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

«·The Rise and Growth of Organized Labor · Immigration and Americanization·»

The Wider Relations of Organized Labor

The Socialists.—The trade unionism “pure and simple,” espoused by the American Federation of Labor, seemed to involve at first glance nothing but businesslike negotiations with employers. In practice it did not work out that way. The Federation was only six years old when a new organization, appealing directly for the labor vote—namely, the Socialist Labor Party—nominated a candidate for President, launched into a national campaign, and called upon trade unionists to desert the older parties and enter its fold.

The socialistic idea, introduced into national politics in 1892, had been long in germination. Before the Civil War, a number of reformers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, and Wendell Phillips, deeply moved by the poverty of the great industrial cities, had earnestly sought relief in the establishment of coöperative or communistic colonies. They believed that people should go into the country, secure land and tools, own them in common so that no one could profit from exclusive ownership, and produce by common labor the food and clothing necessary for their support. For a time this movement attracted wide interest, but it had little vitality. Nearly all the colonies failed. Selfishness and indolence usually disrupted the best of them.

In the course of time this “Utopian” idea was abandoned, and another set of socialist doctrines, claiming to be more “scientific,” appeared instead. The new school of socialists, adopting the principles of a German writer and agitator, Karl Marx, appealed directly to workingmen. It urged them to unite against the capitalists, to get possession of the machinery of government, and to introduce collective or public ownership of railways, land, mines, mills, and other means of production. The Marxian socialists, therefore, became political. They sought to organize labor and to win elections. Like the other parties they put forward candidates and platforms. The Socialist Labor party in 1892, for example, declared in favor of government ownership of utilities, free school books, woman suffrage, heavy income taxes, and the referendum. The Socialist party, founded in 1900, with Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Pullman strike, as its candidate, called for public ownership of all trusts, monopolies, mines, railways; and the chief means of production. In the course of time the vote of the latter organization rose to considerable proportions, reaching almost a million in 1912. It declined four years later and then rose in 1920 to about the same figure.

In their appeal for votes, the socialists of every type turned first to labor. At the annual conventions of the American Federation of Labor they besought the delegates to endorse socialism. The president of the Federation, Samuel Gompers, on each occasion took the floor against them. He repudiated socialism and the socialists, on both theoretical and practical grounds. He opposed too much public ownership, declaring that the government was as likely as any private employer to oppress labor. The approval of socialism, he maintained, would split the Federation on the rock of politics, weaken it in its fight for higher wages and shorter hours, and prejudice the public against it. At every turn he was able to vanquish the socialists in the Federation, although he could not prevent it from endorsing public ownership of the railways at the convention of 1920.

The Extreme Radicals.—Some of the socialists, defeated in their efforts to capture organized labor and seeing that the gains in elections were very meager, broke away from both trade unionism and politics. One faction, the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, declared themselves opposed to all capitalists, the wages system, and craft unions. They asserted that the “working class and the employing class have nothing in common” and that trade unions only pitted one set of workers against another set. They repudiated all government ownership and the government itself, boldly proclaiming their intention to unite all employees into one big union and seize the railways, mines, and mills of the country. This doctrine, so revolutionary in tone, called down upon the extremists the condemnation of the American Federation of Labor as well as of the general public. At its convention in 1919, the Federation went on record as “opposed to Bolshevism, I.W.W.-ism, and the irresponsible leadership that encourages such a policy.” It announced its “firm adherence to American ideals.”

The Federation and Political Issues.—The hostility of the Federation to the socialists did not mean, however, that it was indifferent to political issues or political parties. On the contrary, from time to time, at its annual conventions, it endorsed political and social reforms, such as the initiative, referendum, and recall, the abolition of child labor, the exclusion of Oriental labor, old-age pensions, and government ownership. Moreover it adopted the policy of “rewarding friends and punishing enemies” by advising members to vote for or against candidates according to their stand on the demands of organized labor.

Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
Samuel Gompers and Other Labor Leaders

This policy was pursued with especial zeal in connection with disputes over the use of injunctions in labor controversies. An injunction is a bill or writ issued by a judge ordering some person or corporation to do or to refrain from doing something. For example, a judge may order a trade union to refrain from interfering with non-union men or to continue at work handling goods made by non-union labor; and he may fine or imprison those who disobey his injunction, the penalty being inflicted for “contempt of court.” This ancient legal device came into prominence in connection with nation-wide railway strikes in 1877. It was applied with increasing frequency after its effective use against Eugene V. Debs in the Pullman strike of 1894.

Aroused by the extensive use of the writ, organized labor demanded that the power of judges to issue injunctions in labor disputes be limited by law. Representatives of the unions sought support from the Democrats and the Republicans; they received from the former very specific and cordial endorsement. In 1896 the Democratic platform denounced “government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression.” Mr. Gompers, while refusing to commit the Federation to Democratic politics, privately supported Mr. Bryan. In 1908, he came out openly and boasted that eighty per cent of the votes of the Federation had been cast for the Democratic candidate. Again in 1912 the same policy was pursued. The reward was the enactment in 1914 of a federal law exempting trade unions from prosecution as combinations in restraint of trade, limiting the use of the injunction in labor disputes, and prescribing trial by jury in case of contempt of court. This measure was hailed by Mr. Gompers as the “Magna Carta of Labor” and a vindication of his policy. As a matter of fact, however, it did not prevent the continued use of injunctions against trade unions. Nevertheless Mr. Gompers was unshaken in his conviction that organized labor should not attempt to form an independent political party or endorse socialist or other radical economic theories.

Organized Labor and the Public.—Besides its relations to employers, radicals within its own ranks, and political questions, the Federation had to face responsibilities to the general public. With the passing of time these became heavy and grave. While industries were small and conflicts were local in character, a strike seldom affected anybody but the employer and the employees immediately involved in it. When, however, industries and trade unions became organized on a national scale and a strike could paralyze a basic enterprise like coal mining or railways, the vital interests of all citizens were put in jeopardy. Moreover, as increases in wages and reductions in hours often added directly to the cost of living, the action of the unions affected the well-being of all—the food, clothing, and shelter of the whole people.

For the purpose of meeting the issue raised by this state of affairs, it was suggested that employers and employees should lay their disputes before commissions of arbitration for decision and settlement. President Cleveland, in a message of April 2, 1886, proposed such a method for disposing of industrial controversies, and two years later Congress enacted a voluntary arbitration law applicable to the railways. The principle was extended in 1898 and again in 1913, and under the authority of the federal government many contentions in the railway world were settled by arbitration.

The success of such legislation induced some students of industrial questions to urge that unions and employers should be compelled to submit all disputes to official tribunals of arbitration. Kansas actually passed such a law in 1920. Congress in the Esch-Cummins railway bill of the same year created a federal board of nine members to which all railway controversies, not settled by negotiation, must be submitted. Strikes, however, were not absolutely forbidden. Generally speaking, both employers and employees opposed compulsory adjustments without offering any substitute in case voluntary arbitration should not be accepted by both parties to a dispute.

«·The Rise and Growth of Organized Labor · Immigration and Americanization·»