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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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  • Gregor Sansa

    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.

    Single-issue politics all very well and good when you have a solid base of your own. But the most pressing concerns of today, don’t. How many people are single-issue voters on climate change? On stimulus and the need for a higher inflation target? On voting systems and campaign finance reform? Even on immigration, where the potential for a solid voting bloc exists, that bloc isn’t organized enough to throw its weight around effectively.

    So while the Gompers story is interesting history, I don’t see the lesson for today. Today we need big-tent, coalition politics if we’re to get anything done; the opposite of what Gompers practiced.

    • JL

      Single-issue politics are also hard when you’re part of any other marginalized group. How are you supposed to only vote labor concerns when you have a uterus and states are trying to restrict abortion? When you’re black and states are pushing voter suppression laws and cities are engaging in racist policing? When you’re LGBTQ and candidates at the local, state, and federal levels have very divergent opinions about your basic civil rights, and you can still legally be denied a job because of your identity? Saying that if a politician is labor’s friend, labor should support them no matter what, is basically centering the labor movement around people for whom class is their only experience of marginalization, and shutting others out from being able to be a full part of labor without serious difficulty.

      I’m not claiming that Erik believes this – for one thing, he said that he wasn’t saying he did, and for another, I’ve been reading him here for a couple of years now – but I think this is important to point out. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to learn from Gompers or the AFL, of course, and I enjoyed and learned some things from the post.

      • There’s no question that Gompersonian unionism works much easier when you do not have a diverse labor movement. And as you point out, I’m not saying I agree with his positions.

        However, I might argue for something that looks like a modified version of this. Like the labor leaders in Lorain County, Ohio last week who won an election slate when the Democrats nominated anti-labor candidates, I argue that labor should not support Democrats when Democrats are anti-labor. That includes giving them money, getting out the vote, etc. When Stephen Colbert’s sister was running for the House in SC, she took a bunch of money from a union (IBEW I think), and then talked about how proud she was to live in a right to work state. No. That is unacceptable.

        So in other words, I think the lesson here is to unhinge the labor movement from being ATM machines for the Democratic Party and for labor to demand fundamental support on basic issues from political candidates in return for their support.

        • witless chum

          Yup. Labor would do better to be a little less big picture and put some scares into the Democrats. You don’t want to become the liberal Teahadi movement, but screwing a few Democratic congressial candidates ought to do wonders.

  • Derelict

    Nicely done! I wrote a chapter about Gompers and the AFL for a high school/college history textbook. Unfortunately, the publisher demanded that the chapter’s contents be limited to events prior to 1899, leaving the reader with a very distorted picture of what Gompers ultimately stood for.

  • shah8

    In my considered opinion, craft unions (and the trade guilds before them) are almost always a bad thing, and I think Loomis undersells the negatives and oversells the positives wrt Gomperism. Especially, I think Loomis oversells the limited gains, in comparison to just how much Gompers kicked down on potentially more responsive and effective labor organizations and retarded their advent in exchange for those limited gains.

    • LeeEsq

      I don’t think that trade guilds are really that much related to labor unions. On a superficial level they look alike but any comparison between guilds and unions of all types falls apart on closer examination. Guilds were more like professional organizations like the AMA in that they organizations of self-regulating businessmen in a particular trade. Each guild member aspired to be their own boss. They were kind of like chambers of commerce with actual direct power.

      Unions of all types were not guilds because the assumption was that every member is going to stay at the level of employee and never become an employer. This affected their goals and mission.

      • shah8

        So….

        The AMA is just merely a group of professionals that own their work. The AMA isn’t involved with governments about wages and piecework…

        oh god, just never mind…

        • LeeEsq

          No, your misunderstanding what I wrote. What I meant is that trade guilds are not the ancestors of unions of any type, craft or industrial. Trade guilds are the ancestors of today’s professional organization. They were like a combination of a professional organization and a chamber of commerce rather than a union.

          Trade guilds are more similar to chambers of commerce and professional organizations rather than unions because their membership consisted of business owners or would be business owners. Craft and industrial unions self-consciously consist only of employees. The economic and political interests of guilds have more in common with those of the AMA or the Chamber of Commerce than they do with even the most conservative union.

          • shah8

            yeah, it’s why I didn’t continue. I saw that definition in the likes of wiki, and no, that’s bullshit, particularly in this line of conversation.

  • Bruce Vail

    Gomperism has been rejected by all of labor at least since the 1960s, so Gomperism itself has been a dead letter for a long time.

    The AFofL itself is a more interesting and complex question. It has unquestionably failed in its mission over the last 30 years, but there doesn’t seem to be a coherent answer to the questions of why, and what do we do about it now?

  • Bruce Vail

    One thing we might learn from the AFofL is that a certain brand of craft unionism is a sustainable form of labor organization that meets wide approval from the American public.

    Thus we have policeman benevolent associations (under many names) in every corner of the country, with almost no complaints from either of the major parties. Likewise the building trades are active in most parts of the country, and have even been able to beat off attacks on the Davis-Bacon Act with Republican votes even in Boehner’s House of Representative.

  • John Emerson

    In 1894-5 John McBride of the miners union unseated Gompers and affiliated the AFL with the Populists. Many of the labor Populists later affiliated with the Socialists (Debs) or Socialist Labor (Lloyd). Don’t know which way McBride went.

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