A History of Trade Unionism in the United States

By Selig Perlman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 13
THE IDEALISTIC FACTOR

The puzzling fact about the American labor movement is, after all, its limited objective. As we saw before, the social order which the typical American trade unionist considers ideal is one in which organized labor and organized capital possess equal bargaining power. The American trade unionist wants, first, an equal voice with the employer in fixing wages and, second, a big enough control over the productive processes to protect job, health, and organization. Yet he does not appear to wish to saddle himself and fellow wage earners with the trouble of running industry without the employer. But materialistic though this philosophy appears, it is nevertheless the product of a long development to which the spiritual contributed no less than the material. In fact the American labor movement arrived at an opportunist trade unionism only after an endeavor spread over more than seventy years to realize a more idealistic program.

American labor started with the "ideology" of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Intended as a justification of a political revolution, the Declaration was worded by the authors as an expression of faith in a social revolution. To controvert the claims of George III, Thomas Jefferson quoted Rousseau. To him Rousseau was in all probability little more than an abstract "beau idéal," but Rousseau's abstractions were no mere

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