Elements of Paradox in U.S. Labor History

By Brody, David | Monthly Labor Review, August 1987 | Go to article overview

Elements of Paradox in U.S. Labor History


Brody, David, Monthly Labor Review


Elements of paradox in U.S. labor history

In 1834, the General Trades' Union of Boston put forth a "Declaration of Rights' that began: "When a number of individuals associate together in a public manner for the purpose of promoting their common welfare, respect for public opinion, the proper basis of a republican form of government, under which they associate, requires that they should state to their fellow citizens the motives which actuate them in adopting such a course.' Sound familiar? It is of course a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence. The document as a whole, in fact, reads like a rewriting of the Declaration, and so does much else in the rhetoric of the American labor movement of the 19th century. One of its hallmarks was a linking of labor's cause with the Nation's republican heritage. For many years, the 4th of July was a workers' holiday, celebrated by them with such toasts as: "The working men, the legitimate children of '76. Their sorrows left the legacy of freedom and equality. They are now of age and are laboring to guarantee the principles of the revolution.'

A labor movement battling for the principles of '76 could scarcely be attacked on the grounds of un-Americanism. So compelling, in fact, was the free labor ideology that it was appropriated by Abraham Lincoln and the emerging Republican Party of the 1850's in the debate over slavery. But what kind of labor movement could be built on republican principles? First, it would have to be inclusive in nature, open not only to wage earners, but to all who thought of themselves as "producers.' Second, it would have to concern itself above all with defending the equal rights and independence of working people, that is to say, it would have to challenge the emerging industrial order rather than settling for bread-and-butter gains. On these principles of inclusivity and basic reform, the Knights of Labor enjoyed spectacular success in the first half of the 1880's, and an equally spectacular collapse in the second half, repeating a history of organizational failure by labor reform movements that extended back before the Civil War.

In founding the American Federation of Labor in 1886, Samuel Gompers was intent on constructing a labor movement that would survive and grow in the American environment. He and his circle, mainly German socialists, had the advantage of coming out of a tradition apart from republicanism. They appropriated the labor program of Karl Marx (divested of his rhetoric and revolutionary ardor), and called it pure-and-simple unionism. This meant, first, that power alone counted; second, that power depended on economic organization, not political action; third, that only wage earners, organized along occupational lines, belonged in a labor movement. Finally, the movement should devote itself to winning immediate gains for its members. It did not dismiss the possibility of larger change--in trade union unity, Gompers wrote in 1899, lay "the germ of the future state'--but visionary thinking was beyond the province of the labor movement. It was concerned with the here and now. "I am perfectly satisfied to fight the battles of today, of those here, and those that come tomorrow, so their conditions may be improved, and they may be better prepared to fight in the contests or solve the problems that may be presented to them. . . . Every step that the workers make or take, every vantage point gained, is a solution in itself.'

Gompers' was an approach well calculated for building a viable trade union movement. But this was accomplished by distancing organized labor from traditional republican values rooted in America's ideological heritage. Trade union leaders did not question the place of republicanism--with its connotations of equal rights for all--in the larger American society, but they believed that it could not endow their movement with either the organizational structure or the concrete agenda that a workers' movement required in order to survive. …

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