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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·Coöperation between Employers and Employees · The Wider Relations of Organized Labor·»

The Rise and Growth of Organized Labor

The American Federation of Labor.—Meanwhile a powerful association of workers representing all the leading trades and crafts, organized into unions of their own, had been built up outside the control of employers. This was the American Federation of Labor, a nation-wide union of unions, founded in 1886 on the basis of beginnings made five years before. At the time of its establishment it had approximately 150,000 members. Its growth up to the end of the century was slow, for the total enrollment in 1900 was only 300,000. At that point the increase became marked. The membership reached 1,650,000 in 1904 and more than 3,000,000 in 1919. To be counted in the ranks of organized labor were several strong unions, friendly to the Federation, though not affiliated with it. Such, for example, were the Railway Brotherhoods with more than half a million members. By the opening of 1920 the total strength of organized labor was put at about 4,000,000 members, meaning, if we include their families, that nearly one-fifth of the people of the United States were in some positive way dependent upon the operations of trade unions.

Historical Background.—This was the culmination of a long and significant history. Before the end of the eighteenth century, the skilled workmen—printers, shoemakers, tailors, and carpenters—had, as we have seen, formed local unions in the large cities. Between 1830 and 1860, several aggressive steps were taken in the American labor movement. For one thing, the number of local unions increased by leaps and bounds in all the industrial towns. For another, there was established in every large manufacturing city a central labor body composed of delegates from the unions of the separate trades. In the local union the printers or the cordwainers, for example, considered only their special trade problems. In the central labor union, printers, cordwainers, iron molders, and other craftsmen considered common problems and learned to coöperate with one another in enforcing the demands of each craft. A third step was the federation of the unions of the same craftsmen in different cities. The printers of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other towns, for instance, drew together and formed a national trade union of printers built upon the local unions of that craft. By the eve of the Civil War there were four or five powerful national unions of this character. The expansion of the railway made travel and correspondence easier and national conventions possible even for workmen of small means. About 1834 an attempt was made to federate the unions of all the different crafts into a national organization; but the effort was premature.

The National Labor Union.—The plan which failed in 1834 was tried again in the sixties. During the war, industries and railways had flourished as never before; prices had risen rapidly; the demand for labor had increased; wages had mounted slowly, but steadily. Hundreds of new local unions had been founded and eight or ten national trade unions had sprung into being. The time was ripe, it seemed, for a national consolidation of all labor’s forces; and in 1866, the year after the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, the “National Labor Union” was formed at Baltimore under the leadership of an experienced organizer, W.H. Sylvis of the iron molders. The purpose of the National Labor Union was not merely to secure labor’s standard demands touching hours, wages, and conditions of work or to maintain the gains already won. It leaned toward political action and radical opinions. Above all, it sought to eliminate the conflict between capital and labor by making workingmen the owners of shops through the formation of coöperative industries. For six years the National Labor Union continued to hold conferences and carry on its propaganda; but most of the coöperative enterprises failed, political dissensions arose, and by 1872 the experiment had come to an end.

The Knights of Labor.—While the National Labor Union was experimenting, there grew up in the industrial world a more radical organization known as the “Noble Order of the Knights of Labor.” It was founded in Philadelphia in 1869, first as a secret society with rituals, signs, and pass words; “so that no spy of the boss can find his way into the lodge room to betray his fellows,” as the Knights put it. In form the new organization was simple. It sought to bring all laborers, skilled and unskilled, men and women, white and colored, into a mighty body of local and national unions without distinction of trade or craft. By 1885, ten years after the national organization was established, it boasted a membership of over 700,000. In philosophy, the Knights of Labor were socialistic, for they advocated public ownership of the railways and other utilities and the formation of coöperative societies to own and manage stores and factories.

As the Knights were radical in spirit and their strikes, numerous and prolonged, were often accompanied by violence, the organization alarmed employers and the general public, raising up against itself a vigorous opposition. Weaknesses within, as well as foes from without, started the Knights on the path to dissolution. They waged more strikes than they could carry on successfully; their coöperative experiments failed as those of other labor groups before them had failed; and the rank and file could not be kept in line. The majority of the members wanted immediate gains in wages or the reduction of hours; when their hopes were not realized they drifted away from the order. The troubles were increased by the appearance of the American Federation of Labor, a still mightier organization composed mainly of skilled workers who held strategic positions in industry. When they failed to secure the effective support of the Federation in their efforts to organize the unskilled, the employers closed in upon them; then the Knights declined rapidly in power. By 1890 they were a negligible factor and in a short time they passed into the limbo of dead experiments.

The Policies of the American Federation.—Unlike the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor sought, first of all, to be very practical in its objects and methods. It avoided all kinds of socialistic theories and attended strictly to the business of organizing unions for the purpose of increasing wages, shortening hours, and improving working conditions for its members. It did not try to include everybody in one big union but brought together the employees of each particular craft whose interests were clearly the same. To prepare for strikes and periods of unemployment, it raised large funds by imposing heavy dues and created a benefit system to hold men loyally to the union. In order to permit action on a national scale, it gave the superior officers extensive powers over local unions.

While declaring that employers and employees had much in common, the Federation strongly opposed company unions. Employers, it argued, were affiliated with the National Manufacturers’ Association or with similar employers’ organizations; every important industry was now national in scope; and wages and hours, in view of competition with other shops, could not be determined in a single factory, no matter how amicable might be the relations of the company and its workers in that particular plant. For these reasons, the Federation declared company unions and local shop committees inherently weak; it insisted that hours, wages, and other labor standards should be fixed by general trade agreements applicable to all the plants of a given industry, even if subject to local modifications.

At the same time, the Federation, far from deliberately antagonizing employers, sought to enlist their coöperation and support. It affiliated with the National Civic Federation, an association of business men, financiers, and professional men, founded in 1900 to promote friendly relations in the industrial world. In brief, the American Federation of Labor accepted the modern industrial system and, by organization within it, endeavored to secure certain definite terms and conditions for trade unionists.

«·Coöperation between Employers and Employees · The Wider Relations of Organized Labor·»