Essays

Unionism

Unionism Michael Paul 099 66 3949 History 316z Trade unionism, industrial unionism, and socialism were the main forms of organized labor in the late nineteenth century early twentieth century, yet rarely did these shifting currents flow in complementary ways that might appeal to the vast majority of struggling workers. The three most important formal organizations were the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party of America. All three of these organizations had there own strengths but the many weaknesses and divisions combined with outside influences caused the retardation of their radical, left wing ideas. The American Federation of Labor was founded with the intention of building the class conscioussness and economic power of workers by organizing them on occupational lines. It pursued policies to win short term, concrete, economic gains (Cashman,206.) The AFL was first established as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada from several independent national trade unions in 1881 and it took its definitive form and new name in 1886.The AFL was decentralized and organized as a loose coalition of almost autonomous national unions (Cashman,205.) The advantage to this was that decisions were made in each union where the leaders understood the situation. However, the AFL retreated from its Marxian origins to become a profoundly conservative organization restricted to the ranks of skilled, white males.

This restrictive policy was a major flaw of the AFL and kept them from gaining the numbers and strength that it may have attained. These policies came directly from the ideas of the AFLs longtime leader Samuel Gompers. Gompers believed that labor should accept the existing capitalist economy but try and get a larger share for labor by way of higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions of work. He believed that the idealistic goal of a fundamental economic reform was an illusion (Cashman,221.) His conservative approach included negotiation and conciliation in labor disputes and in resort to strikes only after other methods had failed. He opposed alliances with political parties and the formation of a labor political party.

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His prime concern was the status of the skilled worker, which under his leadership attained greater stability than ever before. In concentrating almost exclusively on the needs of the craftsmen, trade unions were increasingly supporting practices that severely undermined the solidarity of the working class as a whole. The cost of which was not felt by the middle class but by the unskilled worker (Cashman,223.) The exclusion of the unskilled worker and the lack of a true effort to recruit women and blacks into the AFL as well as having a central body that was powerless to settle disputes between unions along with the elitest and often racist slant of some union policies were major flaws of the AFL . Samuel Gompers himself was anti immigration. Though women and blacks were urged to join the union they were met with harsh prejudices from the white members of the AFL. In 1902, blacks constituted only three percent of total union membership and mostly segregated into ineffectual locals. The AFLs record with women was almost as poor.

High union dues, apprenticeship requirements and the autonomous structures of individual unions meant that few women entered craft unions. Indeed, the more women went to work, the more they aroused the anxieties of workmen who considered it their birthright to be the sole support of the household (Laurie,196.) This contributed to more prejudices against women and keeping their numbers down in the AFL. The unskilled and immigrant workers were the worst off in the AFL. Unskilled immigrant labor was regarded by most union leaders as undesirable and unorganizable. The AFL was a leading advocate for immigration restriction on both economic and nativist grounds.

This outlook deepens our understanding of the American Federation of Labors, along with its leader Samuel Gompers, retreat from heroism (Laurie,198.) This means that though the AFL did have many successes the things that it could have accomplished but did not far outweighs the good it did. The AFLs weak central body was also a major disadvantage to it being a strong organization. Because it was powerless to settle disputes between unions it was left open to internal down falls such as jurisdictional disputes over whether workers at a given task should be members of one union or another, and to discipline organizations whose policies were damaging to labor in general. This policy of being decentralized clearly hurt the organizations ability to be an influence on its union members and to govern it properly. Its more conservative outlooks and the racial boundaries it built may have also persuaded possible members to join other organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World or the Socialist Party of America.

The Industrial Workers of the World was a much more radical association than that of the American Federation of Labor. Formed in January 1905, by William D. Haywood, a small band of labor radicals, and various left wing socialists, including Eugene Debs, the IWW was the most adventurous radical organization in American labor history (Cashman,215.) Bringing the IWW convention to order in his booming voice, Haywood declared, What we want to establish at this time is a labor organization that will open wide its doors to every man that earns his living by his brain or his muscle. The doors of the IWW were open to all a very radical idea for this intolerant age. When the IWW manifesto was adopted in 1905, it proposed that the new union must be founded on the class struggle, with the recognition of the of the irrepressible conflict between the capitalist class and the working class, but like the AFL without affiliation to any political party (Leuchtenberg, 201.) Better known as the Wobblies, the IWW were singularly free of prejudice in an intolerant age.

In the IWWs drive to organize all workers as a class against the capitalists, they employed foreign language organizers and published multilingual materials (Cashman,216.) The creation of dual unions, in direct competition to the AFL, reflected the enormous gap that existed between the outlook of business unionists such as Gompers, and the radical industrial unionists of the IWW. Their radical beliefs included ideas such as, the working class and the employing class have nothing in common. The IWW saw the employing class as a tyrant that was set out to keep the working class poor and powerless. Bill Haywood said, There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. (Cashman, 214) By organizing the mass of workers who were excluded from the AFL, the Wobblies aimed to engage the employers in an unrelenting class war, culminating in a general strike to redistribute power and wealth. IWW leader were openly antagonistic to the AFL, this was a major mistake made on the behalf of the IWW. Yes they were giving rights to and fighting for many people that the AFL had overlooked but they were both struggling for the same common goal, more rights for the working class.

To quarrel with one another was a major blunder on both of their parts. Also many of the revolutionary ideas coming from the IWW leaders stayed just that and became nothing more. Internal power struggles also derailed plans the IWW had for the labor movement. The public also got the impression that the IWW and all union leaders were violent, anarchists, and murderers. These beliefs came from murders and bombings committed by members of the IWW, which were contracted by Bill Haywood himself. Overall the most practical contribution the IWW had on the American labor movement was their role as a shock force in leading unskilled workers when they rose in spontaneous strikes, and their ready ability to mobilize migrant, displaced workers at the bottom of society (Cashman,227.) Another problem that both the AFL and IWW had was neither would affiliate with a political party.

By not affiliating with a political platform they lost power they may have gained from being involved with politicians. They may have been able to campaign for better rights using the aid of a political party. They certainly would have gained more recognition from there involvement with a political platform. Socialism was a feeling of class consciousness accompanied by a political party speaking for the working class. In 1901 the Socialist Party of America was formed.

Eugene V. Debs, veteran hero of the Pullman Strike, moved forward to lead the SPAs campaigns for next two decades. Debss life and career reflected the turbulence and trials experienced by many workers as industrial capitalism remolded the nation (Cashman,218.) Socialism flourished in the early 1900s and came to have an important impact on the lives of significant numbers of Americans, only to fall away sharply in the various domestic conflicts that accompanied World War 1. Unlike the AFL and the IWW the Socialist Party attempted to a political agenda to gain support and recognition from the people. The partys principal strength was limited to a few groups, the tenant farmers of the southern plains, the German trade unionists of Milwaukee, the eastern European Jews in New Yorks rag trade, lumbermen in the West, and metal miners and migrant laborers in the IWW. The socialist strength was strongest in small cities and towns but by 1917 it had increased its hold in larger cities of the industrialized East and Midwest (Cashman,219.) The Socialist Party, under the leadership of Debs wished to reform the system, and not to overthrow it.

Despite their recognition of this fact, the party still quarreled over the means by which a new society could be achieved. The IWW shunned conventional party politics bringing about disputes within the Party. The IWW and the socialist group were appealing to different types of workers. The socialist party wanted voters where as the IWW was directing its efforts toward women and new immigrants. Socialists in office were cautious, fearing they would alienate business and the public by introducing reforms that would necessitate higher taxation, sometimes finding themselves limited by charters or at odds with hostile state legislatures. Thus the Socialist Party seemed to be most successful in winning power when it was most progressive, which left the ultimate revolutionary goals of socialism unsatisfied (Leuchtenberg, 178.) Eventually because of the large demand for goods brought on by the onset of World War 1 and Wilsons policy of intervention the Socialist Party would become extremely weak. These three groups, the AFL, the IWW and the Socialist Party all had their specific ideas and intelligent leaders.

The AFL had Samuel Gompers who was more for compromise rather than all out revolutionary tactics. By contrast the IWW led by Bill Haywood was the most radical and controversial of all American labor movements. Haywoods unconventional methods and uncompromising stands frequently put him at odds with allies and opponents alike. And the Socialist Party of America led by Eugene Debs had potential to improve the lives of workers everywhere but do to internal conflicts was unable to truly make a difference. Had these three organizations been able to play off one another they may have been able to realize their ultimate goals.

The AFL containing the skilled workers was the most powerful, the IWW took what the AFL did not want giving the unskilled worker a voice and the Socialist Party went in to politics, using political offices to gain power for the working class. Ultimately because of the different outlooks of these three groups the American labor movement, though it gained some ground, was a loss. Bibliography Works cited Cashman, Sean. America in the age of titans. New York university press, NY ,1988 Laurie, Bruce. Artisans into Workers university of illinois press, illinois 1997 Leuchtenberg, William.

The Perils of Prosperity. The university of chicago press, london, 1958 American History.

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