unionism



Michael Paul
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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 AFL’s 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. 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 AFL’s 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 AFL’s 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