Workers' Control and the Struggles against "Wage Slavery" in the Gilded Age and After

By van Elteren, Mel | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2003 | Go to article overview

Workers' Control and the Struggles against "Wage Slavery" in the Gilded Age and After


van Elteren, Mel, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In nineteenth-century America, visions about the good life among labor reformers often entailed the concept of a democratic republic of citizens dedicated to self-directed work as small producers. Specific strains of the emerging workingclass movement helped to transform this artisan republican ideology into an anticapitalist critique of what was called the system of "wage slavery." Their spokesmen sparked the imaginations of working people with a vaguely defined but powerful vision of a "cooperative commonwealth." This article1 focuses on the reformunionist, populist, socialist, and syndicalist movements in US labor history that aimed at enhancing workers' control and eliminating "wage slavery" in the years between 1870 and 1920. These movements differed from "bread-and-butter" trade unionism and progressivism that pinned all hope on progress, the rise of prosperity, and redistribution of wealth. For the sake of brevity, the various forms of anarchism and Utopian communitarianism will be omitted, since their impact was relatively less significant in the domain of labor participation. Special attention will be paid to the Utopian, millenarian, and dystopian aspects of the movements concerned, and to the view, initially expressed by Daniel Bell, that American socialists were "other-worldly chiliasts" who neither understood nor cared about the realities of American life (6-7). While there is an element of truth in this assertion, on its own it falls short of adequately explaining why these attempts at workers' control resulted in such dismal failure. The key, as I hope to demonstrate, lies elsewhere.

Gilded Age Reformers, Christian Rhetoric, and the Battle Against "Plutocracy"

The period between 1873 and 1897 was marked by steadily falling prices, economic recessions and depressions, and a working-class movement dominated by the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor. The next period, up until 1914, saw rising prices, corporate consolidation, and the emergence of the industrial, craft-based unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its affiliates challenged by socialist and syndicalist opponents on the left (Stromquist 544; Dubofsky, State 2).

The Knights of Labor (1878-1893) was an industrial union organized at the national level, headed by a General Assembly. Workers were eligible to join, at least in theory, regardless of gender, "race," or ethnicity. With the exception of certain professionals, all gainfully employed individuals (including unskilled workers) could join, but three-fourths of each assembly had to be wage earners. This union was part of a broader reform movement that pressed for a "producerist" republican society, and it supported the eight-hour day, boycotts and arbitration (rather than strikes), various political reforms (including a graduated income tax), as well as consumers' and producers' cooperatives. The AFL, a self-appointed adversary of the Knights, was founded in 1886, and accepted individuals and locals from its rival union. The AFL, however, recognized the autonomy of each trade, thus limiting itself chiefly to business unionism and to skilled workers. Its unions stressed "job ownership," favored checks on immigration, demanded relief from technological job displacement, and proposed enactment of labor legislation. As a less radical strand of labor reform, the AFL also cooperated with employers, participating in the National Civic Federation (1900), for example, to help foster mediation of labor disputes (Encyclopedia 755-56).

During the first period, particularly between 1886 and 1894, many labor reformers denounced the "wage system" and envisioned a "cooperative commonwealth" where productive labor would reap its full reward. An insecure economy marked by declining prices made producerism attractive to heavily indebted small farmers, struggling small businessmen, artisans experiencing deskilling, and laborers in "saturated labor markets" (Stromquist 545). …

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