Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

Introduction

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) developed a distinctive and influential approach to political action. Rather than creating an independent party of American workers, akin to the British Labour Party or the German Social Democratic Party, AFL members and leaders struggled to find another route to political effectiveness. Along the way, they experimented with diverse political strategies, committing vast resources and generating passionate debates.

AFL President Samuel Gompers first articulated the political approach that would come to dominate the American labor movement. In the 1890s he argued forcefully, and ultimately successfully, that “party slavery” constituted a major source of tyranny in American life. Seeking to reject partisan commitments, the AFL turned to lobbying. In the early twentieth century, when an expanding federal bureaucracy and a growing anti-union movement among American employers together defeated AFL lobbying efforts, Gompers and other leaders reluctantly embarked on a more strenuous strategy. They ambitiously entered electoral politics, urging some two million AFL members across the nation to support pro-union candidates. Ultimately, they hoped to encourage class consciousness through a “strike at the ballot box.” The AFL leaders would soon learn, however, that achieving their political goals remained elusive.

At the heart of labor's political effort stood several conundrums. In a political system dominated by the two major parties, should the Federation remain independent and eschew partisan alliances? Or should it ally with one of the major parties or even with an alternative like the Socialists? Could AFL leaders possibly engage in electoral politics without dividing their ranks or, equally fearsome, facing embarrassment if trade unionists refused to join the effort? And could AFL leaders encourage limited engagement in electoral politics without losing control over the political future of the labor movement? Rank-and-file trade unionists had their own ideas about the shape American labor politics should take. Many of them favored Socialist or Labor Party activities, whereas others simply wanted their local labor councils and state federations of labor, rather than the national leadership, to stand at the heart of any political movement.

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