MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Organisations
America First Committee
The America First Committee (AFC) was the foremost non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II. Peaking at 800,000 members, it was likely the largest anti-war organization in American history. Started in 1940, it became defunct after the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Recent organizations with similar names are not in any way connected to this historic group.
AFC was established September 4, 1940, by Yale Law School student R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., along with other students, including future President Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. At its peak, America First may have had 800,000 members in 650 chapters, located mostly in a 300-mile radius of Chicago.
The AFC gained much of its early strength by merging with the more left-wing Keep America out of War Committee, whose leaders had included such mainstays of America First as Norman Thomas and John T. Flynn.
It claimed 135,000 members in 60 chapters in Illinois, its strongest state. Fundraising drives produced about $370,000 from some 25,000 contributors. Nearly half came from a few millionaires such as William H. Regnery, H. Smith Richardson of the Vick Chemical Company, General Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck, Sterling Morton of Morton Salt Company, publisher Joseph M. Patterson (New York Daily News) and his cousin publisher Robert R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune). Future President John F. Kennedy sent a contribution, with a note saying “What you are doing is vital.”
AFC was never able to get funding for its own public opinion poll. The New York chapter received slightly more than $190,000, most of it from its 47,000 contributors. Since it never had a national membership form or national dues, and local chapters were quite autonomous, historians suggest the leaders had no idea how many “members” it had.
Serious organizing of the America First Committee took place in Chicago not long after the September 1940 establishment. Chicago was to remain the national headquarters of the committee. To preside over their committee, America First chose General Robert E. Wood, the 61 year-old chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co.. While Wood would accept only an interim position, he remained at the head of the committee until it was disbanded in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The America First Committee had its share of prominent businessmen as well as the sympathies of political figures including Democratic Senators Burton K. Wheeler and David I. Walsh, Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye, and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, with its most prominent spokesman being Charles A. Lindbergh.
Other celebrities supporting America First were novelist Sinclair Lewis, poet E. E. Cummings, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, film producer Walt Disney, and actress Lillian Gish. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to join, but the board thought he had a “reputation for immorality". The many student chapters included future celebrities, such as author Gore Vidal (as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy), and the aforementioned future President Gerald Ford, at Yale Law School.
The America First Committee launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep his pledge to keep America out of the war. They strongly distrusted Roosevelt, arguing that he was lying to the American people.
On the day after Roosevelt’s lend-lease bill was submitted to the United States Congress, Wood promised AFC opposition “with all the vigor it can exert.” America First staunchly opposed the convoying of ships, the Atlantic Charter, and the placing of economic pressure on Japan. In order to achieve the defeat of lend-lease and the perpetuation of American neutrality, the AFC advocated four basic principles:
The United States must build an impregnable defense for America.
No foreign power, nor group of powers, can successfully attack a prepared America.
American democracy can be preserved only by keeping out of the European war.
“Aid short of war” weakens national defense at home and threatens to involve America in war abroad.
Despite the onset of war in Europe, an overwhelming majority of the American people wanted to stay out of the new war if they could.[CMH, Chapter 19]. The AFC tapped into this widespread anti-war feeling in the years leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war.
Charles Lindbergh had been actively involved in questioning the motives of the Roosevelt administration well before the formation of the AFC. Lindbergh adopted an anti-war stance even before the Battle of Britain and before the advent of the lend-lease bill. His first radio speech was broadcast on September 15, 1939 over all three of the major radio networks (Mutual, National, and Columbia). Lindbergh urged listeners to look beyond the speeches and propaganda they were being fed and instead look at who was writing the speeches and reports, who owned the papers and who influenced the speakers.
On June 20, 1941 Lindbergh spoke to a rally in Los Angeles billed as “Peace and Preparedness Mass Meeting". In his speech of that day, Lindbergh criticized those movements he perceived as leading America into the war. He proclaimed that the United States was in a position that made it virtually impregnable and he pointed out that when interventionists said “the defense of England” they really meant “defeat of Germany.” Lindbergh’s presence at the Hollywood Bowl rally was overshadowed, however, by the presence of fringe elements in the crowd.
Nothing did more to escalate the tensions than the speech he delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he identified the forces pulling America into the war as the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews. While he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he argued that America’s entry into the war would serve them little better. He said in part:
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.
Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.
With the formal declaration of war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Committee chose to disband. On December 11 the committee leaders met and voted for dissolution. In the statement they released to the press was the following:
Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained…
During its existence it was seen by some on the left, especially Communists, as a Nazi front (or infiltrated by German agents).
Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has praised America First and used its name as a slogan. “The achievements of that organization are monumental,” writes Buchanan, “By keeping America out of World War II until Hitler attacked Stalin in June of 1941, Soviet Russia, not America, bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding and dying to defeat Nazi Germany.” Author and historian Bill Kauffman has also defended the group, arguing that:
“ America First was not anti-Semitic or pro-German. A single unvetted speech by Charles Lindbergh asserted that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.” Lindbergh had his defenders, a young Kurt Vonnegut among them, but leaders of America First like John T. Flynn, the anti-New Deal journalist who was head of the New York chapter, were aghast. Kauffman argues that this anomalous speech should not besmirch the organization: Lindbergh “was one man in the last broad peace movement in American history, almost a million strong.” ”
1. Wayne S. Cole, America First: The Battle against Intervention, 1940-41 (1953)
2. McCarthy, Daniel (2008-05-05) Fewer Bases, More Baseball, The American Conservative
3. Kauffman, Bill; Sarles, Ruth (2003). A story of America First: the men and women who opposed U. S. intervention in World War II. New York: Praeger. p. xvii. ISBN 0-275-97512-6.
4. Schneider p 198
5. Cole 1953, 25-33; Schneider 201-2
6. Cole 1953, p 144
7. Kahn, A. E., and M. Sayers. The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War Against Soviet Russia. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1946, chap. XXIII (American Anti-Comintern), part 5: Lone Eagle, pp. 365-378. Kahn, A.E., and M. Sayers. The Plot against the Peace: A Warning to the Nation!. 1st ed. New York: Dial Press, 1945, chap. X (In the Name of Peace), pp. 187-209.
8. Pat Buchanan (October 13, 2004), The Resurrection of ’America First!’, The American Cause, retrieved 2008-02-03
Cole, Wayne S. Charles A. Lindbergh and the Battle against American Intervention in World War II (1974)
Cole, Wayne S. America First: The Battle against Intervention, 1940-41 (1953)
Doenecke, Justus D. The Battle Against Intervention, 1939-1941 (1997), includes short narrative and primary documents.
Doenecke, Justus D. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941 (2000).
Doenecke, Justus D. “American Isolationism, 1939-1941” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer/Fall 1982, 6(3), pp. 201–216. online version
Doenecke, Justus D. “Explaining the Antiwar Movement, 1939-1941: The Next Assignment” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 1986, 8(1), pp. 139–162. online version
Doenecke, Justus D. “Literature of Isolationism, 1972-1983: A Bibliographic Guide” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Spring 1983, 7(1), pp. 157–184. online version
Doenecke, Justus D. “Anti-Interventionism of Herbert Hoover” Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer 1987, 8(2), pp. 311–340. online version
Goodman, David, “Loving and Hating Britain: Rereading the Isolationist Debate in the USA,” in Britishness Abroad: Transnational Movements and Imperial Cultures, ed. Kate Darian-Smith, Patricia Grimshaw, and Stuart Macintyre, pp 187–204. (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2007) isbn 978-0-522-85392-6
Gordon, David. America First: the Anti-War Movement, Charles Lindbergh and the Second World War, 1940-1941; presentation to The New York Military Affairs Symposium in 2003
Jonas, Manfred. Isolationism in America, 1935-1941 (1966).
S. Everett Gleason and William L. Langer; The Undeclared War, 1940-1941 (1953). Policy toward war in Europe; pro FDR
Kauffman, Bill, America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics (1995) ISBN 0-87975-956-9
Parmet, Herbert S., and Marie B. Hecht; Never Again: A President Runs for a Third Term 1968.
Schneider, James C. Should America Go to War? The Debate over Foreign Policy in Chicago, 1939-1941 (1989)
Includes content ported from Wikipedia, 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
American Artists’ Congress
The American Artists’ Congress (AAC) was an organization founded in February 1936 as part of the popular front of the Communist Party USA as a vehicle for uniting graphic artists in projects helping to combat the spread of fascism. During World War II the organization was merged into the Artists' Council for Victory, which effectively spelled the end of the organizaiton.
The Great Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s caused politics and arts to collide as cultural liberals united to work on common goals. Communist parties adopted a policy of forming broad alliances with anybody willing to oppose fascism and became known as the Popular Front. After the official formation of the United Front in 1935, artists in the U.S. began seeing themselves as the “guardians of liberal and democratic ideals” 
Social art became significant, with 1933-1938 seeing the formation of the John Reed Clubs, the Artists’ Union, the Harlem Artists Guild, and the American Artists’ Congress. Artists had an idealistic view of working-class culture and used the labor movement as a sort of prototype for their mission. There was a shift in the patronage, subject matter, and position of the art produced during this time.
By 1934 and 1935, it became clear that the John Reed Clubs' sectarian policies were not congruent with the Popular Front. At a meeting of the John Reed Club, the idea of an American Artists’ Congress was discussed and twelve of those present were given the task of organizing it. Stuart Davis was put in charge of forming its committee. Almost all of those involved with creating the AAC were established figures of the Communist left and had some connection with the John Reed Club.
The AAC hoped to establish a group of artists who realized that collective organization was necessary to combat fascism. Politically and artistically, the congress attempted to distinguish itself from the John Reed clubs, which were specifically radical and rigidly adhered to a particular set of views. By creating a group that was non-sectarian and tolerant of all affiliations, the AAC fit in with the goal of the Popular Front.
In 1936, the chairman of the congress stated that “The Congress does not demand any political alignments…all we ask is that artists who realize the threat of fascism come together, discuss the situation, and form an organization of artists for their own insurance…we do not want any emphasis on extreme radicalism.”
The AAC was directed towards artists who believed that the cultural crisis was a reflection of the world economic crisis. Their specific concerns were violations of international civil liberties, the inadequacy of government programs, censorship, and the decline of traditional forms of patronage.
The membership brochure of the AAC read: “Membership in the Congress is open to any artist of the first rank living in the U.S. without regard to the way he paints or the subject matter he chooses to deal with in his work. The only standard for membership is whether he has achieved a position of distinction in his profession and the only requirement that he support the program of the Congress against war and fascism.”
At the first congress meeting in 1936, the slogan was “Against War and Fascism.” By the next year, the AAC toned down its platform and changed the slogan to “For Peace, for Democracy, for Cultural Progress..” The congress was anti-fascism and pro-democracy, and did not take a stance in favor of proletarian revolution as the John Reed Clubs had done. As a result, the congress attracted a wide group of artists with different backgrounds, styles, and political commitments. In November 1936, the congress claimed to have 550 members with branches in Cleveland, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.
Their first activity was to boycott the exhibition of paintings to be held in conjunction with the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Internationally, the congress denounced Nazi repression in Germany and fascist aggression in Spain and China. They condemned censorship in the home and of artwork, and put on annual anti-fascist exhibits.
Due to the status of many of its members, the AAC was able to generate publicity and a greater impact in the art world. It lobbied for a permanent federal art program, fought for a museum rental fee for exhibitors, and worked to get a showing of contemporary American art at the New York World’s Fair. In 1938, the Republican gains of the mid-term elections caused such federal art projects to be rendered more conservative.
The Loyalist Movement in Spain
Internationally, the suffering in Spain under fascism was of particular priority to the AAC. They devoted a great deal of political and artistic efforts to the Loyalist cause. The organization urged lifting the American embargo of arms to the Loyalists and revising the Neutrality Act of 1937, which prohibited such aid. Also in 1937, they organized theme exhibitions referring to the Spanish Civil War, which raised money to send ambulances, food, and clothing supplies to the Loyalists. These exhibitions make clear that the most prominent anti-fascist artists were concentrating on the plight in Spain.
Along with several organizations, the AAC formed the American Artists and Writers Ambulance Corps for Spain. In 1939, the AAC was able to bring Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica to New York to be exhibited at the Valentine Gallery to raise money for the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign. These attempts to help the Loyalist cause created organizational motivation for antifascist artwork that depicted images in Spain. The resulting paintings were not literal representations of the conflicting parties in Spain but images of the essence of human suffering. The various styles of paintings reflect the diversity of the artists aesthetic tastes and techniques.
The American Air close association with the Communist party and eventually experienced fundamental dissention in beliefs. At a meeting in 1940, to the shock of many members, the congress endorsed the Russian invasion of Finland. It was believed that this implicitly defended Hitler's position by assigning the responsibility for the war to England and France. In addition, according to a succession letter, the Congress loosened its policy of boycotting Fascist and Nazi exhibits.
At this time, 17 prominent members left the Congress, writing a letter of succession detailing why. The AAC continued to function primarily with other organizations through 1941, but dissolved soon after U.S. entrance into the war. The Congress then participated in a meeting called the Artists’ Societies for National Defense, which established the Artists’ Council for Victory, an organization that combined twenty-three artists’ societies.
1. Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
2. Cecile M. Whiting, Antifascism in American Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
3. Julia Williams, Artists Against War and Fascism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Includes content ported from Wikipedia, 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) was elected president of the Federation at its founding convention and was reelected every year except one until his death. As the Knights of Labor faded away, the AFL coalition gradually gained strength. In practice, AFL unions were important in industrial cities, where they formed a central labor office to coordinate the actions of different AFL unions. Most strikes were assertions of jurisdiction, so that the plumbers, for example, used strikes to ensure that all major construction projects in the city used union plumbers. To win they needed the support of other unions, hence the need for AFL solidarity.
Gompers promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL. Focused on higher wages and job security, the AFL fought against socialism and the Socialist party. After 1907 it formed alliances with the Democratic party at the local, state and national levels. This was in direct contrast the revolutiony unionism espoused by the Industrial Workers of the World, founded 2 years earlier in 1905 with the help of the Socialist Party. Unlike the IWW and the Socialists, the AFL enthusiastically supported the war effort in World War I, and saw rapid growth in union membership and wage rates. The AFL unions lost membership in the 1920s, and did not recover from the doldrums until the New Deal passed the Wagner Act in 1935. The AFL enthusiastically supported the New Deal Coalition led by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.
John L. Lewis led a group of industrial unions to break away in the 1930s to form the CIO. The two federations competed for new members furiously, even violently. The AFL was always larger, and added more members in the very rapid growth period in the late 1930s and World War II era, while avoiding the radicalism of the CIO. William Green was president (1925–1952), but after 1940 the dominant leader was George Meany (1894–1980).
The AFL was always hostile to Communists, especially as they were powerful inside the rival CIO. The AFL boycotted the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) because of its decision to admit Soviet trade unions. The AFL was instrumental in establishing a rival federation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which eventually won the allegiance of all labor federations save those of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The AFL hailed the Truman administration’s Cold War policies and strongly supported American military intervention in the Korean War. Corruption in labor unions became a major political issues in the 1950s. Meany convinced the AFL to expel the racketeer-influenced International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1953, and several other corrupt affiliates, most notably the Teamsters union, several years later. The AFL was at its peak in 1955, when it reunited with the CIO to form the AFL-CIO, which has seen its membership steadily decline since the 1970s but remains active today.
By the late 1880s there were over 40 international unions, comprising local chapters of skilled craftsmen in specific fields, such as carpenters, printers and cigar makers. They formed the “Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions” (FOTLU) in 1881. By 1886 they were threatened by the explosive growth of the Knights of Labor, a national reform organization that had little interest in such local issues as jurisdiction over specific trades, strikes, qualifications of craftsmen, wage scales, or local working conditions. The Knights wanted to enroll practically everyone, and quest of social reforms. To meet the challenge, FOTLU disbanded and was succeeded by the American Federation of Labor in 1886. The AFL was an umbrella group, designed to assist and coordinate the international unions that comprised its membership. That is, individuals belong to locals of the international union which in turn were members of the AFL.
In April 1886, a circular letter was issued by two FOTLU unions calling on 43 national trade unions to attend an organizing conference in Philadelphia in May. Twenty unions sent delegates and 12 others indicated their approval. The meeting charged the K of L with conspiring with anti-union bosses to provide labor at below going union rates and with making use of individuals who had crossed picket lines or defaulted on payment of union dues and demanded that the K of L cease attempting to organize members of international unions into its own assemblies. The K of L refused to enter into serious discussions.
Formation and early years
A followup convention met in December 1886 in Columbus, Ohio in order to construct “an American federation of alliance of all national and international trade unions.” Forty-two delegates representing 13 national unions and various other local labor organizations responded to the call, agreeing to form themselves into an American Federation of Labor.
Revenue for the new organization was to be raised on the basis of a “per-capita tax” of its member organizations, set at the rate of one-half cent per member per month (i.e. six cents per year). Governance of the organization was to be by annual conventions, with one delegate allocated for every 4,000 members of each affiliated union. Gompers was elected president at a salary of $1,000 per year. Gompers set up his headquarters in Washington, D.C., and was re-elected every year save 1893 until his death nearly four decades later.
Gompers made use of the existing labor press to generate support for the position of the craft unions against the Knights of Labor. Powerful opinion-makers of the American labor movement such as the Philadelphia Tocsin, Haverhill Labor, the Brooklyn Labor Press, and the Denver Labor Enquirer granted Gompers space in their pages, in which he made the case for the unions against the attacks of employers, “all too often aided by the K of L." Knights soon lost over 95% of its members and lost its importance.
The fledgling American Federation of Labor showed steady growth in its first years, reaching the 250,000 member mark in 1892. The group from the outset concentrated upon the income and working conditions of its membership as its almost sole focus. The AFL’s founding convention declaring “higher wages and a shorter workday” to be “preliminary steps toward great and accompanying improvements in the condition of the working people.” Participation in partisan politics was avoided as inherently divisive, and the group’s constitution was structured to prevent the admission of political parties as affiliates.
This fundamentally conservative “pure and simple” approach limited the AFL to matters pertaining to working conditions and rates of pay, relegating political goals to its allies in the political sphere. The Federation favored pursuit of workers’ immediate demands rather than challenging the property rights of owners, and took a pragmatic view of politics which favored tactical support for particular politicians over formation of a party devoted to workers’ interests. The AFL’s leadership believed the expansion of the capitalist system was the best path to betterment of labor, an orientation making it possible for the AFL to present itself as the conservative alternative to working class radicalism.
The AFL spent most of its energy setting up federations in larger cities that brought multiple unions together, in negotiating jurisdictional disputes between two or more of its unions, and helping member unions with organizational drives, and with establishing themselves in new cities. The AFL itself did not call strikes, but it did assist member unions and their strike operations.
Early 20th Century
The AFL faced its first major reversal when employers launched an open shop movement in 1903 designed to drive unions out of construction, mining, longshore and other industries. Membership in the AFL’s affiliated unions declined between 1904 and 1914 in the face of this concerted anti-union drive, which made effective use of legal injunctions against strikes, court rulings given force when backed with the armed might of the state.
Ever the pragmatist, Gompers argued that labor should “reward its friends and punish its enemies” in both major parties. However, in the first decade of the 20th century the two parties began to realign, with the main faction of the Republican Party coming to identify with the interests of banks and manufacturers, while a substantial portion of the rival Democratic Party took a more labor-friendly position. While not precluding its members from belonging to the Socialist Party or working with its members, the AFL traditionally refused to pursue the tactic of independent political action by the workers in the form of the existing Socialist Party or the establishment of a new labor party. After 1908, the organization’s tie to the Democratic party grew increasingly strong.
National Civic Federation
Some unions within the AFL helped form and participated in the National Civic Federation. The National Civic Federation was formed by several progressive employers who sought to avoid labor disputes by fostering collective bargaining and “responsible” unionism. Labor’s participation in this federation, at first tentative, created internal division within the AFL. Socialists, who believed the only way to help workers was to remove large industry from private ownership, denounced labor’s efforts at cooperation with the capitalists in the National Civic Federation. The AFL nonetheless continued its association with the group, which declined in importance as the decade of the 1910s drew to a close.
By the 1890s Gompers was planning an international federation of labor, starting with the expansion of AFL affiliates in Canada, especially Ontario. He helped the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress with money and organizers, and by 1902 the AFL came to dominate the Canadian union movement.
The AFL vigorously opposed unrestricted immigration from Europe for moral, cultural, and racial reasons. The issue unified the workers who feared that an influx of new workers would flood the labor market and lower wages. Nativism was not a factor because upwards of half the union members were themselves immigrants or the sons of immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Britain. Nativism was a factor when the AFL even more strenuously opposed all immigration from Asia because it represented (to its Euro-American members) an alien culture that could not be assimilated into American society. The AFL intensified its opposition after 1906 and was instrumental in passing immigration restriction bills from the 1890s to the 1920s, such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, and seeing that they were strictly enforced.
Mink (1986) concludes that the link between the AFL and the Democratic Party rested in part on immigration issues, noting the large corporations, which supported the Republicans, wanted more immigration to augment their labor force.
The AFL in World War I
The AFL reached a zenith of sorts during the administration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Particularly during the years of World War I, American unions were given considerable government protection and cooperation between capital and labor was actively sought as the best means of rationalizing and increasing American production on behalf of the war effort. Unions, including the AFL itself, welcomed governmental intervention in favor of collective bargaining during World War I. Unions in the packinghouse industry were able to form due to governmental pressure on the largest employers to recognize the unions rather than face a strike. Expansion of the organized labor movement followed and by 1920 the AFL had nearly 4 million members.
After conclusion of the European war in 1919, business launched a vast and coordinated offensive on behalf of the so-called “open shop", and the member unions lost membership at an alarming rate. This trend continued throughout the 1920s.
The organization endorsed pro-labor progressive Robert M. LaFollette in 1924. The campaign failed to establish a permanent independent party closely connected to the labor movement, however, and thereafter the Federation embraced ever more closely the Democratic Party, despite the fact that many union leaders remained Republicans.
The New Deal years
The Great Depression were hard times for the unions, and membership fell sharply across the country. As the national economy began to recover in 1933, so did union membership. The New Deal of president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat strongly favored labor unions. He made sure that relief operations like the Civilian Conservation Corps did not include a training component that would produced skilled workers who would compete with union members in a still glutted market. The major legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, called the Wagner Act. It greatly strengthened organized unions, especially by weakening the company unions that many workers belonged to. It was to the members advantage to transform a company union into a local of an AFL union, and thousands did so, dramatically boosting the membership. The Wagner Act also set up to the National Labor Relations Board, which used its powers to rule in favor of unions and against the companies.
The AFL — now led by William Green (president, 1924–1952) — faced increasing dissension within its ranks, led by John L. Lewis of the coal miners. Lewis argued that the AFL was too heavily oriented toward traditional craftsmen, and was overlooking the opportunity to organize millions of semiskilled workers, especially those in industrial factories that made automobiles, rubber, glass and steel. In 1935 Lewis led the dissenting unions in forming a new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL. Both the new CIO industrial unions, and the older AFL crafts unions grew rapidly after 1935. In 1936 union members enthusiastically supported Roosevelt’s landslide reelection. Proposals for the creation of an independent labor party were rejected.
Unions now comprised a major compounded of the New Deal Coalition, along with big-city machines, Catholics and Jews, poorer farmers, and the white South. The AFL continued to concentrate its legislative efforts on obtaining political protection for the right of unions to organize and strike, rather than on obtaining social change through legislative action.
World War II and after
The AFL retained close ties to the Democratic machines in big cities through the 1940s. Its membership surged during the war and it held on to most of its new members after wartime legal support for labor was removed. Despite its close connections to many in Congress, the AFL was not able to block the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.
In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged to form the AFL-CIO, headed by George Meany.
During its first years, the AFL admitted nearly anyone. Gompers opened the AFL to radical and socialist workers and to some semiskilled and unskilled workers. Women, African Americans, and immigrants joined in small numbers. But by the 1890s, the Federation had begun to organize only skilled workers in craft unions and became an organization of mostly white men. Although the Federation preached a policy of egalitarianism in regard to African American workers, it actively discriminated against black workers.
The AFL sanctioned the maintenance of segregated locals within its affiliates — particularly in the construction and railroad industries — a practice which often excluded black workers altogether from union membership and thus from employment in organized industries. The AFL also actively supported legislation, such as literacy tests, that would reduce unskilled immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.
In 1901, the AFL lobbied Congress to reauthorize the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and issued a pamphlet entitled “Some reasons for Chinese exclusion. Which shall survive?” The AFL also began one of the first organized labor boycotts when they began putting white stickers on the cigars made by unionized white cigar rollers while simultaneously discouraging consumers from purchasing cigars rolled by Chinese workers.
In most ways, the AFL’s treatment of women workers paralleled its policy towards black workers. The AFL never adopted a strict policy of gender exclusion and, at times, even came out in favor of women’s unionism. But despite such rhetoric, the Federation only half-heartedly supported women’s attempts to organize and, more often, took pains to keep women out of unions and the workforce altogether. Only two national unions affiliated with the AFL at its founding openly included women, and others passed by-laws barring women’s membership entirely. The AFL hired its first female organizer, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, only in 1892, released her after five months, and it did not replace her or hire another women national organizer until 1908. Women who organized their own unions were often turned down in bids to join the Federation, and even women who did join unions found them hostile or intentionally inaccessible. AFL unions often held meetings at night or in bars when women might find it difficult to attend and where they might feel uncomfortable, and male unionists heckled women who tried to speak at meetings.
Generally the AFL viewed women workers as competition, as strikebreakers, or as an unskilled labor reserve that kept wages low. As such, the Federation often opposed women’s employment entirely. When it did organize women workers, most often it did so to protect men’s jobs and earning power and not to improve the conditions, lives, or wages of women workers. In response, most women workers remained outside the labor movement. In 1900, only 3.3% of working women were organized into unions. In 1910, even as the AFL surged forward in membership, the number had dipped to 1.5%. And while it improved to 6.6% over the next decade, women remained mostly outside of unions and practically invisible inside of them into the mid-1920s.
Attitudes gradually changed within the AFL due to the pressure of organized female workers. Female-dominated began to emerge in the first two decades of the 20th century, including particularly the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Women organized independent locals among New York hat makers, in the Chicago stockyards, and among Jewish and Italian waist makers, to name only three examples. Through the efforts of middle class reformers and activists, often of the Women’s Trade Union League, these unions joined the AFL.
Conflicts between affiliated unions
From the beginning, unions affiliated with the AFL found themselves in conflict when both unions claimed jurisdiction over the same groups of workers: both the Brewers and Teamsters claimed to represent beer truck drivers, both the Machinists and the International Typographical Union claimed to represent certain printroom employees, and the Machinists and a fledgling union known as the “Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers Union” sought to organize the same employees — even though neither union had made any effort to organize or bargain for those employees. In some cases the AFL mediated the dispute, usually favoring the larger or more influential union. The AFL often reversed its jurisdictional rulings over time, as the continuing jurisdictional battles between the Brewers and the Teamsters showed. In other cases the AFL expelled the offending union, as it did in 1913 in the case of the Carriage, Wagon and Automobile Workers Union (which quickly disappeared).
These jurisdictional disputes were most frequent in the building trades, where a number of different unions might claim the right to have work assigned to their members. The craft unions in this industry organized their own department within the AFL in 1908, despite the reservations of Gompers and other leaders about creation of a separate body within the AFL that might function as a federation within a federation. While those fears were partly borne out in practice, as the Building Trades Department did acquire a great deal of practical power gained through resolving jurisdictional disputes between affiliates, the danger that it might serve as the basis for schism never materialized.
Affiliates within the AFL formed “departments” to help resolve these jurisdictional conflicts and to provide a more effective voice for member unions in given industries. The Metal Trades Department engaged in some organizing of its own, primarily in shipbuilding, where unions such as the Pipefitters, Machinists and Iron Workers joined together through local metal workers’ councils to represent a diverse group of workers. The Railway Employees Department dealt with both jurisdictional disputes between affiliates and pursued a common legislative agenda for all of them. Even that sort of structure did not prevent AFL unions from finding themselves in conflict on political issues. For example, the International Seamen’s Union opposed passage of a law applying to workers engaged in interstate transport that railway unions supported. The AFL bridged these differences on an ad hoc basis.
Organizing and coordination
The AFL made efforts in its early years to assist its affiliates in organizing: it advanced funds or provided organizers or, in some cases, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters and the American Federation of Musicians, helped form the union. The AFL also used its influence (including refusal of charters or expulsion) to heal splits within affiliated unions, to force separate unions seeking to represent the same or closely related jurisdictions to merge, or to mediate disputes between rival factions where both sides claimed to represent the leadership of an affiliated union. The AFL also chartered “federal unions” — local unions not affiliated with any international union — in those fields in which no affiliate claimed jurisdiction.
The AFL also encouraged the formation of local labor bodies (known as central labor councils) in major metropolitan areas in which all of the affiliates could participate. These local labor councils acquired a great deal of influence in some cases. For example, the Chicago Federation of Labor spearheaded efforts to organize packinghouse and steel workers during and immediately after World War I. Local building trades councils also became powerful in some areas. In San Francisco, the local Building Trades Council, led by Carpenters official P. H. McCarthy, not only dominated the local labor council but helped elect McCarthy mayor of San Francisco in 1909. In a very few cases early in the AFL’s history, state and local bodies defied AFL policy or chose to disaffiliate over policy disputes.
While the organization was founded by socialists such as Gompers and Peter J. McGuire, it quickly became more conservative. The AFL adopted a philosophy of “business unionism” that emphasized unions’ contribution to businesses’ profits and national economic growth. The business unionist approach also focused on skilled workers’ immediate job-related interests, while ignoring larger political issues.
In some respects the AFL leadership took a pragmatic view toward politicians, following Gompers’ slogan to “reward your friends and punish your enemies” without regard to party affiliation. Over time, after repeated disappointments with the failure of labor’s legislative efforts to protect workers’ rights, which the courts had struck down as unconstitutional, Gompers became almost anti-political, opposing some forms of protective legislation, such as limitations on working hours, because they would detract from the efforts of unions to obtain those same benefits through collective bargaining. The American Federation of Labor Building, a National Historic Landmark, in Washington, D.C.
Employers discovered the efficacy of labor injunctions, first used with great effect by the Cleveland administration during the Pullman strike in 1894. While the AFL sought to outlaw “yellow dog contracts,” to limit the courts’ power to impose “government by injunction” and to obtain exemption from the antitrust laws that were being used to criminalize labor organizing, the courts reversed what few legislative successes the labor movement won.
The AFL concentrated its political efforts during the last decades of the Gompers administration on securing freedom from state control of unions — in particular an end to the court’s use of labor injunctions to block the right to organize or strike and the application of the anti-trust laws to criminalize labor’s use of pickets, boycotts and strikes. The AFL thought that it had achieved the latter with the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 — which Gompers referred to as “Labor’s Magna Carta". But in Duplex Printing Press Co. v. Deering, 254 U.S. 443 (1921), the United States Supreme Court narrowly read the Act and codified the federal courts’ existing power to issue injunctions rather than limit it. The court read the phrase “between an employer and employees” (contained in the first paragraph of the Act) to refer only to cases involving an employer and its own employees, leaving the courts free to punish unions for engaging in sympathy strikes or secondary boycotts.
The AFL’s pessimistic attitude towards politics did not, on the other hand, prevent affiliated unions from pursuing their own agendas. Construction unions supported legislation that governed entry of contractors into the industry and protected workers’ rights to pay, rail and mass production industries sought workplace safety legislation, and unions generally agitated for the passage of workers’ compensation statutes.
At the same time, the AFL took efforts on behalf of women in supporting protective legislation. It advocated fewer hours for women workers, and based its arguments on assumptions of female weakness. Like efforts to unionize, most support for protective legislation for women came out of a desire to protect men’s jobs. If women’s hours could be limited, reasoned AFL officials, they would infringe less on male employment and earning potential. But the AFL also took more selfless efforts. Even from the 1890s, the AFL declared itself vigorously in favor of women’s suffrage. It often printed pro-suffrage articles in its periodical, and in 1918, it supported the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.
The AFL relaxed its rigid stand against legislation after the death of Gompers. Even so, it remained cautious. Its proposals for unemployment benefits (made in the late 1920s) were too modest to have practical value, as the Great Depression soon showed. The impetus for the major federal labor laws of the 1930s came from the New Deal. The enormous growth in union membership came after Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 and National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The AFL refused to sanction or participate in the mass strikes led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and other left unions such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. After the AFL expelled the CIO in 1936, the CIO undertook a major organizing effort. The AFL responded with its own massive organizing drive that kept its membership totals 50 percent higher than the CIO’s.
1. Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography (1925) vol. 1, pp. 236-258.
2. Philip Taft, The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers, (1957) ch 3
3. Taft, AFL in the Time of Gompers pp 35-38
4. Taft, AFL in the Time of Gompers pp 38-53
5. Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, vol. 1, pg. 275.
6. William C. Roberts (ed.), American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book. Washington, DC: American Federation of Labor, 1919; pg. 63.
7. Roberts, American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book, pg. 6.
8. Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All, (2000) pp. 5-6.
9. Taft, AFL in the Time of Gompers ch 6
10. Robert H. Babcock, Gompers in Canada: A Study in American Continentalism before the First World War (1974)
11. Catherine Collomp, “Unions, Civics, and National Identity,” Labor History, Fall 1988, Vol. 29#4 pp 450-74
12. A. T. Lane, “American Trade Unions, Mass Immigration and the Literacy Test: 1900-1917,” Labor History, Winter 1984, Vol. 25#1 pp 5-25
13. Gwendolyn Mink, Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920 (1986).
14. The Social Economic Foundation, A Labor Party for the United States. New York: The Social Economic Foundation, 1936.
15. Phillip Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement from Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I. New York: The Free Press, 1979; pg. 214.
16. Alice Kessler-Harris, “Where Are the Organized Women Workers?” Feminist Studies, vol. 3, no. 1. (Autumn, 1975), pg. 96.
17. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement, pp. 304-340.
18. Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982; pp. 200-202.
Presidents of the American Federation of Labor
Samuel Gompers 1886-1894
John McBride 1894-1895
Samuel Gompers 1895-1924
William Green 1924-1952
George Meany 1952-1955 (afterwards President of the AFL-CIO)
Arnesen, Eric, ed. Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (2006), 2064pp; 650 articles by experts excerpt and text search
Beik, Millie, ed. Labor Relations: Major Issues in American History (2005) over 100 annotated primary documents excerpt and text search
Boris, Eileen, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Thomas Paterson. Major Problems In The History Of American Workers: Documents and Essays (2002)
Brody, David. In Labor’s Cause: Main Themes on the History of the American Worker (1993) excerpt and text search
Brooks, George W.; Derber, Milton; McCabe, David A.; and Taft, Philip (eds.), Interpreting the Labor Movement. Madison: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1952.
Browne, Waldo Ralph. What’s what in the Labor Movement: A Dictionary of Labor Affairs and Labor (1921) 577pp; encyclopedia of labor terms, organizations and history. complete text online
Commons, John R, et al. History of Labour in the United States. esp. Vol. 2: 1860-1896 (1918); Vol. 4: Labor Movements, 1896-1932 (1935).
Currarino, Rosanne. “The Politics of ’More’: The Labor Question and the Idea of Economic Liberty in Industrial America.” Journal of American History. vol. 93, no. 1 (June 2006).
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Foster Rhea Dulles. Labor in America: A History (2004), textbook
Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Warren Van Tine, eds. Labor Leaders in America (1987) biographies of key leaders, written by scholars excerpt and text search
Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. In 10 volumes. New York: International Publishers, 1947–1994; Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism (1955); Vol. 3: The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor, 1900-1909 (1964); Vol. 5: The AFL in the Progressive Era, 1910-1915 (1980); Vol. 6: On the Eve of America’s Entrance into World War I, 1915-1916 (1982); Vol. 7: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918 (1987); Vol. 8: Post-war Struggles, 1918-1920 (1988). a view from the Left that is hostile to Gompers
Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941 (1960) online edition
Greene, Julie. Pure and Simple Politics: The American Federation of Labor and Political Activism, 1881-1917 (1998) online edition
Karson, Marc. American Labor Unions and Politics, 1900-1918. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958.
Kersten, Andrew. Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during World War II (2006) excerpt and text search
Lichtenstein, Nelson. State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (2003) excerpt and text search
Livesay, Harold C. Samuel Gompers and Organized Labor in America (1993), short biography
McCartin, Joseph A. Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-21. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography (1963) online edition
Mink, Gwendolyn. Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development: Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920 (1986)
Orth, Samuel Peter. The Armies of Labor: A Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1919.
Roberts, William C. (ed.), American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book. Washington, DC: American Federation of Labor, 1919.
Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. in the Time of Gompers. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.
Taft, Philip. The A.F. of L. from the Death of Gompers to the Merger. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.
American Federation of Labor. Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive? Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Labor, 1901.
Gompers, Samuel. American Labor and the War. New York: George H. Doran Co., n.d. .
Gompers, Samuel. Labor and the Employer. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1920.
Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor: An Autobiography. In two volumes. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. , 1925.
The Samuel Gompers Papers. Currently published in 11 volumes, coverage to 1921. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991-2009.
Includes content ported from Wikipedia, 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
American Labor Party
The American Labor Party was a political party in the United States established in 1936 which was active almost exclusively in the state of New York. The organization was founded by labor leaders and former members of the Socialist Party (SP) who had established themselves as the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The party was intended to parallel the role of the British Labour Party, serving as an umbrella organization to unite New York social democrats of the SDF with trade unionists who would otherwise support candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Establishing the ALP
In 1934, the factional war which had dominated the life of the Socialist Party of Americahad reached a turning point. After beating back a challenge to their position and authority in 1932, the New York-based “Old Guard” of the party had been resoundingly defeated at the 1934 National Convention of the Socialist Party. A coalition of radical pacifists surrounding the charismatic former preacher Norman Thomas and a growing body of young Marxists known as the Militant faction had won control of the organization’s governing National Executive Committee and passed a provocative Declaration of Principles, which the Old Guard regarded as a direct call to insurrection. Further galling, from the perspective of the Old Guard, was the eagerness of Thomas and the Militants to build what they called an “all-inclusive party,” bringing radical intellectuals into party ranks from various oppositional communist orbits and working with the Communist Party USA in united front actions.
The New York Old Guard returned home to organize themselves as the Committee for the Preservation of the Socialist Party, raising funds, selecting a “Provisional Executive Committee,” building a mailing list, and maintaining an office in New York City. The Old Guard, headed by former New York State Assemblyman Louis Waldman, also took steps to lock up the ownership and funds of various party-affiliated institutions, including the Jewish Daily Forward, the English weekly “The New Leader,” and the Rand School of Social Science.
A year and a half of bitter factional warfare ensued. Finally, in January 1936, the governing National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party revoked the charter of its dissident New York state organization. The New York Old Guard and their cothinkers exited the Socialist Party and reorganized themselves as the Social Democratic Federation of America (SDF).
The SDF sought to build close relations with the existing trade union movement and disliked, distrusted, and disavowed many of their former Socialist Party comrades and their pretensions to electoral office. In the New York municipal elections of 1935, the Socialists had polled nearly 200,000 votes, a showing which threatened to be a “spoiler” for the chances of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the forthcoming 1936 presidential elections. This view was shared with the Social Democrats by many in the New York trade union movement, who sought to bolster Roosevelt’s chances in some way.
On April 1, 1936, Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis, and other officials of the unions of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations established Labor’s Non-Partisan League (LNPL), an organization akin to the modern political action committee, designed to channel money and manpower to the campaigns of Roosevelt and others standing strongly for the declared interests of organized labor.
During the summer of 1936, the New York state organization of LNPL transformed itself into an independent political party in an effort to bolster Roosevelt’s electoral chances in the state by providing him access on a second ballot line. The opportunity to pull the lever for the new American Labor Party, it was hoped, would siphon away a good percentage of the nearly 200,000 votes cast in 1932 for Norman Thomas and the Socialists.
The ALP in the elections from 1936 to 1940
The ALP’s most common strategy was to co-endorse the candidate of one or the other of the two major parties, based upon the perceive favorability of each to the cause of labor. It also nominated its own candidates for some positions, offering competition when neither of the two old party candidates passed muster. Although the organization was founded primarily as a vehicle to help assure Roosevelt’s victory in New York in the 1936 campaign, in that election one of its candidates, Herbert Lehman, had polled over 50,000 votes on the ALP line. Under New York state law, this meant that the ALP was henceforth qualified to register voters and conduct primary elections, thus insuring the organization’s continued existence as a political party in the state.
The organization was largely funded by the rather conservative needle trades unions of the state. The ALP found itself $50,000 in debt at the end of the 1936 campaign, but substantial contributions from labor groups erased the red ink. The ILGWU itself contributed nearly $142,000 to the 1936 campaign, a relatively huge sum for a third party campaign, given that only $26,000 from all sources had been raised and spent by Norman Thomas’ Socialist campaign in the previous presidential election. Party decision-making in the first year was handled by ILGWU executive secretary Fred Umhey, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union’s Jacob Potofsky, and Alex Rose of the Milliners’.
The success of the ALP in its initial campaign was a beacon for other radical organizations. Although its constitution specifically barred Communists from the organization, there was no enforcement for this provision and large numbers flocked to registration as ALP members from the Communist-led United Electrical Workers, Transport Workers, and State, County, and Municipal Workers.
The chief race in 1937 was that for Mayor of New York, pitting pro-Roosevelt progressive Republican Fiorello LaGuardia against a Democratic state supreme court justice, Jeremiah Mahoney. As LaGuardia was on excellent terms with the New York needle trades unions and was a leading spirit in the formation of the ALP, he was a natural choice for the organization’s nomination. Democrat Mahoney countered by red-baiting LaGuardia for his ALP connections, calling the new political organization an “active adjunct of the Communist Party.” This would come to be a common theme in the political discourse about the new party. Also in the 1937 election the ALP tapped Republican special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey as its nominee for New York District Attorney. Dewey anticipated a probable loss in his race, owing to a wide advantage for the Democratic Party in voter registrations, a number approaching a ratio of 5-to-1. However, on election day, LaGuardia, Dewey, and the ALP emerged victorious. Of LaGuardia’s nearly 1.35 million votes, some 483,000 were registered on the ALP line, while Dewey was elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
In 1936, 1940, and 1944, the ALP endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt for President of the United States. In 1941, American Laborite Joseph V. O’Leary was appointed New York State Comptroller by Governor Herbert H. Lehman both to recognize the ALP’s previous and to maintain the party’s future support. In 1948, rather than support Harry Truman, it backed Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace. By the 1950s, the ALP had lost much of its support to the rival Liberal Party of New York, in part because of accusations of communist influence in the ALP. In 1952, the party nominated lawyer Vincent Hallinan for president, but he attracted little support. Corliss Lamont made an unsuccessful run under the party’s banner for the U.S. Senate, also in 1952. After a disappointing campaign for governor in 1954, the ALP lost access to the ballot, and in 1956, it voted itself out of existence.
Demise of the organization
In the 1954 election, the ALP failed to garner 50,000 votes for any of its candidates and it lost its place on the New York ballot.
In 1956 the party was terminated by its New York state committee.
[Composed in large part by Tim Davenport]