American Unionism in the Industrial Revolution   Leave a comment

“Those who tell you of trade-unions bent on raising wages by moral suasion alone are like people who tell you of tigers that live on oranges.”

– Henry George, 1891


Image result for image of us unions in progressive eraThe years from 1850 to 1900 were a time of great social experimentation. The era saw socialism (including communism), syndicalism, anarchism, cooperatives, political unionism, and the first real attempt to gather everyone (except bartenders) into one gigantic union. Some of these organizations were secret societies with names like the Knights of St. Crispin, the Molly Maguires, and the Knights of Labor. While in Europe, these organizations could arose class antagonisms to get more traction, these conflicts were absent in America where people could rise to the level of their productivity by being clever and industrious. Despite some historical accounts, Marxist sentiments about the plight of the working class never became the dominant mood. American pubic opinion was frequently horrified and disgusted by outbreaks of labor violence and union disruption of production and this disgust was greater if the outbursts had revolutionary overtones. Americans just believed too much in the power of anyone to work themselves out of poverty to destroy the system that made that power possible.

In that largely unfavorable environment, one form of unionism eventually emerged as a preferred method. Experiments with political radicalism gave way to so-called “business unionism,” the notion that unions must pursue immediate, material gain for members within the free-enterprise system. American unionists accepted the capitalist wage, price, and political system and would work to achieve marginal gains for members within that structure. The ambitions of social visionaries and leftist radicals who saw unions as a vehicle for radical change gradually fell by the wayside.

The 20th-century model of US unionism was primarily the work of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its leader, Samuel Gompers. Founded in 1881, it was a federation of national trade unions, each composed of members of a particular craft such as locomotive engineers or carpenters. Union membership in the early 1890s was barely 200,000, but as the economy expanded after the Panic of 1893 unions found more effective methods of organization, and membership hit 447,000 in 1897. Given the formula for national craft unionism, unions grew to a modest share of the labor force without enormous government intervention, aside from laxity toward union threats and the actual use of violence.

At the turn of the century, union membership in the United States was about 500,000, less than 2% of the labor force. Only a dozen unions claimed more than 10,000 members. The largest union was the Locomotive Engineers with 30,000 members; the Cigarmakers were second with 28,300. Samuel Gompers came from the Cigarmakers. Most unions covered trades such as construction, railroads, printing, and the postal service.

Seventeen state legislatures passed laws during the 1880s and 1890s prohibiting employers from firing employees for belonging to or joining unions, reflecting an emerging pro-union political climate during this period, a prelude to the “Progressive Era.”

In the early 20th century, union membership rose to 6% of the labor force. There were 2.7 million members by 1913, and the share stayed around 6–7% until 1917. This was the “Progressive Era” of 1900 through 1918 which saw the emergence of a nascent welfare and warfare state which has set the mold for the rest of the 20th century. A unique set of conditions had destroyed the Democratic Party as a laissez-faire party and left a power vacuum for the triumph of the new ideology of compulsory cartelization through a partnership of big government, corporations, unions, technocrats, and intellectuals.


Posted September 8, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in History

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