THE revolutions of 1848 mark a great turning point in the history of class struggles. Prior to this time, the conflict between labor and capital had lain more or less deep in the womb of capitalist society. It was small property that was dreaming of conquering political power and emancipating itself from the inevitable thralldom of capital and was busily working out its little utopias and co-operative schemes of all sorts. The co-operative was the petty bourgeois’ own joint stock company to counter the joint stock company of big capital, and became idealized as the sole way to restore harmony to the anarchic chaos everywhere. Without all the horror of violence and bloodshed, capitalism would be transformed into the ordered Garden of Eden for the direct producer. In this period, Anarchist, Liberal, and Socialist were all still harnessed directly to bourgeois ideas and dominated by the one obsession of retaining peace and order and avoiding the turbulence of civil war.

In the meantime, deep within the bowels of the productive process, the modern proletariat was taking form. Despite all the phrases of peace and co-operation, a hidden, yet bitter and sanguinary battle of the classes was making itself felt. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the introduction of machinery had operated as a devastating cataclysm upon the old craftsmen who had worked in the petty and home industries and who had resisted excessive exploitation in the factories up to this point. The mutual aid societies of the craftsmen (in part survivals of the old guild formations of feudalism, such as the French compagnages) became entirely inadequate for their protection. In self-defense the workers had to turn the mutual aid organization into a wage-worker’s union.

Unions represent the lowest form of conscious protest against the increasingly intolerable conditions existing in the various trades and industries. When the capitalists first introduced machinery into the factory, the skilled craftsmen took revenge upon the machine. The machine and not the owner or the system was considered the root of all evil. With the triumph of the machine and the rapidly increasing misery of the toilers, the protest took other forms, such as individual grumbling, individual fights with the foreman and employer, spontaneous quitting of employment, large labor turnover, etc. These forms of protest were entirely lacking in any consciousness of social forces on the part of the workers involved, and merely indicated that the workers believed they suffered from some accidental and exceptional state of affairs, introduced by this or that “bad” foreman or employer. All industrial relations were in a sort of patriarchal state in which not politics but ethics was the rationale dominant in the minds of all.

It was only when craft or trade unions were established that the protest took on a socially conscious form, for only then did the workers independently group themselves together as part of a class and conceive that their interests were opposed to those of their employers. Starting as craft clubs, these rudimentary unions soon engaged in the fight for better conditions of labor, shorter hours, higher pay. Strikes were called; and in striking, the workers’ associations became true craft unions. Thus the union, from its very inception, was an organ of struggle, of protest, and as such is entirely different from the co-operative.

As capitalism rapidly developed, compelling some crafts to disappear, skilled workers to become unskilled, the skilled of one factory to replace the skilled of another, the employers to co-operate one with the other, etc., these local craft unions were forced to broaden out into trade unions, embracing all those of their craft throughout the country, or taking in others besides their particular craft, either directly into their own local, or into other locals affiliated with them. As small business gave way to large trusts, the workers attempted to match the combine of capital by efforts to fuse together all the trades of a given industry into an industrial union and to band all the industrial unions into one central organization.

In all this development, the trade unions were merely primitive, spontaneous organizations used by the workers for defensive and reformist purposes only. Loose, broad associations, embracing all the workers of a given craft, or trade, or industry, trade unions were formed solely for the concrete purpose of immediate self-interest and simply because only in this way could the workers resist the encroachment of the employers or improve their standard of living. Both in its origin and in its growth, the union functioned, not as an instrument for a frontal attack upon the entire capitalist system, but at best as a tool to carry on the day-to-day fight against this or that section of the employers on behalf of a similarly limited section of the workers. Unions were not adapted for revolution but rather for reform. Their primary object was to mobilize masses of men interested not in the ultimate struggle of their class but in the day-to-day improving of the capitalist system so that their particular share of the total product would be greater and their present lot ameliorated. In fighting for higher wages, shorter hours, and better conditions, the unions, of course, were contesting merely for reforms.

This character and role of the trade unions made them purely practical bodies. Extremely limited, such unions could not comprehend the capitalist system as a complete entity, nor the entire national or international social relations, nor even the generic interests of their own class. Workers, exhausted by toil, found it difficult to obtain the leisure and the opportunity to cultivate theory, science, and class consciousness. This limitation was accentuated by the fact that the trade unions, taking in only actual workers, barred the intellectual, the student, and the scientist.

Although the trade unions, in composition and historical import, were class organizations, the workers could not ascertain through them alone the problems of their entire class nor wage a class fight. Engaged in the battle against their employers, the trade unions avoided the struggle against the State, that is, the political and general force of the employing class. involved in strikes, the union organizations put aside the question of revolution. The strike represented a clash of only part of the working-class against a corresponding part of the employing-class. However, when the State acted in the strike, the central agency representing the capitalist class as a whole was brought into play.

It is true, too, that in the course of their strikes, with mass arrests, injunctions, etc., taking place, the union members were compelled to see more and more clearly the role of the State as the central instrument of an enemy class used against them. Their attention was drawn to the necessity of reforming, transforming, controlling, or shattering the State. Gradually the trade unionists admitted they must attempt to transform the whole capitalist system. This led them to politics.


Under the capitalist system, the unions could not play more than a subsidiary inadequate role. They could strike for higher wages, but wages depend upon profits and not vice versa. Should higher wages ruin the profits of an employer, he can sell out and enter another line of production; his capital takes flight to other fields of investment. What can an ordinary strike accomplish when the employer shuts down, sells out, or moves away? The only action left is to take over the factories. But this again is a political task. For it is an attack against private property, capitalist property, and property is a relation backed up by all the sanction and power of the State.

Thus, in the course of trade union evolution, a tendency developed for the trade unions to burst the narrow integument of their practical activity, and they at times became training fields for revolutionary propaganda just as their strikes themselves became rehearsals for the revolution. As the crisis deepened, the trade union movement formed in some of its sections an arena of activity for subversive tendencies. Trade unionists then raised the question: “Can the union be a revolutionary instrument?” The Syndicalists replied: “It is labor’s sole weapon!”

As England and the United States were the first to develop modern capitalism, it was natural that these two countries should first show the rise of craft and trade unions. In England, the unions began to come into their own as far back as the Chartist movement. In 1834, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was organized and grew in a few months to half a million members. In spite of the fact that it was dominated by the utopian Owen, who gave it a program calling for the organization of co-operatives through which the workers were to change the capitalist system, yet it became thoroughly symptomatic of the discontent and militancy of the workers. It is true that in a short while the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, unable to throw off the incubus of Liberalism which had been foisted upon it by a mighty British bourgeoisie, and handicapped by illusions of harmony of classes, fell to pieces. Nevertheless, a step forward had been made. It was in the course of the Chartist union movement that union men for the first time seriously conceived of organizing unions for the purpose of insurrection.

“If any one individual can be called the originator of the ‘general strike’ idea in Great Britain, and perhaps, therefore, in Europe also…. it is William Benbow, radical, agitator and pamphleteer.” (*1) Under the guise of carrying out a “National Holiday,” the unions were to plan for a general strike and insurrection. Committees were to be prepared in each locality. Food was to be laid in for a week, and the workers were to put down all disorder and drunkenness in their own ranks with a stern hand. By 1839, when Chartism had attained a great intensity, Benbow’s pamphlet had reached an enormous sale. With such agitation prevalent, it was no wonder that violence broke out in 1842 when, to the economic demands of the strikers for higher wages and shorter hours, political demands for a democratic charter were also added. For a whole week the workers remained in possession of the city of Manchester. There was no plundering, however. After a month, the strike wore itself out and, with the desertion of many of its leaders, collapsed.

During the Chartist movement, the English unions adopted as their program the idea of changing fundamentally the present social and commercial system through co-operative association. These co-operatives asked the State to do nothing more than stand aside and give them a fair field in which to do their own work in their own way. They wanted no State aid; they did not advocate Socialism; all they wanted was that they should not be hindered from obtaining for themselves new wealth through the co-operatives. Here we can see the influence of Liberalism upon the craft unionists of the time. (*2)

During the whole of the nineteenth century, the British trade union movement could not escape from Liberalism. It is true that for a time some of the English trade unions joined the First International, but, frightened by the Paris Commune, they soon withdrew. Only towards the latter part of the century, with the rise of British imperialism, did labor form the Liberal-Labor Alliance that gradually developed into Laborism. Differing from Syndicalism, Laborism advocated the entrance of the trade unions into parliamentary politics with their own Labor Party through which they, in a legal and reformistic manner, could gradually extend the prevalent democracy so that the workers would obtain an increasingly larger share of it.


In many respects the American Civil War was to the Americans what 1848 was to Europe; that is, it cleared the decks for the struggle between capital and labor. As the American Revolution had sounded the tocsin for the European bourgeoisie, so the American Civil War sounded it not only for the European working-class, but for the Americans as well.

No sooner had the Civil War ended than the National Labor Union was formed in 1866 in the United States. The program of the National Labor Union contained such mild points as arbitration instead of strikes, the regulation of -apprenticeships, the establishment of a federal bureau of labor statistics and a department of labor. It also protested against the contract system of prison labor. Although its program was but a Liberal one and expressed the interests only of the skilled mechanics, yet it marked a great advance for American labor. The National Labor Union did come out for the eight-hour-day and, further, actually sent its President, Sylvis, to the congress of the First International in 1869. (*3) Nor was it averse to political action. This first successful attempt on the part of the mechanics to organize themselves nationally, however, soon came to an end.

The panic of 1873 liquidated the National Labor Union. On its heels came the Knights Of Labor, organized nationally in 1878. Like the English unions, the Knights of Labor was socialistic in sentiment, although opposed to Socialist politics; unlike the English, it condemned craft and trade unions as too narrow in scope and spirit, and proclaimed the need for a universal organization of all workers, skilled and unskilled, on the principle that "an injury to one is the concern of all.”

Nor did the Knights of Labor last very long. It made the mistake of basing itself on trade and industrial divisions as well as on geographical lines. Taking in not only working-class elements but also layers of the petty bourgeoisie, it became more of a labor party with trade union characteristics than a trade union. In a country where the labor movement nationally was still made up of journeymen mechanics and craftsmen groups, and where these workers were but recently emancipated from the farm and village and were still close to all sorts of small property layers, this confusion was quite natural. Moreover, in an era when the craftsman was being transformed into the modern skilled worker, it was no longer possible for the journeyman-craftsman to solve the problems of the day and take upon himself the leading role.

The Knights of Labor rapidly went through four stages of development. In its beginning it was a secret organization, like a lodge, with all sorts of mystical symbols. This abracadabra was soon dropped, in its second phase of development, as the organization grew more powerful and came into the open as a bona-fide union with a militant strike policy. In its third phase, after 1883, its leadership opened fire on the strike as a weapon. “The constitution governing local assemblies was modified containing the following clause—’While acknowledging that it is sometimes necessary to enjoin an oppressor, yet strikes should be avoided whenever possible. Strikes, at best, only afford temporary relief; and members should be educated to depend upon thorough organization, co-operation and political action, and, through these, the abolishment of the wage system."’ (*4)

The culmination of this anti-strike policy came in 1886 when the Knights of Labor made the fatal mistake of opposing the eight-hour-day general strike move and of allowing their officers to attack the Haymarket Square victims. (*5) After 1890, the Knights of Labor entered its last period of rapid decline. (*6)

As the lot of the members of the Knights of Labor grew steadily worse, in desperation they attached themselves to the Radical People’s Party of the Middle West, which advocated such propositions as the nationalization of railroads and telegraphs, national income tax, labor legislation, and free coinage of silver. (*7) In 1894 the great American railway strike broke out and was endorsed by both the Knights of Labor and the Farmers Alliance. However, bitterly attacked by all the power of the government, and viciously fought by the American Federation of Labor, the whole movement collapsed. The Knights of Labor disappeared from the scene.

As in the case of the local union organization formed before the Civil War and the National unions created afterwards, the dominant Liberal ideology made it impossible for native workmen to avoid parliamentary illusions. They attempted to enlarge and to capture democracy for themselves. The result, in these early days of the union movement, was a blurring of class lines and an intolerable tactical and organizational confusion that could result only in failure. Trying to build both a party and a trade union, the early labor men could build neither.

The next step had to be taken, not by the journeymen-craftsmen, but by the modern skilled factory workers. Like their British brethren, the skilled factory workers in the United States were able to build at least national crafts and trades unions through the American Federation of Labor, organized in 1881. However, the A. F. of L. was far behind the British in many respects, in spite of the fact that the program of that body declared “that a struggle between capital and labor was going on in the nations of the civilized world which would work disaster to the toiling millions unless they combined for mutual protection and benefit.” (*8)

In England, class lines always had been drawn very clearly. Not so in America, where every laborer seemed to have a little property and every little property owner had worked. The emancipation of labor had appeared to the Knights of Labor as the emancipation of all humanity in the most literal sense. It was due to this general classlessness that professional men, storekeepers and what-not had joined its ranks and had been accepted on equal terms. It was these elements that, in the very beginning, had led the Knights of Labor to oppose strikes.

The American Federation of Labor from its very inception established a definite class line. In this respect it made an immense step forward in contrast to the Knights of Labor. Petty business men, lawyers, doctors, and other non-workers were strictly kept out. As Samuel Gompers put it, workers alone must control the movement. “It will not be dominated by the so-called intellectuals or butters-in. The working class movement to be most effective must be conducted by the workers themselves.” (*9)

On the other hand, the American Federation of Labor deliberately restricted itself to the skilled workers only. The prevailing general classlessness had allowed the Knights of Labor to heap together all workers, skilled and unskilled, at a time when the gap between the two strata was still sharp and clear and was becoming further aggravated by racial and nationalist differences.

This was a period when the skilled workers everywhere were aggressively elbowing their way to a secure place in the social scheme of things. They felt they could arrive sooner if they dumped their excess baggage, the inarticulate unskilled workers, and shifted for themselves. Thus, they limited themselves almost exclusively to craft and trade unions of the skilled, while setting up high dues and initiation fees to bar the others. What they wanted was recognition and job monopoly.

However, the recognition that the skilled workers desired could not be won without a struggle. In the course of the hurly-burly social conflict, the A. F. of L. could reach an agreement with employers only by repeatedly demonstrating that it knew how to fight and could rally masses of unskilled as well.

The American Federation of Labor was born in the midst of a strike period unprecedented in the history of this country. To the great railway strike of the ‘70’s was added the big strike wave of the ‘80’s. The unions actually began to threaten to take matters into their own hands and to utilize the good old American custom of lynching in their own behalf for a change. For example, in 1883 the Central Labor Union organized a big parade in New York City in which they went so far as openly to raise the slogan: “Jay Gould must go.” “Which shall it be, the ballot or judge Lynch?” (*10)

In such a period it was no wonder that the A. F. of L. put forward men such as Strasser and Gompers who had been trained in socialistic thinking. Gompers had been intimately connected with the leaders of the First International in America, so much so that even when ejecting the Socialist Labor Party from the A. F. of L., Gompers took the trouble to write letters both to Friedrich Engels in England and to F. A. Sorge in the United States to explain the situation. (*11)

The A. F. of L. as a whole, however, could not adopt the Socialist position. The working class was not ripe enough nor was the class struggle sufficiently advanced in this country for unions of skilled workers to have enunciated Socialist politics.

In its battle for recognition the A. F. of L. threw itself behind the demand for the eight-hour day, which was stimulating workers everywhere to active struggle. The eight-hour-day movement embraced and indeed, to a considerable extent, was initiated by the skilled workers of American stock. This tendency was accelerated as the American farmer was driven into the city factories, and as exploitations became more intense in a country where profits were enormous and the masses had illusions of governing themselves.

The skilled workers were very well prepared for strike action and for union discipline. Small in numbers, capable of dominating the productive process, bound together by their skill and disciplined by the factory itself, able secretly to convene together, and having some training and education, the skilled workers, better than all the others, were able to form their unions and to prevent the employers from continuing their production. In addition, the skilled workers had reserve funds to continue the struggle for a great length of time. At the same time, in this period of industry in the United States, skilled labor was in great demand. Profits were high and Big Business had not yet overwhelmingly dominated the scene. Thus the resistance of certain employers was weakened.

Taking advantage of the situation in the ‘80’s, these practical and yet extremely limited leaders of the American Federation of Labor, fighting hard against the Knights of Labor as a rival organization for the winning of the masses of skilled workers, put out a national call for an eight-hour day and declared May 1, 1886, as the last date to be given the employers to comply with the demand of labor.

Little did the narrow-minded specialists at the head of the American Federation of Labor dream what the response would be. Spontaneous strikes flashed all around them, and, much as the American Federation of Labor leaders desired to delay the movement and, in deadly fear of the revolutionary consequences of their actions, tried to hack it to death, throughout the country the masses of workers themselves, partly stimulated by revolutionary elements, took the initiative and carried all before them. The Chicago Haymarket affair was the climax of the events.

Even though the eight-hour-day agitation eventually petered out, this whole movement taught the employers the necessity of keeping separate as long as possible the skilled from the unskilled workers. The A. F. of L. began to be recognized by the employers, not only because of its intrinsic strength, but also owing to a conscious policy to corrupt and to bribe the skilled workers, the only ones that possibly could articulate and enforce their interests at this time. What mattered it whether the skilled workers were given concessions and special privileges if in this way the unskilled could be exploited still further? Whatever the members of the American Federation of Labor gained was at the expense of the underprivileged.

Thus by the last decade of the nineteenth century the skilled factory workers had won their points. Traditionally, the vast expanse of the American continent and the backwardness of American economy had permitted to a far greater extent than in England the existence of old handicrafts and petty industry, thus allowing the mechanics to play a dominant role in the labor movement. This domination they meant to retain. When the last remnants of the Knights of Labor disappeared from the scene, the A. F. of L. remained undisputed in the field.

In proportion as its place in the economic sun was secured, the A. F. of L. adopted a policy calculated to retain the goodwill of the employers. Both in structure and function the A. F. of L. would amply demonstrate that its days of struggle were behind it.

Within the A. F. of L. the solidarity of the workers was impeded by the failure to establish any central discipline. Each international craft and trade union was a complete authority unto itself. Thus, the A. F. of L. was declared to be not an organization but a federation of organizations. (*12) Strikes were looked at with increasing aversion. Conciliation and arbitration became the accepted mode. Long term contracts were signed and when locals were urged not to scab, they could always appeal to the sanctity of their agreements and the honor of their given word.

At the start, the A. F. of L. concentrated on the skilled workers simply because they were the most easily organizable elements; later, as the skilled worker began to fear the loss of his job through heightened competition, the separation between the skilled and the unskilled became widened deliberately. At first the A. F. of L. pretended that an increase in the pay of the upper organized stratum of labor would ultimately result in a rise in the pay for all labor. Later, toward the end of the century and with the rise of the activity of the unskilled in their own behalf, the A. F. of L. officials were made to realize more clearly that the extra-high pay accorded the skilled craftsmen could be possible only because the money was taken out of the pay envelopes of the unskilled.

From then on the A. F. of L. turned its back on the unskilled. Tied hand and foot to the employers by special privileges and opportunities which were accorded the native workers but not the Negroes and foreign-born, the American Federation of Labor was induced to take a strong stand against the unskilled workers, refusing them admittance, drawing the color line, trying to build for itself a little job-trust under its own control.

Against the strikes of 1892, against the American railway strike of 1894, against the proposal of a General Strike, more and more the American Federation of Labor officials stood as agents of the employers, willing to scab on any strike not “A. F. of L.” and refusing to fight in the slightest for the interest of the poorest layers of the workers. Coining the phrase, “pure and simple trade unionism,” the officials threw the whole weight of their organization against the revolutionary elements arising in the country.

In line with the changed situation, the A. F. of L. officers opened a ,sharp fire against the Socialists. Unceremoniously they threw out the Socialist Labor Party, which had been affiliated to the New York Central Labor Union, and rejected all advocacy of the collective ownership of the means of production. It was this attitude that influenced the S. L. P. to organize its separate Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance in 1895. Thus did the American organized labor movement fall behind that of England and of the continent. The Americans were not even at the level of Lib- Labism, not to speak of laborism. If even the most conservative British unionist could agree with the Welfare-Liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the American was still content with the rugged individualism of Cobden and Bright. The A. F. of L. declined to enter politics at all.

The conservative character of the A. F. of L. induced the militant Western Federation of Miners to withdraw from the Federation in 1897 and to try to build a Western Labor Union of its own. In this period, it was the Western organizations which were the most militant, particularly the metal miners. “The hardy miner of the Rocky Mountain region, self- assertive and daring, impatient under restraint and violent in mood, skeptical of property rights in a country where riches were often the result of mere luck, and not much given to respect for the social distinctions of a settled community, was inclined to follow leaders with radical programs.” (*13)

From this latter movement there evolved the American Labor Union, which was quite different from the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance. The S. T. and L. A. was dominated entirely by the Socialist Labor Party. It did not press the principle of industrial unionism, but was content with craft organization. At the same time, it took a rather derogatory view of the efficacy of pure economic action. The American Labor Union, on the other hand, while endorsing the idea of socialism, was controlled by no political party, and embraced all workers on an industrial basis. The American Labor Union was a true forerunner of the Industrial Workers of the World.

No doubt, at the start, there was ample historical justification for the refusal of the A. F. of L. to support any political party. In every preceding case this had led to blurring the interests of the workers. The history of the labor movement in this country had been strewn with the wreckage of organizations that had gone into politics and had been captured by this or that bourgeois political movement. Not strong enough to form a class party of their own, the workers generally, through their skilled section, perceived the necessity of remaining aloof from all separate political activity, at least for the while.

It was not that the A. F. of L. members were opposed to political action "on principle.” Indeed, they were opposed to nothing “on principle,” since they had adopted the pragmatic program of having no “principles.” It was simply that the skilled worker in the United States was in such a relatively favorable position that he did not feel the need of forming a special political movement. Adapting itself to the laissez faire, rugged individualist policy of the employers, the trade union officials looked askance at all State interference and stood for a policy of self-help.

Accordingly, the A. F. of L. could declare: “The A. F. of L. is not in favor of fixing, by legal enactment certain minimum wages. The attempts of the government to establish wages at which workmen may work, according to the teachings of history, will result in a long era of industrial slavery.” (*14) And again, it pointed out: The A. F. of L. “… does not favor a legal limitation of the workday for adult men workers. (*15) These declarations were made, not only because such additional powers of the government could be used against the workers, if the necessity therefor should arise, but because the workers must be trained to stand on their own feet and win these demands themselves.

To sum up the situation in the nineteenth century, we can say that, like the English, the American organized working men still remained in the camp of Liberalism. If the English empirically began to move to programs of Socialism as expressed by Laborism, the American, less bound to the unskilled and with less class consciousness, used the pragmatic approach to decry all theories. “Theories” meant attempts to understand laws of motion, but this the skilled worker and the labor bureaucrat of the A. F. of L. did not in the least desire to do. Such an understanding would have led them to considerations of the effect of machinery on the skilled trades, of the growth of the unskilled sections of the proletariat, and of the inevitability of a new social order. The “practical” trade Unionist dominating the labor world did not care to look too closely about him.


By the turn of the century the skilled workers had begun to lose all their historic progressiveness under the deadening influence of imperialist bribery. The unskilled carried the banner forward; the old craft and trade unions could act only as a brake retarding the whole movement. The degeneration of the old trade union movement can be seen in the further evolution of the A. F. of L. which may be conveniently divided into the following periods:

1. From the time of the great general strikes culminating with the American Railway Strike of 1894 to the World War.

2. From the World War to the depression of 1929.

3. From the economic crisis to the present.

With the rise of imperialism at the turn of the century a different economic situation faced the workers of America. In the latter part of the nineteenth century there had been a tremendous need for skilled workers, so much so that the employers had thrown down the barriers to public school education for the wholesale training of such workers. This was the day of the skilled worker who was able to enforce his demands by strikes that were on the whole merely local, petty, and episodic.

With the domination of the big trusts under imperialism, the demand was no longer for skilled but for unskilled labor. Now if labor were to enforce its demands, it could do so only by means of large-scale strikes that could paralyze a whole trust. Such strikes could no longer be petty and peaceful. Increasingly they would have to take on a violent character and become a sort of miniature civil war. The skilled workers could not dominate such battles; the unskilled would have to fight them out.

But at this period the unskilled were totally unable to take care of themselves independently. They were, in the main, newly arrived immigrants or Negro laborers, too raw as workers in industry to organize by themselves and solve their problems. The unskilled often did not know the language and customs of America. They came from the farms of Europe where their standards of living had been lower than here and political oppression had been greater. They were full of illusions about the United States and were willing to work hard to get ahead. When advanced elements did learn the true situation, they were handicapped by the fact that other workers around them did not understand their language and by the fact, too, that the skilled workers had organized themselves separately and had abandoned everyone else. On the other hand, the skilled American organized workers looked with the greatest contempt upon this huge bulk of American workers, helpless, doubly oppressed, inarticulate, and unorganized.

The strikes of the unskilled, therefore, that broke out in this period, were bound to have a blind, chaotic, as well as violent, character. They marked the first independent gropings of the unskilled and the first move towards genuine industrial unionism. That the strikes would be sharply fought out was inherent in the situation. Employers can easily grant demands when a small handful of workers present them, but when the entire mass desires to raise its standards, an increase in costs which they cannot easily bear is imposed upon the industrialists, and thus they must fight it out to a finish. The demands of the unskilled cannot be thrown upon the backs of any lower strata; they can be taken only from the profits of the employers.

The struggles of the unskilled in this period from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the time of the World War, reflex actions as they were of the changed industrial relations, impelled the A. F. of L. to terminate its progressive character and to become closely allied with the employers. This it did at first apologetically, then more and more brazenly.

The first President of the A. F. of L., Samuel Gompers, affirmed: “From my earliest understanding of the conditions that prevail in the industrial world I have been convinced and I have asserted that the economic interests of the employing class are not harmonious. That has been my position ever since-never changed in the slightest. There are times when, for temporary purposes, interests are reconcilable; but they are temporary only.” (*16)

Thus we may say that in the beginning the A. F. of L. had endorsed the class struggle in theory as well as in practice. Gompers could indignantly deny that strikes were called only as a last resort; he also affirmed that they were promptly initiated whenever they could be effective to remedy a wrong.

In effect, however, the A. F. of L. increasingly avoided strike action whenever possible and attempted conciliation and arbitration with the employers. For this purpose it actually joined an employers’ association, the National Civic Federation, organized in 1900 in Chicago. In justification of this action, Gompers asserted that he would appeal to “the devil and his mother-in-law” to help labor, if labor could be aided thereby. But that which was at first represented as but a temporary reconciliation of labor’s interests with those of the employers grew steadily until it became a permanent feature of the policies of the A. F. of L., and Gompers’ class struggle turned into open class collaboration.

Within the union organizations a corresponding change toward conservatism became manifest in the relations between members and leaders. As the employers tended increasingly to defend the A. F. of L. as a counter weight to more militant labor organizations such as the I. W. W., etc., there developed within the A. F. of L. an extremely powerful, highly-paid bureaucracy. The original pay of the leaders of the A. F. of L. had been modest, but, by the time of the World War, the salaries and expansions of these officials rivaled those of the administrators of powerful corporations. In fact, the trade unions were being administered by the A. F. of L. bureaucracy as corporations were run by business men.

It must not be supposed that this period was one of reaction only. It was also a period of growth. The A. F. of L. membership increased to almost three million. Careful examination of the statistics of membership show, however, that this growth was primarily a growth of workers in industries related to the soil, such as the building trades and coal mining, where the employer could not move his enterprise away, and where he was particularly subject to the local conditions that favored organization of workers. Dependent upon the unique circumstances of a given locality, the employer often would have to yield to the labor pressure of the residents and recognize workers’ unions.

In the case of the miners’ union, the workers were forced into bitter struggles. Unlike the building trades, many of the laborers of the mines were unskilled. On the other hand, the mines were in the hands, not of local petty contractors, but of the most powerful concerns in the United States. Under such circumstances the employers would not yield without a struggle. The United Mine Workers of the A. F. of L. were forced therefore into violent conflicts in the course of which they were compelled to organize their union on an industrial basis, taking in all the workers who worked in and about the mines.

Thus, the United Mine Workers Union became a section of the A. F. of L. that to a considerable extent reflected the views of the new industrial unionism arising outside the organized trades. Some of the locals of the United Mine Workers actually joined the I. W. W., but this was a temporary aberration. Controlled by the skilled workers, the unskilled miners’ helpers and laborers remained in the A. F. of L. during all this period. The great growth of the United Mine Workers, far from causing a split in the A. F. of L., imparted to the A. F. of L. a certain militant prestige and allowed the officials to declare that the policy of the A. F. of L. was flexible to the extent that it could meet all situations And include all bodies of workers.

In the political field, too, the A. F. of L. changed its position. While denouncing the Socialists for their disruption, the officials of the A. F. of L. engaged in parliamentary campaigns to support this or that individual on this or that particular question. In this respect, trade union officialdom was but limping behind employers who had also abandoned old laissez faire Liberalism to adopt a policy whereby the trusts were rushing to Congress for special pieces of legislation; as the corporations created their special lobbies in Congress, the A. F. of L. in 1906 established its own lobby to influence Congressmen. To convince Congressmen, the A. F. of L. adopted a policy of rewarding “friends” and punishing “enemies” (*17) just as the A. F. of L. was content with the continuation of the wage system, so was it satisfied to drag along as the tail end of the two old parties of capitalism-Democratic and Republican.

Under the guise of being “just plain workingmen,” the officials of the A. F. of L. worked out a subtle philosophy to justify their position, in which on the one hand they bitterly fought the revolutionary elements and unskilled workers, and on the other hand did not preclude the possibility of becoming themselves more radical at some future time. The present was comfortable, but should the future prove worse, they would not guarantee to be docile. The American philosophy of Pragmatism fitted in eminently well with the interests of the skilled workers.

Pragmatism was essentially anti-intellectualist. To speak of the necessity of action and to deride theory, to emphasize steady progress rather than subservience to any program-this position was well reflected by Gompers. “The A. F. of L… . are more concerned in doing the actual work of alleviating the present bad conditions than in promulgating programs. It is the easiest thing in the world to promulgate programs which are but simple, idle, elusive words and mean nothing substantial to the people. (*18)

“The workers will never stop at any effort, nor will they stop at any point in an effort to secure greater improvements. Where these efforts may lead, what that better life may be, I do not care to predict. I decline to permit my mind or my activities to be labeled or limited by any particularism because of adherence to a theory or a dream. The A. F. of L. is neither governed in its activities by a so-called ‘Social Philosophy,’ nor does it work ‘blindly from day to day.’ Its work is well planned to be continually of the greatest benefit to the working people … . (*19)

Against the schematic, blue-print plans of the socialists, the A. F. of L. proposed a policy of meliorism, policies of steady improvement for the skilled workers. The A. F. of L. officials would not in this period admit that capitalism was an eternal system. At the same time, they could say, with Gompers, “In brief I replied that I was not sure I wanted the wage system abolished; … (*20)

Typically pragmatic, Gompers appealed to emotion and impulse rather than to theory. “The movement of the working people, whether under the A. F. of L. or not, will simply follow the human impulse for improvement in conditions wherever that may lead, and wherever that may lead they will go without aiming at any theoretical goal. Human impulse for self betterment will lead constantly to the material, physical, social, and moral betterment of the people. We decline to commit our labor movement to any species of speculative philosophy.” (*21) With such a pragmatic speculative philosophy, the A. F. of L. as easily could become attached to governmental participation and fascist collectivism as it could to socialism. It all depended which alternative offered more to the skilled workers.

The World War and its aftermath witnessed a transformation in the economic relations of the country and in the policies of the A. F. of L. During the war, the A. F. of L. leaders had felt the beneficent influence of a government which protected their unions and insured them high wages, special privileges, and governmental recognition. In fact, in many places, as on the railroads and in government-controlled plants, the government did much to organize the workers. The A. F. of L. became an important instrument to win the war. This changed situation permitted the organized trades to take an entirely different view of governmental activities than hitherto.

After the war, labor officialdom soon found that, without governmental aid, its power to organize workers was decidedly reduced; large trusts were establishing their own company unions, while the unskilled workers were pushing forth rival organizations.

The complete stoppage of immigration during the war and its prohibition on a large scale afterward had permitted all the polyglot nationalities composing the unskilled foreign-born workers to learn the language and customs of the United States, and to come to know one another and to work together. The children of the older workers were now thoroughly Americanized and could form a living cement to bind all closer. The ten million women drawn into industry had become part of the active working class and no longer acted as a drag on those workers fighting for better conditions in the factories. The Negroes, who had been submerged as a separate caste, now were part of the most important sections of the proletariat and were tied closer to the white workers. In short, all of the backward and undeveloped layers of the working class were now involved in the full stream of the struggle and were rallying around the general laborer in the big trustified and basic heavy industries of the country. (*22)

This development among the unskilled led to a tremendous strike movement in 1919-1920 coincident with the demobilization of the soldiers and with the rise of the Russian Revolution and the demand of labor everywhere for political power. Thus, from both angles, whether by inducements from above or pressure from below, the A. F. of L. could be friendly to the idea of participation in governmental activities. In 1920, the A. F. of L. Convention advocated national ownership of the railways, even though Gompers fought against it. The skilled workers of the Railroad Brotherhoods in 1919 approved the Plumb Plan which called for a nationalization of the railways and control by the government, workers, and officials. The same year witnessed the miners’ demand for nationalization of the coal mines. In 1924, the A. F. of L. officialdom was compelled to endorse the LaFollette candidacy for President, which was also supported by the Congress for Progressive Political Action. This Congress for Progressive Political Action had been organized in 1921 on the initiative of the Socialist Party and national and local unions connected with the A. F. of L. It had adopted a program that was speedily leading the unions to declare for an independent political party of Labor. Although the plans for the immediate formation of a Labor Party collapsed, the later President of the A. F. of L., William Green, affirmed that it was not beyond the limits of possibility for the A. F. of L. eventually to organize such a party.

This same period of post-war development occasioned a marked degeneration in the A. F. of L. Immediately after the war, the A. F. of L. lost much of its artificial gains, especially among the railroad and metal workers; membership fell from four million to three. In the period from 1923 to 1929, although industry as a whole enjoyed great prosperity, the A. F. of L., for the first time in its history in such a period, could not grow, but in fact, steadily deteriorated.

In their organization campaigns, union organizers no longer approached the workers themselves, but frequently went directly to the employer to induce him to “turn over” his workers on the ground that this would mean better control, less strikes, and more efficient production. Together with these tactics there developed a drive to “sell” the employer the “union label.” It was argued that this would increase his sales and expand his business. The unions, on their part, concentrated on appeals to consumers to buy union goods, and tried to compel all union men especially so to do, often going to ridiculous lengths at delegate meetings.

Thus, the A. F. of L. turned from the active strike to the passive boycott, from organization on the job to appeals to consumers. Walking delegates became traveling salesmen, and the union undertook to sell the product of the employer even where costs and prices were higher than elsewhere. In militant union circles the union label campaign was preached as a method of doubling the power of labor. In reality, it tended to transform many unions into adjuncts of business, often of petty business that would have been junked years before.

In their campaign to sell themselves to solvent businessmen on a profit sharing basis, the trade union delegates stressed, not the need for improvement of workers’ conditions, but mainly the issue of recognition of the union. Many strikes were called solely for recognition. To the union members, such actions were explained as increasing the power of the union. Very often they were merely schemes to compel the employer to turn over some of his profits to the union agents.

Connected with these matters went questions of the closed shop and the check-off. Union members believed that with such principles they would control the employer and insure the safety of the union. But in the hands of the bureaucracy, the effect of such policies was to give the officials full control over the right to hire and to fire and to make them entirely independent of the membership, since the dues were taken out of the pay envelopes by the employer and directly handed over to the union agent. (*23) The power to give men jobs has also resulted in luscious opportunities for graft and coercion which have by no means gone neglected. The check-off system has freed the bureaucracy from the need of calling meetings or of retaining the good will of the members; all that is necessary is the good will of the boss.

Collaboration with the employers brought about the use of the trade unions as open strike-breaking machines and as distinct subsidiaries to the corporation managements for the improvement of production and the speeding up of workers. As one of its leaders expressed it, the A. F. of L. rested upon the important principle of the mutuality of interests between capital and labor, and he hailed as a distinctive trend in the American labor movement the assumption by unions of various degrees of responsibility for production and the development of various types of co-operation between unions and managements. (*24) If a union leader wanted to pose as a Radical, he could declare that such interest in the productive process was only preparatory to the workers’ taking over industry in the United States as they did in Russia (*25) But whether Radical phrases were flung about or not, the A. F. of L. became steadily company-unionized.

The A. F. of L. bureaucrat increasingly became transformed into a racketeer and gangster or co-operated with such. A most interesting illustration occurred at the 1933 A. F. of L. Convention. One of the delegates had proposed a resolution against racketeering which had met with most violent opposition from the leaders. An old-timer, delegate Sumner, who could not be denied the floor, arose and told of “Chicago ‘Fort Union’ Protected by seven-foot boiler steel, double steel mesh on the windows, bulletproof shielded glass in the doors, gun ports ‘to protect us against racketeers who did not only promise to come in but did come and told us what we would have to do, that when they walked in next time we would walk out."’ Sumner told how he had to travel in a bulletproof car with a sawed-off shotgun, a rifle, a Luger revolver, two Colts and hand grenades. (*26)

Delegate Sumner did not fail to state, either, that it was probable that his statement would cost him his life as there were men right at the Convention who were bound to “get” him for his exposure. The Convention decided to delete the scandal from the official reports; it can be found only in the original transcript.

The business unionism of the A. F. of L. effloresced into all sorts of capitalist schemes to which the treasuries of the unions were compromised. The United Mine Workers opened up a non-union mine. Other unions invested in Florida real estate schemes, “wild cat” banking, etc. Incidentally, these schemes enormously increased the power of the bureaucracy of the A. F. of L., while the members had to foot the bills when the get-rich-quick projects collapsed.

Remarkable changes took place in the composition of the A. F. of L. membership. Under the blows of trustified capital, the United Mine Workers began to disintegrate, and, after a series of treacherous actions by their leaders, an enormous number of mine workers quit their affiliation. (*27) The leading position in the A. F. of L. was assumed by the fossilized craft unions of the building trades.

It goes without saying that during all this period of bloated bureaucratic prosperity, the A. F. of L. took an extremely anti-Communist position, often denouncing Soviet Russia far more bitterly than the open-shop employers. In this way the officials of the unions hoped to ingratiate themselves for a while longer with Big Business.

The period ushered in by the economic depression of 1929 has witnessed further transformations in the relationship of forces. On the one hand, State functions have expanded enormously under the pressure of the crisis, and with the bankruptcy of private business, the A. F. of L. has been compelled to turn more and more to the government for jobs and for support. A large number of government Boards have been established in which A. F. of L. officials have been given a prominent place. As the government goes into business, economics and politics tend to fuse into one.

At the same time, the unskilled masses, pressed down by the crisis and now capable of organization on their own account, have advanced their own interests in a militant fashion. Under the Roosevelt regime, two vast national strike waves took place, one in 1933 and one in 1934, and as the New Deal developed, the strikes became more hostile to the entire Roosevelt set-up. The number of strikers in the two years mentioned is the largest since the strike wave immediately after the war and what is more, the strikes invariably tended to spread into national strikes of a given industry or into general strikes of a particular city or locality. Solidarity of workers, regardless of color, sex, locality, or whether unemployed, was extremely marked.

The big problem for the government in this period has been to control the mass of laborers breaking from and outside the discipline of the A. F. of L. Of the total number of strikes, the percentage led by organizations has alarmingly decreased from 95 per cent in 1920 to 56 per cent in 1933. (*28) The militant spontaneity of the masses has been a threat to efficient social control. Since the government has become the largest employer of all, strikes against the government have too much of the character of political insurrection. Just as large corporations have formed company unions, so must the government move in the direction of government unions and try to governmentalize the A. F. of L., which thus becomes a semi-public institution.

“Should such a quasi-public trade unionism develop it would mean a considerable modification in the function of the Federation…. Inevitably, if the government lends its aid to unionism, it will demand in exchange that the unions surrender some of their traditional liberties and adhere more closely to strictly constructive functions in industry.” (*29)

Nor has the A. F. of L. officialdom been reluctant to become a partner to the government or to obtain sinecures in the State apparatus. “If industry, on the other hand, is unwilling to embrace labor as a partner and if management is determined upon sole dictation, then, indeed will labor have no alternative other than to turn to the government for the control and regulation of industry. In such an unfortunate event labor will be forced to enter into a partnership relation with government and attempt to realize politically that relationship so essential in industry and so desirable of attainment through voluntary methods.” (*30)

The A. F. of L. leadership has now dropped its old theories of individualism and has wholeheartedly supported the National Industrial Recovery Act of President Roosevelt, with its regulation of hours, wages, and prices, and its arbitration machinery. It has declared that no longer can individual initiative be carried on in the same manner as in the past, but a new collectivist approach must be taken.

Simultaneously, the A. F. of L. has reversed the position it held as late as 1931 regarding legislative protection for the workman, limitation of the work-day, standardization of pay, etc.: in its 1932 convention the A. F. of L. indorsed a system of social insurance for the workers. “Five years before such a decision would have been inconceivable… . Today labor stands at the forefront… .” (*31)

As during the war the A. F. of L. was indebted to the government for many material favors, under the National Industrial Recovery Act, it has been enabled through the government to recover some of its losses. In 1929 its membership had amounted to approximately three million; by 1932 it had dropped to less than two million. The building trade locals were rapidly dissolving, and the base of the A. F. of L. was being reduced to workers in relatively light industry and petty concerns. Through the Recovery Act it was able to gain approximately a million workers and thus recover part of its strength. (*32)

The necessity for gathering within its ranks the majority of the workers in given industries, in order to come within the provision of the government codes, compelled the A. F. of L. to take in large numbers of new elements who had been heretofore unorganized. This has again pushed to the forefront the question of industrial unionism which, indeed, has now been urged by such governmental officials as General Hugh Johnson himself. In its craft union form, the A. F. of L. as an agency for social control is not of much use to the government. Vertical unions are needed.

As a reflection of the transition point which the American Labor movement has reached, the A. F. of L. has now been split on the question of the relation of the trade unions to politics and to the government. One group, headed by the leaders of the Miner’s Union, the clothing workers and others, desires to work closely with the government and to tie up the unions with the State machine. This can be done only if the A. F. of L. changes its base from craft to industrial unions. The leading elements of this group have already, in one form or another, indorsed the principle of industrial unionism and have attempted to carry it out. In its turning away from private industry towards the government, this faction has compelled the A. F. of L. officially to break from the National Civic Federation of Chicago.

The industrial union faction is made up of three separate elements. The first is typified by those who wish to connect the union with the Roosevelt administration because of its protective care of the A. F. of L.; at the same time it declares its skepticism of such items as the arbitration schemes set up by the government, etc.

What has made the leadership of the Miners’ Union, which heads both the first element and the industrial union faction as a whole, to take its stand, has been, more than anything else, the fact of the dissolution of the union in the soft coal fields. With the transference of the mining industry to the southern states, where union organizers have not been able to penetrate, and with the revolt of the Mine workers in the soft coal fields of Illinois and elsewhere, the John L. Lewis machine believes that only government favoritism can save the organization from complete disruption. To the Mine Workers’ officials can be added the top clique of the United Textile Workers, whose per capita dues income expanded enormously during the operation of the national codes under the Recovery Act, when the northern manufacturers and the government used the union to try to bring the southern competitors into line. Substantial sections of the textile workers union, however, are far closer to the position of the clothing workers than to the miners’ officialdom.

In the second grouping, the agents in charge of the clothing unions have not been dependent upon governmental favors to the extent of the miners’ bureaucracy. The functioning of the National Industrial Recovery Act gave them the opportunity for a vigorous organization drive whereby masses of workers were won by direct contact. Born in a period of depression, these locals have no illusions as to the efficacy of the New Deal. The Socialist and Communist parties are part of this second grouping.

The final factor in this combination has been the “federal” unions which were spontaneously organized in basic industries of the country and which became affiliated directly to the A. F. of L. This group, primarily connected with the interests of the rank and file, having no well established bureaucracy and fighting for its life against the enormous power of the trusts, favors industrial unionism as a militant weapon of struggle. It is interested neither in the Democratic Party panderings of John L. Lewis nor the socialistic leanings towards the Labor Party on the part of Sidney Hillman. It is entirely a product of the new class relations that are forming to throw the bulk of the general laborers in the important industries of the country into the struggle against corporation collectivism and for power of the working class.

Should the industrial union faction actually win the control over the A. F. of L., or form a separate body, these three groups would sever their mutual alliance and split into separate formations.

Completely on the other side is the craft and trade union wing, representing the orthodox traditional position of the A. F. of L. It is willing to concede the advisability of industrial unions in some cases. What it objects to most strongly is that the endorsement of industrial unionism by the- A. F. of L. as a whole would mean the liquidation of the independent craft unions and the destruction of many of the jobs which the bureaucrats now hold. What the craft union officials fight for is not merely to keep their control in the A. F. of L., but to retain their jobs in their own unions.

Furthermore, many of these craft unions are engaged in industries which have not been affected too greatly by governmental control on the one hand and by the pressure of modern machinery and trustified capital on the other. Their position remains an individualistic one in the main and connects them with the same philosophy that dominates the Republican Party. They still look to private employers for their jobs and security.

While the industrial unionists assume the color of “Progressives” and talk of the increased strength the industrial form would give to labor, the craft unionists on their side do not hesitate to imply that the move of the industrial unionists is a movement towards State capitalism and Fascism. They maintain that should the Lewis faction gain control, all liberty, all the traditional autonomy of locals and freedom of the members would disappear under the deadening centralized hand of the administration above.

Whether the A. F. of L. will be split asunder by the collision of these two factions or not is problematical and is relatively of secondary importance in comparison with the basic fact that today neither the American Federation of Labor nor any of its parts is able to solve the basic problems of labor. Whether taken over by the government, advocating a Labor Party, or trying to work independently as of old, the organized trade union movement of America is historically dead as a progressive force.


1. W. H. Crook: General Strike, p. 5.

2. See, P. Snowden: Socialism and Syndicalism, pp. 199-200.

3. It seems that the decision to enter into international relations was partly induced by the organization’s desire to prevent Oriental immigration and other cheap foreign labor penetrating farther into the United States.

4. G. G. Groat: The Study of Organized Labor in America (2nd ed., 1926), p. 80.

5. See, Lucy E. Parsons: Life of Albert Parsons, pp. xxv-xxvi, 213-214, for the role of Terence V. Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, regarding the Chicago Haymarket Case.

6. The situation is graphically portrayed by figures of membership comparing the Knights of Labor with the American Federation of Labor.

Knights of Labor A. F. of L.

1881…………………. 19,422 40,000

1886…………………. 702,924 138,000

1890…………………. 100,000 225,000

1896…………………. …………… 265,000

Given in L. Wolman, Growth of American Trade Unions, 1880-1923, p. 32.

7. Coming at the time of the great Homestead and Coeur d’Alene strikes, etc., and in a period of impending depression and great discontent, the People’s Party polled one million votes.

8. L. Lorwin: The American Federation of Labor, p. 12.

9. S. Gompers: The American Labor Movement, pamphlet, p. 23.

10. See, R. T. Ely: Recent American Socialism, p. 20.

11. See S. Gompers: Seventy Years of Life and Labor, I, 388-389.

12. See, S. Gompers. American Labor Movement, pp. 7-9.

13. L. Lorwin: The American Federation of Labor, pp. 84-85.

14. S. Gompers: American Labor Movement, p. 14.

15. The same, p. 15.

16. S. Gompers: The American Labor Movement, p. 23.

17. See M. R. Carroll: Labor and Politics, pp. 45-47.

18. S. Gompers: The American Labor Movement, p. 17.

19. Gompers: The American Labor Movement, pp. 20-21.

20. Gompers: Labor in Europe and .America, p. 54.

21. The same, p. 21, pamphlet.

22. See A. Weisbord: Passaic, pamphlet.

23. The “militant” John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers, likes this method especially.

24. See M. Woll: Labor, Industry and Government, p. 212.

25. This was the philosophy of Sidney Hillman, President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

26. N. J. Ware: Labor in Modern Industrial Society, p. 44.

27. See, for example, L. Lorwin: The American Federation of labor, p. 485, who exposes the discrepancy between the actual membership of the United Mine Workers and the membership reported officially. In the case of the United Mine Workers alone the discrepancy amounted to 250,000 members.

28. See, for example, U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Monthly Labor Review, July, 1934.

29. L. Lorwin: The American Federation of Labor, pp. 459-460.

30. M. Woll: Work Cited, p. 230.

31. Woll: The same, p. 252.

32. In an official report on the National Industrial Recovery Act, issued by Mr. Donald Richberg, the government took credit for this million increase in membership within the A. F. of L.