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New International, January 1949


William Barton

City Machines and Labor Politics

The Trend in Municipal Politics


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 1, January 1948, pp. 15–17 & 32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Charles Edison, former Democratic governor of New Jersey and secretary of the navy, recently broadcast his reasons for supporting Dewey. In his half-hour radio address, hardly a word was about policies or programs; virtually every expensive minute was utilized in denouncing Truman for his association with the “corrupt Pendergast and Hague machines.” A few days later, O. John Rogge, Wallaceite candidate for New York surrogate, delivered a major public campaign speech in which foreign and national politics were largely absent as he indignantly and vehemently charged the previous Democratic holder of that important judgeship with using his office for patronage disposal.

It would seem that the old symbol of the iniquitous political machine still looms large in American politics. But if these politicos think it has anything like the weight of old, they are lagging behind the times. The machine operators themselves no longer believe that their swarms of ambitious wardheelers can still automatically get out the desired vote in traditional style.

The spotlight still focuses on the figure of Boston Mayor James Curley maintaining his post while in jail and being received with fanfare by his constituents on his homecoming; on the new Pendergast reviving his uncle’s might; on slot-machine king Frank Costello “making” judgeships for loyal Tammanyites; the good old American paradox of regularly denouncing the “machine” and voting for its candidates except in special circumstances may still be with us. But it is on its way out.

It was part of the specific pattern of American society for a long time. As the social order has changed, so has this important feature of it; and the metamorphosis of both is likely to continue.

By “machine” we have been referring to a very specific type of political apparatus. Stripped of all derogatory connotations, a political machine is any organized body of politicians and political workers. In traditional American political culture, however, it has been used more often to designate the particular type of political grouping characterized by a well-knit collection of self-seeking predatory individuals, interested primarily in getting and maintaining political power in order to secure for themselves appropriate rewards by getting lucrative spots on the public payroll, raiding the treasury, and receiving payoffs from “interests,” often illegal and semi-legal.

It was part of the “American Way” from the time Aaron Burr got Tammany Hall started in the early days. It became more prominent with the development of great economic expansion and rapid urbanization. The former provided the means for sufficient returns for the best party workers. The accompanying psychology of “wealth über alles” provided the appropriate moral atmosphere. For, despite the official ethics, the actually accepted standards verified the seemingly cynical contention of one pair of social scientists that “political corruption is [an] inevitable product of the mores of an acquisitive society.”

The rapid urbanization provided the arena of manipulation for the machine’s operation. The new city dweller, a recent immigrant to the country or just off the farm, found himself in an unfriendly, impersonal environment. There were few humanizing, solidarizing institutions in that hostile, atomistic social world. Most noticeably absent were suitable opportunities for friendly face-to-face relations, what sociologists call the “primary groups.” Whatever group could present a warm, personalized, solidarizing appeal would have a following. Whoever could intervene with or against the powers that ran their world would find adherents.

The Machine and the Capitalists

The political machine was admirably suited to fulfill that function. In the beginning, it had few rivals. Trade unions were few. Lodges and such were nowhere near their present number, and whatever existed was under the conspicuous domination of the political leaders.

The methods used to satisfy the constituents are fairly well known. Long-time Boston boss Lomasny explained his boys’ role thus:

I think there’s got to be in every ward somebody that any bloke can come to – no matter what he’s done – and get help. Help, you understand, none of your law and your justice, but help.

Tom Pendergast summarized in his own fashion:

When a poor man comes to old Tom’s boys for help we don’t make one of those damn-fool investigations like the city charities. No, by God, we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.

Neither the capitalists of the country nor their direct political associates planned or chose this setup. It contained much that they did not like. They would have preferred to avoid its wastefulness, inefficiencies and expense. Wall Street usually supported “reform” movements against Tammany Hall. But they knew they had to accept whatever political apparatus existed on bottom in order to keep their parties flourishing on top.

Steffens received this explanatory comment from William Herrin, attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad and Republican leader in California, in response to an inquiry about his attitude towards the exposed “corrupt” machine in San Francisco:

We have got to let those little skates get theirs ... We can’t help it ... The Southern Pacific Railroad and all the companies and interests associated with us are not rich enough to pay all that politics costs.

While the reference to the poverty of the SP line is open to question, a better statement of the feudal relations between the different rungs of the American political ladder could not be found.

But whether its many participants were aware or not, the American city political machine did an even more important job for the top rulers of the nation. Without its existence, the resentment and antagonism of the working-class urbanite to his life situation might have taken a more serious turn.

This was clearly noted and best expressed, not by any political radical or Marxist, but by the conservative British commentator on American politics, James Bryce. He called the machines

buffers between the rich and the poor; buffers who taxed the one to keep the other in good humor. The political levies and sometimes the flagrant corruptions to which party managers resorted were chiefly for acquiring funds necessary to “take care of the boys.” ... Naturally, there were broker’s charges on the collections, but these were small as compared with the cost of riots and revolutions.

Sometimes the machine’s abuses, especially the occasional blatant tie-ups with criminal elements, have become so unbearable that “reform” movements have been able to “throw the rascals out.” But, as everyone knows, it generally was not for long.

These movements have been composed of morally- motivated citizens and politicians often out to make a big splurge as a stepping stone to something higher, but their decision-making base has been among “economy”-minded business men. This group of “outsiders,” cutting off expenditures which were deemed necessary, quickly produced strong resentment among working-class urbanites. Solid businessmen also tired early of the reform administration – when, for example, its sometimes zealous crackdown on illegal activities lowered real-estate values. Reformers rarely lasted more than one term.

Something New

Nevertheless there was nothing eternal about the machine’s position. As far back as the nineties, new trends and new ideas appeared on the American scene; among other things, they seriously threatened the machine’s hold on city politics.

First of all, urban life became more stable and institutionalized. New organizations upset the almost exclusive monopoly of the machine and its adjuncts. Most important of these was the beginning of a powerful labor movement.

Secondly, although the economy continued its overall boom, it now showed itself honeycombed with gross evils and shortcomings and directly upset even the modest aspirations of the working-class city dweller. These began to demand more than the typical wardheeler or reform politician could give. Concrete political programs began to offer a significant rival to the machine’s appeal.

The examples of this multiplied. In Cleveland, a new type of “reform” movement, under the leadership of Mayor Tom Johnson, became an object of study all over the country. Johnson’s administration emphasized lower traction fares and utility rates. For a time, it received such popular support that it was able to contend successfully with Republican boss Mark Hanna. That it did not last as long as some of its adherents hoped was due mostly to the limited character of its program.

The city of New York witnessed a more dramatic evidence of this “something new” in the municipal campaign of 1896. Single-tax economist Henry George ran for mayor with the backing of the labor movement and a wide range of political radicals. Although he was opposed by several candidates with good machines behind them, he was conceded to be the leading candidate right through the campaign. Whatever the worth of his economic theories, he had a program. But this experiment in municipal politics was cut short; George did not live to election day. (His son’s name was hastily substituted, receiving 21,000 votes, while the victorious Tammany man, Van Wyck, got 234,000.)

Labor Enters the Lists

A short time later, the Socialist Party was organized. Nationally and locally, this new political force, basing itself almost entirely on its program and the political workers adhering to that program, soon elected mayors in Milwaukee, Reading, Schenectady, and other cities. Incidentally, the “Socialist” administration in Milwaukee lasted for some thirty years, and became the envy of all dabblers in “good municipal government.” Though its socialism became more and more pink-tea, and though its long-time mayor, Dan Hoan, later entered the Democratic Party, it seemed to give both voters and political activists an inkling of a political program, enough to keep the typical machine out.

World War I, the post-war anti-red drive, and the ensuing boom of the Twenties reintroduced the old schema almost in toto. Broad political opposition to any phase of capitalist society was largely absent. But the depression brought the old resentments back with renewed strength. Immediately, many of the country’s most powerful city machines were turned out of office in a trend that stemmed from the antagonism of the voters towards anything directly identified with the old order. The major capitalists were not entirely unhappy about this: in such times, the drain of supporting wardheelers could not be afforded.

Tammany in New York, Thompson in Chicago, the entrenched Republican outfit in Pittsburgh – all were tossed out; even in Philadelphia, classic home of successful machine politics, the Republican organization, which had scarcely lost an election since the Civil War, was compelled to make deals with Democrats in order to stay in office. That many of these returned to power or were replaced by similar groupings (Kelly-Nash in Chicago) showed that the opposition of the electorate to the “old bunch” was still immature.

The late Thirties and the Forties, with a war intervening, was the period of the last great growth of the labor movement, of growing widespread anti-capitalist attitudes, however unclear their expression and resultant action. The America of McKinley and Coolidge, of Boss Vare of Philadelphia and Charlie Murphy of Tammany was no more. Voters were compelled to ask more of their local politicians, as they were compelled to ask more of their federal government.

Signboards to the Future

The old political machines and political symbols may still be around, but their power is steadily shrinking. Following are some of the indexes:

(1) National issues formerly played little part in local elections, even in elections for local representatives to Congress. The smartest city bosses have known for a decade and a half that this is no longer true. Hague has gone out to garner working-class votes on the record of his congresswoman, Mary Norton, in drafting and pushing New Deal labor legislation. Tammany has relied much on the name of Senator Robert Wagner, its famed graduate, and the association of his name with pro-labor legislation, plus the similar work of its congressmen Celler, Somers, etc. And so on with the national legislative contingent of Kelly, Pendergast and Curley.

During the New York municipal election in 1933, 1937, and 1941, the rival candidates offered an unusual spectacle: each one tried to identify himself more closely than the other with the national administration; in ’41, there was a particularly notable attempt by both the La Guardia and O’Dwyer camps to advertise their allegiance to Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Making such broad national policies a major issue in local elections is a comparatively new departure for America, though it is an old story in Europe. It is thus part of the tendency toward the “Europeanization of America.”

(2) Not only have the city bosses been forced to try to identify themselves with pro-labor national policies, but they have had to officially recognize their new powerful rival, the organized labor movement, in order to stay in office. Labor elements have been incorporated into an important part of the machine apparatus, as Hague has done with the AFL in his territory, or they may be taken in tow through deals arranged in elections, as has occurred in just about every city from time to time. The labor officials have usually acted in a subservient manner in these maneuvers, but they have acted as a separate force.

(3) The labor movement, especially the CIO, has set up its own political apparatus. These have been staffed with activists whose zeal and perseverance are beyond the ken of wardheelers. The CIO-PAC is a permanent body that has acted on its own as an effective instrument in every type of election. It is not part of the apparatus of the other parties, even though it has usually supported their candidates. In New York the American Labor Party was the “balance of power” in both the ’37 and ’41 elections. It was the reason why the typical LaGuardia reform administration lasted three terms, whereas the previous reform administrations in the city were unable to succeed themselves.

(4) There are too many cities in the country to detail the recent political history of each. A few illustrative cases should suffice.

In Minneapolis, the labor movement took a great spurt following the great 1934 teamsters’ strike. Working both through and outside of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party it was soon able to elect its candidate for mayor. Like so many labor-backed people, Mayor Latimer turned out to be definitely anti-labor in his policies. But our subject here is not the immaturity of labor politics but the way in which it is cutting into the power of city machine politics in spite of its immaturity.

It should be added that, after several Republican administrations, the labor movement was again able to achieve victory for someone it considered its man, Hubert Humphrey, who on the basis of that victory is now in the Senate.

Detroit to Oakland

(5) In the UAW’s hometown of Detroit, UAW Vice-President Frankensteen made a strong run for mayor in 1945. Though he tried to pose as anything but a labor candidate, the bulk of the campaign work was done by the CIO and the campaign symbols were based on pro- and anti-labor issues. The labor movement thus again showed its political potential, which it vitiated in the following election by the CIO’s support of Jeffries, the man who had defeated Frankensteen.

A few hundred miles away, a Socialist Party administration was reinstated in Milwaukee. Ironically, the victorious mayorality candidate was the brother of the man who had previously upset the long string of Socialist Party administrations.

(6) A most dramatic illustration of the new way of urban politics occurred in the boom city of Oakland in the spring of 1947. This town had long been a stepsister of San Francisco across the bay. The war brought a grandiose expansion, and it became a full-fledged urban center for the first time. However, in this new area of rapid urbanization, the old political-machine setup never got started. City politics was openly dominated by the local businessmen. Bryce’s buffers were unknown.

In the fall of 1946, the city administration’s protection of scab deliveries to a department store, struck by the AFL as part of an organizing campaign, produced a general strike. Most of the demands were ultimately won, but the resentment towards the city’s political leaders did not cool down. Five of the nine city councilmen were to be elected the next spring; the AFL and CIO united to form the “Oakland Voters League” to present their own candidates. Again, both the candidates and the campaign propaganda did much to de-emphasize the labor issue, but most of the precinct workers came from the labor movement, and the acts of the administration in precipitating the general strike were decisive in electing four of the five labor-backed candidates. Incidentally, the administration did not have any machine. Participants claim that there were not even any administration poll watchers to be seen.

Changes Ahead

(7) The congressional election in the Bronx last February was another indicative campaign. This was in the bailiwick of Ed Flynn, whose opponents often did not even bother to look up their vote. The ALP (now Stalinist-Wallaceite) decided to put its all behind candidate Leo Isacson – and elected him by a handsome majority. Whatever one may say about the Stalinists and Wallaceites, they do not fit into the traditional pattern of either machine politico or reform politics.

(8) One concluding item, especially important because of its geography. In Tennessee, the united labor movement was able to accomplish what so many others had miserably muffed; it was able to shear Memphis Boss Crump of some of his might. The “benevolent despot” of Shelby County had controlled the politics of the state for some forty years. In the Democratic primaries of last summer, both CIO and AFL vigorously campaigned for New Deal Representative Kefauver against loyal Crump man Mitchell and dissident Crump man Browning in the race for the senatorial nomination. Kefauver was not only victorious but carried twenty-three precincts in Memphis itself, where Crump had not lost a precinct for twenty-two years.

It should be obvious that what the old-time reformers could not do is on the way to being accomplished by the organized labor movement. The traditional American city political machine is losing its primacy. It is no longer so easy to feed oneself from the barbecue of expanding wealth. The machine’s appeal to the voters has already lost its dominance. National issues and class alignments are increasingly significant. New political apparatuses, based upon the vigor of active political workers from the labor movement, have made their appearance and are here to stay.

Until now, their energy has mostly been channelized behind New Deal and Stalinist politics. With the coming of an independent labor party – and it is coming – the biggest blow of all will be struck at the still-remaining power of the city-machine men. For the first time a permanent and far-reaching change will be made in the field of municipal politics.

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