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

By Philip S. Foner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Craft versus Industrial Unionism

BASIS OF THE CONFLICT

The adverse effects of the introduction of machinery upon unions of skilled craftsmen brought sharply to the fore the whole question of the proper form of organization. It was clear to many in the labor movement that the changes in the techniques of production could only be met effectively by a change in union structure. There was scarcely a convention of the A. F. of L., even in the 1890's, where some discussion of the need for this change was not part of the proceedings. Opponents of craft unionism, even in these early conventions, drew up indictments of the flaws in this form of union structure. While its inability to cope with the rapidly changing industrial conditions was advanced as the most important objection to craft unionism, it was also criticized for giving employers a great advantage in collective bargaining by enabling them, in the process of negotiating with several crafts separately, to play one union against another, and for causing bitter quarrels among the craft unions in the form of jurisdictional disputes. Changes in techniques of industry and the introduction of new machinery and new materials, it was pointed out, had made inevitable the jurisdictional quarrels among the craft unions. It was impossible under modern industrial conditions to draw an exact line where the work of one craft left off and that of another began.1

The emergence of the great trusts gave special meaning to these arguments against craft unionism. "How can the trade union meet the Standard Oil Company, the Sugar Trust, or the other swindling syndicates by which prices and wages are fixed?" John Swinton asked the delegates to the 1895 A. F. of L. convention. Pointing out that profound changes were occurring in the structure of American industry, the pro-labor newspaper editor and publisher * inquired whether the trade unions were making

____________________
*
During the 1880's Swinton had published John Swinton's Paper, one of the outstanding papers in American labor history. (See Foner, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 30, 42, 48, 54, 63, 70, 81, 115, 118, 122, 153.)

-195-

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