Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Reform Labor Unionism and Politics

I

THE TRADITION of labor participation in politics in the United States has long been an underlying motif in the history of the working class. The relatively early adoption of universal manhood suffrage made it natural for labor to regard political action with a favored eye, especially because more direct weapons like the strike did not produce many notable victories. In the ante-bellum period the right of government -- state and national -- to regulate the economy was accepted by many. The limitations placed by the Manchester School of liberals upon governmental intervention in economic life during the nineteenth century had never been fully accepted by even its most ardent advocates. Even after the Civil War, when laissez faire became the dominant keynote in economic theory, there were many who dissented from the majority view.1 With government playing an important role in economic affairs, labor continued its efforts to influence policy through political activity.

Most native-American labor leaders, therefore, had grown to maturity at a time when powerful and active government, especially on the state level, was the rule rather than the exception, and the tradition of strong government left a visible imprint upon their labor philosophy. This was as true for the leaders of the 1860's, like Sylvis, as for later ones, like Powderly and Litchman. The ballot, then, came to be accepted as a legitimate means of securing favorable legislation.

More often than not, however, attempts to forge a working class united in politics concluded in failure. An important cause for this failure was the fact that many workers refused to accept the permanency of their wage status and instead identified themselves with the middle class and its periodic antimonopoly campaigns. Thus it happened that the labor movement of the 1880's was afflicted with a peculiar duality of character. Traditionally the workers had regarded themselves as the producers and

____________________
1
Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought 1865-1901 ( Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1956), pp. 18-23, 29-31, et passim.

-79-

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