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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

But how could rank-and-file unionists shape the political direction of their movement, lacking as they did the resources and influence possessed by national leaders? Such questions weighed heavily on the minds of trade unionists during the early twentieth century; answers would not come easily.

These political quandaries belie some of our common assumptions about the character and activities of the American Federation of Labor in its early decades. Since the early twentieth century, when John Commons and his colleagues wrote their classic studies, scholarship on American labor politics has been dominated by the view that the AFL rejected political action and pursued instead economicand union-centered strategies. The AFL may have occasionally lobbied the government but beyond that, it is said, the Federation stayed out of politics.1

But did it? With this question, I began researching the American Federation of Labor's activities during its early decades, from the origins of its predecessor, the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions, through the election of 1916. Much to my surprise, I found that the American Federation of Labor devoted a great deal of attention to political activity during its early decades, and this activity helped shape both American politics as well as the character of the AFL itself. Accordingly, this book explores the AFL's evolution during its early decades as a way to understand the origins, character, and significance of trade union-centered political action that so dramatically distinguishes the case of the United States from labor movements in other countries. It will trace the AFL's approach to electoral politics, its relationship to the party system, and its strategies of mobilization. Two key arenas will require a close focus: the relationships within the AFL, in which members and leaders debated political strategies and exposed their own differences along the way; and the relationship between the AFL and other groups, such as Democratic Party politicians, state bureaucrats, open-shop employers, and workers not invited to join what was, after all, a highly exclusivist trade union federation. I call the strategy developed by the AFL “pure and simple politics, ” and with this phrase I hope to suggest a number of things.

Samuel Gompers coined the phrase “pure and simple” in 1893, at a time when, as president of the young AFL, he was already battling against Socialists for control over the institution. During this fight, he portrayed Socialists as “outsiders, ” regardless of their trade unionist credentials. “I cannot and will not prove false to my convictions, ” he proclaimed on one occasion, “that the trade unions pure and simple are the natural organizations of the wage workers to secure their present and practical improvement and to achieve their final

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1
Michael Rogin, “Voluntarism: The Political Functions of an Antipolitical Doctrine, ” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 15 (4), July 1962, 521–35; David J. Saposs, “Voluntarism in the American Labor Movement, ” Monthly Labor Review, 77 (9), September 1954, 967–71; Ruth L. Horowitz, Political Ideologies of Organized Labor (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1978); Marc Karson, American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900–1918 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958); Philip Taft, Labor Politics American Style: The California State Federation of Labor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).

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