Contemporary Unionism in the United States

By Clyde E. Dankert | Go to book overview

25
Unions and Politics

AMERICAN unions are primarily collective bargaining agencies seeking to achieve their main objectives through negotiations with, and pressure upon, employers. With a few notable exceptions this has always been true. It is also true, however, that the unions are keenly interested in political and legislative matters. Occasionally this interest has reached such a level that it has overshadowed their concern with collective bargaining.


Historical Survey

Labor's initial offensive on the political front was launched in 1828 when the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations, the pioneer central labor union established by the Philadelphia unions, set up the Working Men's Party. The party nominated a considerable number of candidates for office in the city council and state legislature, and a good portion of the nominees were elected. Workers in New York, Boston, Albany, and other cities imitated their Philadelphia brethren, setting up Working Men's parties, nominating candidates, and electing some of them to office. That workers at this time were rather deeply interested in politics is evidenced by the fact that local labor parties were formed in at least fifteen states.

The reasons for these early forays of labor into politics, the specific objectives labor hoped to achieve, and the factors responsible for its return to economic action have been set forth briefly in Chapter 2. Although it was not a complete failure, the venture of labor into politics at this time could not be looked upon as an outstanding success--certainly not in terms of immediate results.

After about five years of activity in the political field, the workers shifted back to economic action. Except for a brief return to politics following the Great Panic of 1837, labor attempted little in the way of systematic political action during the next thirty years, although the interest and the participation of the workers in the agrarianism of George Henry Evans may be cited as an exception.

In 1866 the National Labor Union was formed in an attempt to unify the scattered forces of labor. This organization had political interests. It participated in local politics, took part in the eight-hour movement and in green-

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