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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Quiet Campaigns

The AFL's humiliating political defeat in 1908 emboldened many of Samuel Gompers's enemies and produced some of his darkest hours. The political strategy he and his allies had developed over several years - nonpartisan in theory though pro-Democratic in fact - appeared to have no future. The popularity of both labor partyism and socialism grew after 1908, whereas in the economic sphere a renewed militancy among unskilled workers challenged the AFL's exclusivist orientation. These pressures seemed likely to push organized labor toward a broader and more ambitious political strategy, but instead AFL leaders adopted the opposite course. Hardly in the mood for political gambling, Samuel Gompers retreated from the high-stakes mobilization strategies he had developed since 1906, and sought refuge instead in the realm of lobbying and negotiations with top Democratic leaders. Although the debacle of 1908 could not sever the ties between labor and the Democratic Party, it did force a complete reevaluation of strategy and tactics. Never again would the AFL leaders risk everything on their presumed ability to deliver workers' votes.


Rebellion Within and Without

As the dust settled after Bryan's defeat in late 1908, commentators noted regularly that the AFL's pure and simple leaders had been humiliated by rank-andfile workers who refused to follow their leaders' political advice. “Injunction Judge” Taft now entered the White House and prominent labor enemies like Joseph Cannon and John Dalzell returned to Congress. Those who had supported the AFL policy and hoped it would bring labor some degree of political success felt disheartened and discouraged. Having thrown themselves into political mobilizing, trade unionists found their organizing work suffered as a result. AFL membership hardly budged during 1908, and unionists commonly attributed this both to the lingering impact of 1907's economic panic and to the political distractions caused by the 1908 campaign.1 Workers loyal to the Republicans still

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1
See the Cleveland Citizen, November 28, 1908.

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