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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Delivering the Labor Vote

In February 1908, the open-shop drive achieved its greatest victory when the U.S. Supreme Court declared, in Loewe v. Lawlor, that labor organizations could be prosecuted as trusts under the Sherman Act. On hearing of the decision, Samuel Gompers proclaimed: “the most grave and momentous crisis ever faced by the wage-workers of our country is now upon us. Our industrial rights have been shorn from us and our liberties are threatened.”1 Earlier events had demonstrated the open-shop activists' profitable political alliance with the Republican Party and especially its congressional leaders, but now Loewe v. Lawlor showed that the nation's highest court had enlisted in the antilabor campaign. Labor felt a noose tightening around its neck.

More than ever before, by 1908, trade unionists saw politics as providing the solution to their deepening crisis. Judicial harassment, they concluded, could be eliminated only by winning legislation that would exempt unions from the Sherman Act and limit injunctions, or that would allow citizens to elect federal judges. J. C. Skemp, secretary-treasurer of the Painters' Union, for example, argued that workers must proceed by electing their friends to state legislatures and to Congress: “We must sink all racial, religious, and political differences and stand shoulder to shoulder as one man. We must carry our unionism to the ballot box. Too long we have left it in the shop and on the job.”2

Thus, the American Federation of Labor leaders escalated their political strategy again in 1908, fighting with renewed vigor and determination to elect their friends and defeat their enemies. At the heart of this new strategy stood a formal

____________________
1
“Address to Workers, ” issued by the AFL's Conference of Protest, March 18, 1908, American Federationist (hereafter cited as AF), 15 (4), April 1908, 269.
2
J. C. Skemp in “Amend the Sherman Anti-Trust Law - Labor Must Exercise its Political Power. A Symposium by Men of Affairs, ” AF, 15 (5), May 1908, 359–60. See also Owen Miller (secretary, American Federation of Musicians), Daniel Keefe (president, International Longshoremen, Marine, and Transportworkers' Association), George L. Berry (president, International Printing Pressmen's Union), AF, 15 (3), March 1908, 168, 178, and 172, respectively; J. H. Kaefer (Stove Mounters' International Union), and J. B. Grout (International Metal Polishers' Union), AF, 15 (5), May 1908, 360–1.

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