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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Building the Federation

In early December of 1886, thirty-eight trade unionists converged on Druids' Hall in Columbus, Ohio, hoping to create a new nationwide labor federation. They represented young unions like the Tailors, Bakers, Iron Molders, Bricklayers, and Printers. At the movement's head stood three unions: the Cigar Makers, famed for their effective institution-building tactics and represented by Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers; the Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers, led by John McBride and Christopher Evans; and the Carpenters and Joiners, headed by Peter McGuire, “one of the coolest and shrewdest men in the labor movement.” Most delegates had roots both in socialist organizations and in the Knights of Labor. Now, however, they wanted an organization that would place national trade unions at the movement's center, displacing politics and social reform and guaranteeing autonomy to the various trades.1

The organization these men created, the American Federation of Labor, soon eclipsed the dying Knights of Labor. Although the AFL represented a diverse group of unions, by 1900 it would be dominated by the business unionism of conservative affiliates like the cigarmakers and the carpenters. Although industrial unions like the miners played an important role in the AFL, craft unionism would triumph over broader strategies for reaching out to the American working class. And even though the AFL was born amidst a complex mixture of radical and independent politics, it achieved fame for eschewing these in favor of a limited and nonpartisan lobbying program. During its early decades, then, the AFL underwent a complex transformation, one which can be understood only by investigating who it represented, what relationship its leaders and members possessed to the larger working class, and how internal power struggles influenced its evolution during the critical early decades.

____________________
1
“Federation of Trades, ” New York Tribune, Dec. 9, 1886, in Stuart Kaufman, et al., eds., The Samuel Gompers Papers, Vol. 1, The Making of a Union Leader, 1850–1886 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).

-19-

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