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

By Julie Greene | Go to book overview

Conclusion

In the 1890s, Samuel Gompers and his allies first articulated their vision of pure and simple politics. It held that only trade union members and their leaders should shape and control American labor politics, and that they should follow a fiercely independent approach to politics, rejecting what unionists called “party slavery” as well as most forms of state intervention. By the beginning of the twentieth century, this vision dominated America's most influential labor organization and AFL unionists who embraced it worked energetically to achieve their modest and antistatist goals.

Over the next two decades, this political approach confronted a number of powerful challenges. Although initially AFL leaders pursued a modest lobbying strategy, changing relations between state and society made this strategy less tenable. In the first years of the new century, employers engaged in an openshop drive, asserting their authority on shop floors across the country and, increasingly, in the political sphere. Allied with the Republican Party, openshop employers skillfully worked through the courts and Congress to thwart organized labor's political ambitions. At the same time the federal government gradually expanded its powers. If at first this expansion could be seen most dramatically beyond the borders of the United States, in places like Cuba, the Philippines, and Panama, in more subtle ways the state began affecting workers' daily lives as well, through judicial actions, through limited regulatory legislation, and by employing rapidly growing numbers of working-class Americans. Together, the employers' anti-union movement and the expanding state led AFL leaders to reassess their emphasis on limited lobbying tactics.

Thus, in 1906 and again in 1908, AFL unionists embarked on an experiment in political mobilization. Trade unionists became more active politically and helped select, nominate, and work for candidates who supported labor's limited political goals - an eight-hour day for government employees and limits on the labor injunction. “Reward your friends and punish your enemies” became the slogan of AFL politics. The great experiment, meanwhile, taught some unexpected lessons. One was that rank-and-file workers envisioned the political sphere very differently than did their leaders. Whereas national leaders grew most active

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