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This Day in Labor History: December 8, 1886

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On December 8, 1886, the American Federation of Labor formed at a meeting of union officials in Columbus, Ohio. The most successful labor federation in American history, the AFL has long had its critics on both the left and right, but ultimately its founding president Samuel Gompers understood the realities of Gilded Age politics and how to negotiate the best possible deal for workers in that atmosphere.

It is a bit hard to talk about the American Federation of Labor in 2013. Samuel Gompers has a pretty bad reputation among progressives. Some of it is deserved. For instance, Gompers openly lied to Congress about Industrial Workers of the World sabotage and supposed connections with Kaiser-led Germany during World War I because he wanted the government to crush the rivals to the AFL. Gompers created an organization that would not organize Asians, blacks, women, children, or the people of the new industrial factories, i.e., the burgeoning American workforce. Gompers’ AFL considered itself a movement of the elite skilled workers, making a mass movement of American labor impossible. His craft unionism meant that when factories were organized, it was into 10 or 12 different unions in the same workplace, each with its own agenda, as opposed to the later industrial unionism that would finally challenge the AFL fifty years later. Gompers supported anti-immigration legislation, from extending the Chinese Exclusion Act to ending Japanese immigration to the Immigration Act of 1924.

Samuel Gompers

Hard guy to love.

But we can set all this aside for a minute and at least focus a touch on what the AFL did right?

First, we need to understand the milieu the AFL grew out of. 1886 was notable for 2 major events in American labor history. The first was the collapse of the Knights of Labor after the Haymarket Riot. The Knights had very quickly transformed from a fraternal organization into a massive social movement due to the 8-hour day appeal. But the Knights not only had no ability to manage its suddenly huge constituency, but it had few concrete ways to achieve these gains. The 1880s was a period where Americans were struggling to even comprehend the rapid growth of industrial capitalism and many sought highly simplistic one size fits all solutions like the Single Tax, Chinese Exclusion, or the 8-hour day. The AFL understood the complexities of modern capitalism much better and took a different strategy of working toward concrete, if limited, improvements in the conditions of working people. And they achieved a great many victories through the union contract, especially considering the open hostility of employers and the government through much of its early history. The AFL actually was a splinter movement from the Knights. When the latter organization attempted to find a way to make itself financially stable through encouraging local unions to withdraw from their internationals and become direct affiliates of the Knights. Although some locals agreed, the internationals revolted and thus the AFL began.

Second, Samuel Gompers was not a dictator. Just like the AFL-CIO today, he oversaw an organization made up of constituent unions that often disagreed with one another. That he supported a craft union model made this worse, yes, because it encouraged division rather than unity. But he couldn’t dictate this one way or another. This is also true of the racial and immigration problems of the AFL. Was Gompers at fault? Or was it the white supremacy of the American working class. Let’s not forget that the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory of the American labor movement and that it came in 1882, four years before the AFL formed. It wasn’t a top-down movement that led to the massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885. Blame Gompers for his share of the problem, he deserves it. But also blame the endemic and violent racism of the United States in 1886. Or 1936. Or 1966. At each time, labor was deeply divided by race.

We might also want to reconsider the AFL’s “pure and simple unionism” in our time of organized labor struggles. He and his supporters (especially P.J. McGuire of the powerful United Brotherhood of Carpenters) said labor should only care about itself and improvements in pay, hours, and working conditions, rejecting larger political agendas to transform society. If a politician was labor’s friend, labor would support him no matter the rest of his positions. If a politician was labor’s enemy, he was the enemy. Gompers eschewed federal intervention in the workplace because he did not believe the government could be counted on to protect workers. Only the union contract would. He even opposed parts of the welfare state we value today, including workers compensation, because that system as developed in the 1910s took power away from workers to sue their employers for much money in court than they would get from the government. Gompers would likely look at today’s labor movement, embedded within the Democratic Party but getting very little out of that investment, and confirm everything he believed. Not saying I agree here, but this situation is more or less what Gompers feared.

The AFL also did a tremendous amount for the American working class, or at least part of it. Its unions won major gains throughout the Gompers years (he died in 1924). They weren’t always long-lasting; ultimately, the AFL needed the New Deal as much as those fighting for industrial unions did; despite Gompers (and then William Green’s) theoretical non-partisanism (although this began to fade after about 1908 as the Democratic Party became more openly pro-labor), it actually did need to elect politicians in order to create semi-permanent victories. The AFL started slowly, won some good gains in the 1890s, took a big blow from employers in the 1900s, had major wins during World War I, and then got punched in the gut over and over in the bad 1920s. But while other social and labor movements came and went, the AFL maintained itself and its members with a solid, if sometimes uninspiring, philosophy of the union contract.

So I’d like to think there is still a lot to learn from the American Federation of Labor, and not just things not to do. This was the most successful labor movement in the history of the United States, it’s relationship with politicians in the early decades maintained labor’s independence and ultimately maximized its political strength, and its understanding (even if that was an acceptance) of capitalism meant maximizing its ability to squeeze real benefits from employers that made workers’ lives better and avoided quixotic and simplistic solutions to what ailed the working class. The AFL’s social, racial, and anti-radical positions means that it is probably nobody’s idea of what the modern labor movement should look like. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t create a lot of positive change that the entire working class benefits from today.

This is the 84th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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