The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor, 1900-1909 - Vol. 3

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Reaction to Technological Change

At the opening of the century, the American Federation of Labor "was composed primarily of unions of skilled workers who were employed in the building trades and in small establishments, such as cigar, printing, tailor, and barber shops. The unions in several mass production industries -- steel, textiles, glass, and shoes -- consisted almost entirely of the skilled crafts in those industries." The affiliated organizations of the A. F. of L. in 1900 included less than 20 per cent of the entire working class; the vast majority of the unskilled workers, Negro and white, women and men, native and foreign-born, and the so-called, "common and general laborers," such as the men "who built the roads and railroads, lumberjacks, foundry laborers and stevedores, were largely unorganized, as were the migratory and agricultural workers."

Despite the fact that the A. F. of L. was comprised of a small minority of American workers, the leaders of the Federation spoke of their organizations as representing "the industrial force" of the nation.1 The fact that such an overwhelming percentage of the working class was still unorganized was, in the eyes of these leaders, the fault of these workers alone. As Gompers put it in a report to an A. F. of L. convention: "That it [the trade union movement] has not made faster progress, is not due to us who have done our duty to our fellow-workers, but to those who have failed to ally themselves to our noble cause."2 In oft-repeated writings and speeches, Gompers spelled out precisely what he meant by the expression, "done our duty." He pointed out that one of the primary purposes of the A. F. of L. was the organization of new unions, the objective being the complete unionization of all wage earners. He stressed that the A. F. of L., "guided by the experience of the labor organizations of the past," had, by 1900, evolved a labor program that was designed to meet the needs of all workers, regardless of skill or lack of skill, race, creed, sex, or national origin. Moreover, it went to great pains to acquaint "all unorganized workers" with its program, in an effort to convince them that "the principles for which we stand will bring greater relief

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