only the basic reform of society could arrest the ever-declining position of the working class. Asserting that such things as higher wages, shorter hours, and other benefits were simply amelioratives that avoided the root of the problem, the spokesmen for reform unionism attempted to meet the challenge of industrialism and a nationalized economy by returning to an earlier epoch in which the individual entrepreneur rather than the giant corporation was the characteristic unit of production. Both the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor were in the reform tradition of American unionism. Both emphasized co-operation and reform politics in place of collective bargaining and economic action. Refusing to accept the permanency of an impersonal system that was transforming the worker from a skilled craftsman into an unskilled or semiskilled robot, its leaders

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