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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Revolt Against
Party Slavery

Some Gilded Age workers lived amidst a heady swirl of political opportunities. Whether they chose soldierlike loyalty in the ranks of the major parties or alternatives like socialism, greenbackism, populism, or anarchism, workingmen regularly asserted their wish to influence the future of American society and government. Yet as a group, workers also faced severe limitations on their political influence. The conservative nature of the major parties, institutional discrimination against third parties, and ethnic divisions that made some workingmen Democrats and others Republicans, all placed obstacles in front of even those most empowered workers, the white men possessing citizenship. Far more striking was the way America's political system victimized female, Asian, and (in most cases) Native American and African-American workers through disfranchisement. European immigrants lacked the franchise until they became citizens, and for many of them, voting continued to seem unattractive even after that. These barriers extinguished any possibility that American workers could become a united political force during the Gilded Age.

Like the working class from which it sprang, the American Federation of Labor was pervaded by political debate during its early decades. Many among the AFL's skilled craftsmen agitated as part of the single-tax, socialist, or populist movements. Others supported the Democratic or Republican parties. By the 1890s, though, a bitter fight had erupted among AFL members over which political strategy the labor movement should pursue. Should trade unionists emphasize economic or political activity? And if the latter, should they ally with a political party or remain independent? Socialists pushed the AFL to adopt a political program that reflected their goals, populists advocated an alliance with the People's Party, whereas those unionists known as “philosophical Anarchists” rejected political tactics and championed economic struggle instead. Amidst the maelstrom of these political divisions, Samuel Gompers and other trade unionists began articulating a distinctive political vision, one that would ultimately attract a large and diverse group of AFL members to its support. This political vision emphasized that the trade unions stood at the heart of the labor movement, and it allowed no interference by either mainstream or radical political

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