The Labor Union Essay

3143 words - 13 pages

The Labor Union

LABOR UNION, LAUNCHED IN 1866, AND THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR, WHICH REACHED ITS ZENITH IN THE MID-1880S. ON THEIR FACE, THESE REFORM MOVEMENTS MIGHT HAVE SEEMED AT ODDS WITH TRADE UNIONISM, AIMING AS THEY DID AT THE COOPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH RATHER THAN A HIGHER WAGE, APPEALING BROADLY TO ALL "PRODUCERS" RATHER THAN STRICTLY TO WAGEWORKERS, AND ESCHEWING THE TRADE UNION RELIANCE ON THE STRIKE AND BOYCOTT. BUT CONTEMPORARIES SAW NO CONTRADICTION: TRADE UNIONISM TENDED TO THE WORKERS'' IMMEDIATE NEEDS, LABOR REFORM TO THEIR HIGHER HOPES. THE TWO WERE HELD TO BE STRANDS OF A SINGLE MOVEMENT, ROOTED IN A COMMON WORKING-CLASS CONSTITUENCY AND TO SOME DEGREE SHARING A COMMON
LEADERSHIP. BUT EQUALLY IMPORTANT, THEY WERE STRANDS THAT HAD TO BE KEPT OPERATIONALLY SEPARATE AND FUNCTIONALLY DISTINCT.
DURING THE 1880S, THAT DIVISION FATALLY ERODED. DESPITE ITS LABOR REFORM RHETORIC, THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR ATTRACTED LARGE NUMBERS OF WORKERS HOPING TO IMPROVE THEIR IMMEDIATE CONDITIONS. AS THE KNIGHTS CARRIED ON STRIKES AND ORGANIZED ALONG INDUSTRIAL LINES, THE THREATENED NATIONAL TRADE UNIONS DEMANDED THAT THE GROUP CONFINE ITSELF TO ITS PROFESSED LABOR REFORM PURPOSES; WHEN IT REFUSED, THEY JOINED IN DECEMBER 1886 TO FORM THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR AFL. THE NEW FEDERATION MARKED A BREAK WITH THE PAST, FOR IT DENIED TO LABOR REFORM ANY FURTHER ROLE IN THE STRUGGLES OF AMERICAN WORKERS. IN PART, THE ASSERTION OF TRADE UNION SUPREMACY STEMMED FROM AN
UNDENIABLE REALITY. AS INDUSTRIALISM MATURED, LABOR REFORM LOST ITS MEANING - HENCE THE CONFUSION AND ULTIMATE FAILURE OF THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR. MARXISM TAUGHT SAMUEL GOMPERS AND HIS FELLOW SOCIALISTS THAT TRADE UNIONISM WAS THE INDISPENSABLE INSTRUMENT FOR PREPARING THE WORKING CLASS FOR REVOLUTION. THE FOUNDERS OF THE AFL TRANSLATED THIS NOTION INTO THE PRINCIPLE OF "PURE AND SIMPLE" UNIONISM: ONLY BY SELF-ORGANIZATION ALONG OCCUPATIONAL LINES AND BY A CONCENTRATION ON JOB-CONSCIOUS GOALS WOULD THE WORKER BE "FURNISHED WITH THE WEAPONS WHICH SHALL SECURE HIS INDUSTRIAL EMANCIPATION."
THAT CLASS FORMULATION NECESSARILY DEFINED TRADE UNIONISM AS THE MOVEMENT OF THE ENTIRE WORKING CLASS. THE AFL ASSERTED AS A FORMAL POLICY THAT IT REPRESENTED ALL WORKERS, IRRESPECTIVE OF SKILL, RACE, RELIGION, NATIONALITY, OR GENDER. BUT THE NATIONAL UNIONS THAT HAD CREATED THE AFL IN FACT COMPRISED ONLY THE SKILLED TRADES. ALMOST AT ONCE, THEREFORE, THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT ENCOUNTERED A DILEMMA: HOW TO SQUARE IDEOLOGICAL ASPIRATIONS AGAINST CONTRARY INSTITUTIONAL REALITIES? AS SWEEPING TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE BEGAN TO UNDERMINE
THE CRAFT SYSTEM OF PRODUCTION, SOME NATIONAL UNIONS DID MOVE TOWARD AN
INDUSTRIAL STRUCTURE, MOST NOTABLY IN COAL MINING AND THE GARMENT TRADES. BUT MOST CRAFT UNIONS EITHER REFUSED OR, AS IN IRON AND STEEL AND IN MEAT PACKING, FAILED TO ORGANIZE THE LESS SKILLED. AND SINCE SKILL LINES TENDED TO CONFORM TO RACIAL, ETHNIC, AND GENDER DIVISIONS, THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT TOOK ON A...

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