19
LABOR IN
AMERICAN POLITICS

Charles M. Rehmus

Foreign trade-union delegations and individual union officials who visit the United States almost always show a lively interest in the political role of American labor. This interest ordinarily takes the form of questions such as: Why doesn't the American trade-union movement have its own political party? Why don't your unions have political goals? Is it true that American workers are apolitical? Such questions are not naive, particularly when asked by trade unionists from countries where the labor movement is closely aligned with one particular political party. Moreover, the view they reflect—that the American labor movement is almost exclusively concerned with collective bargaining as the means to protect worker rights and improve wages and working conditions—is a view shared by many Americans.

There is a widespread assumption that organized labor in the U.S. is economically rather than politically oriented. Such an assumption is entirely erroneous. American labor has been involved in politics at least since the 1820's. In one sense, the history of the American labor movement can be viewed as a record of conflict between leaders who stressed the importance of political activity versus those who argued the primacy of obtaining economic gains for wage-earners.

The final ascendancy was gained by those who believed in business unionism. Even those who most strongly supported this point of view, however, were aware that economic gains must be supported by at least some level of political power. The character and degree of labor's political activity has changed many times. Alliances have formed, separated, and regrouped. Influence has waxed and waned. But there has almost never been a time when

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