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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
A Popular Uprising of
Honest Men

In 1906, Samuel Gompers and Frank Morrison broke with tradition and took the American Federation of Labor directly into electoral politics. Harassed by injunctions, menaced by anti-union employers, scorned by Congress, and inspired by British unionists, the AFL leaders decided to transcend the lobbying campaign they had followed for a decade and attempt instead a program of mass mobilization. Gompers and Morrison created a Labor Representation Committee that designed the AFL's new campaign program and controlled decisions of strategy and tactics. Through this committee the AFL leaders hoped to mobilize the entire Federation hierarchy, from the Executive Council to the leaders of the state federations and central labor unions, and on down to rank-and-file trade unionists across the country. The campaign program pragmatically declared its goal: Organized labor would “reward our friends and punish our enemies, ” particularly when it came to congressional elections. In more grandiose terms, Gompers called on rank-and-file workers to create “a popular uprising of honest men.”1

Workers across the United States at this time already participated in diverse political activities, as we saw in the preceding chapter, and many had urged their national leaders for years to initiate a more aggressive political strategy. The centralization that occurred in the American labor movement after the 1880s, when local-level unions lost power to the international affiliates and the national bureaucracy of the AFL, made it more difficult for local activists to exercise political independence. The central labor unions, historically the political heart of organized labor, had long ago been stripped of their political and economic autonomy by the national organizations. Labor's national leaders, in short, had acted as a brake on independent labor politics for some time. Now their decision to enter the electoral sphere would have important ramifications for American workers.

The AFL campaign program of 1906 confronted American workers simultaneously with an opportunity and a danger. Although initiated from the top

____________________
1
The call to create a popular uprising comes from the AFL Executive Council, “A.F. of L. Campaign Programme, ” American Federationist (hereafter cited as AF), 13 (8), August 1906, 531.

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