Pages from Labor's History

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 12:17

In the history of the American labor movement there is a moral and a lesson for the labor movement of today: the need for and the inevitability of independent working-class political action.

In the past century the voice of independent labor politics has often 'been low, but seldom mute; and in innumerable instances it was loud, clear and full of promise.

Even before the Civil War the organization of workingmen's parties often coincided with the limited successes of unions of skilled craftsmen. The first of these parties dates back to 1828—in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere—when suffrage for white males was only rarely limited by property qualifications.

The issues on which these parties fought corresponded to the elementary human needs of the time such as the ten-hour day and equal, decent and free education. In a number of cities these par- ties met with considerable success at the polls.

But the working class was as yet weak. Numerically they were a tiny minority of the national population; and politically they were disoriented by the pull of stronger parties on the outside and by the factionalism of Owenite Utopian colonisers within. In a few years these labor parties disappeared from the national scene, and in the panic of 1837 their trade-union complements were decimated.

Although shortlived, their historical value is permanent as early demonstrations of the irrepressible nature of the class struggle and its political expression, be it the struggle between merchant capitalist and craft worker in the 1820s or between finance capital and the industrial proletariat a century later.

Following the Civil War there were a host of third parties. Sometimes they were union-based labor parties; in many instances, however, they were alliances of exploited worker and oppressed farmer. For example:
The National Labor Union, organized in 1868, from its inception placed its reliance on political action.

In 1874 the Greenback Party was formed. Primarily an agrarian reform movement, it nevertheless formed an alliance with trade-unionists and, as the National Party, received 1,000,000 votes in the elections of 1878. The popularity of the Greenback-labor alliance, induced by the depression of 1873 was wiped out during the economic revival of the early 1880s.


By 1884 another depression was in the offing. The Knights of Labor, theoretically an all-embracing radical movement whose vertebrae were made up of industrial trade-union assemblies, experienced a tremendous rise in membership and militancy. The Knights, growing from a sect to a mass movement with a membership of around 700,000, plunged into intensive political activity.

Mass strikes and independent electoral activity became the earmarks of the year 1886. In New York, the Knights, the Socialist Labor Party (formed ten years earlier), single-taxers, reformers, etc., organized the United Labor Party. With Henry George as its candidate for mayor in 1886, the party received 68,000 votes—30 per cent of the total cast. In Chicago the same year, and on the heels of the Haymarket affair, a union-based United Labor Party also won 30 per cent of the votes cast in its municipal elections.

But the United Labor Parties like the National Party were overcome by economic recovery and internal weaknesses.

The impulse of underprivileged masses to break out of the restrictions of strictly bourgeois politics was continued in the People's Party (the populists). The People's Party was largely an agrarian protest movement but it was more than that. It developed into an alliance of farmer and urban worker who saw no fundamental conflict of immediate interest. This alliance added to the powerful impetus given to the populists in the 1890s.

In the presidential elections of 1892 the People's Party polled over a million votes for its candidate, General Weaver, and in the congressional elections two years later the party received more than 1,500,000 votes.

But the People's Party, too, could not survive the economic revival of the late 1890s and its internal disharmony. It committed political suicide by endorsing the Democratic Party's candidate in 1896, Bryan, and was shortly absorbed by that party.


Where labor and agrarian discontent in the post-Civil War period was manifested in labor parties and alliances of farmer and worker, the spirit of protest was sustained in the early 1900s by the Socialist Party and the National Non-Partisan League.

The former differed from labor parties, not only in its socialist platform but in its lack of an affiliated trade-union base. Nevertheless it became a mass party of social protest, recruiting its strength from worker and farmer alike and gaining six per cent of the national vote in 1912.

The Non-Partisan League differed from the People's Party and the earlier National Party in its almost exclusive concern with agrarian reforms and recruitment of farmers. Also, unlike the Greenbackers and populists, the Non-Partisan League failed to put up national slates and sought electoral victories by pressing for its candidates in primary contests of the major capitalist parties.

On the heels of the 1918 armistice the drive toward labor political independence found renewed strength. The unions had grown enormously during war-time prosperity. With the war over, the class struggle burst forth with an unprecedented violence and magnitude.

In 1919, 25 per cent of the non-agricultural working class were engaged in fierce, protracted strikes. From the Boston police strike to the Seattle General Strike led by the AFL Central Labor Union, "strike" was on the order of the day.

What enthusiasm existed among the working class for the war-time Wilson administration was largely dissipated by the negative political consequences of the war, by the threat of depression (soon realized and reaching its depths in 1921 with five million unemployed), and by the open-shop offensive which was a conspiracy of government and capitalists to destroy the trade-union movement.

Both parties were openly, cynically and brutally on the side of the anti-union offensive. The question of independent labor politics grew inescapable.


The president of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, held fast to his political-dependence policy, looking for favors from those who were busy issuing anti-union injunctions and sending the militia against striking workers. But just as craft-unionism found itself surrounded and threatened by the wave of strikes in all the mass industries, so did Gompers' anti-independent political bias initially fail to smash efforts by more militant unionists to break out of the strangling grasp of the two-party fetish.

Numerous local labor parties sprang up throughout the nation, organised and led by progressive trade-unionists. The largest union in the country, the United Mine Workers, representing 400,000 workers, adopted a motion to organize a labor party at its 1919 convention, only to have it sabotaged by the opposition and passivity of the UMW’s conservative leadership.

But over the heads of the top national leadership the unionists in city after city and state after state organized their local parties. In November 1919, many of these local labor parties were amalgamated into the National Labor Party.
The convention was tremendously impressive for its numbers of unions represented and militant spirit reflected in its program.

Gompers, however, stepped up his opposition to labor's political insurgency and the effectiveness of his active hostility was clearly seen in the 1920 nominating, convention of the Labor Party.

The party succeeded in placing itself on the 1920 ballot as the Farmer-Labor Party—in only seventeen states, which is a partial explanation for its small vote of around one-quarter of a million. However, to this figure, as an indication of political and social protest, must be added the nearly one million votes for Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party ticket.

It was in the 1920s that the movement was organized which had perhaps the greatest potentiality in the long history of labor and third-partyism for developing into a permanent and powerful union-based party of the working class: the Conference for Progressive Political Action.


The CPPA owed its formation to the activities of the APL-affiliated railroad unions which numbered nearly 1,500,000 —more than a third of the entire A FL membership. And among these railroad unions it was the 300,000-strong machinists union headed by ex-socialist William Johnston which spearheaded the CPPA.

The leadership of these railroad unions was not made up of radicals; basically it was as yet conservative in temperament and moderate in social outlook. But the railroad workers bad come to enjoy a fresh sense of power and authority in their great numbers; they had not suffered crushing defeats by the time of the CPPA's founding conference in February 1922, as was the case with many of the major unions; they resented the railroads' return to private owners by the government which had taken over their Operation during the war; they had been enthused over the Plumb Plan which would have given the unionists some control over their own destiny.

The railroadmen had thus gained a broader vision which went beyond the limited purview of economic class organization. They witnessed havoc wrought on the working class first by the Democratic Party administration under Wilson, then by the Republican rule of Harding. They recognized the threat to their own union's stability in the union-busting activities of both parties.

The AFL railroad workers' leadership responded to and reflected the self-assurance and heightened social vision of the rank and file. It organized a conference to explore the possibilities of non-partisan political action.

At this conference, held in Chicago (February 1922) were representatives from the Farmer Labor Party, state labor parties, the Non-Partisan League, the Socialist Party, etc. (The only wing of the labor movement not invited was the Communists.)


The first Conference for Progressive Political Action was not organized to form a labor party, but those who attended and favored the formation of such a party hoped that the movement would shortly strike out on its own politically.

However, at the second conference of the CPPA held in Cleveland during December 1922, the differences between the cautious railroad union leaders and some of the pro-labor-partyites came to the fore and prompted a split in the organization. By a narrow margin this conference rejected the immediate formation of a labor party and the Farmer Labor Party withdrew its support, condemning the CPPA with particular vehemence.

Despite this split the CPPA was forced by the pressure of events to move in a leftward direction.

Faced with the choice of Davis or his rival Republican twin, Coolidge, the CPPA chose an independent course. Meeting in St. Louis during February 1924, the CPPA decided on a nominating convention to be held three months later. At this July convention Senator LaFollette was the unchallenged nominee of the CPPA for the White House.

Although a powerful and popular figure, he was not the most fortunate choice for the future of labor political action. But with the CPPA developing into a mass movement, and with its ticket headed by LaFollette, the AFL national leadership was forced for the first time out of its national non-partisan shell, and it broke precedent by endorsing the candidate of the Progressive Party. The attitude of the AFL, however, was not designed to lead the movement but to follow it, content to have LaFolette stamp the new party with his own particular brand.


In the elections, LaFollette garnered 5,000,000 votes. It was a remarkable showing, although he only carried his own state, Wisconsin. Seventeen per cent of the voters cast their ballot for a party which, for all its programmatic deficiencies and special appeal to farmers, was a party which owed its existence to the political consciousness and independence of the trade-union movement.

But the trade-union leaders were distraught. Five million votes were not enough. They had expected ten. Their own boldness had frightened the railroad union leaders and their AFL superiors back to their more natural conservatism.

The pre-election proposals to organize a permanent labor party after the elections were dropped. The excuse was the "small" vote. The Wisconsin senator was among the first to scuttle the movement and the CPPA was given its coup de grace at its February 1925 convention. Thus ended a promise.

In 1925 the CPPA was abandoned. Four years later came the Great Depression, the harbinger of mass discontent and mass radicalisation. In the middle thirties came the dynamic organising drives of the CIO. What would have happened to American politics during these years had the leadership of the CPPA faced up to its responsibilities and pressed the organisation of a labor party?

What would have happened if the 15 million depression unemployed had a Labor Party to champion its interests and if the rising CIO had a political party to champion the cause of industrial unionism?

The questions permit only speculation, but that does not gainsay the likelihood that the political relationship of class forces in the United States today would be vastly different, and a happier one for the working class.


What is the significance of the past failures of the American working class to organize itself on a permanent political basis? What can we learn from it?

To begin with, it must be recognized that the inability of the working class in the past to found its own party was not purely fortuitous. While its development was not precluded by objective circumstances, laborism was at least seriously handicapped by a multitude of social factors which no longer exist today.

And that is the point, the main lesson.

In the earliest workingmen's parties, organized more than a century ago, their power to survive was limited by the fact —among other reasons—that the working class was composed of a small economic minority of widely dispersed craftsmen, internally separated by craft jealousies and a lack of intercommunication. Today a concentrated industrial proletariat represents the majority of the population of a unified nation.

In the post-Civil War period the political rebelliousness of the working class was often drained off by Utopian panaceas and by alliances with farmers in which unionists and workers played a subordinate role: thus the political fate of the working class was made unduly subject to the frequent fluctuations of the mood, politics and economics of the agrarian population.

Today that is all changed. The specific weight of the farmers compared to the workers is now light with regard to numbers and social weight. Where the dwindling Knights of Labor sought an alliance with the populists, today it is the discontented farmer which seeks the cover and support of the mighty AFL-CIO.

With America's industrial revolution of the 1880s followed by waves of mass immigration, the bourgeoisie was able ultimately to discourage the political as well as the economic organization of a new multi-lingual working class by encouraging national and racial antagonisms. Today, the working class is essentially a cultural entity, with the main residue of divisive bigotry in the working class anti-Negro racial prejudice, undergoing annihilating blows.

In the 1890s and again in the early 1920s, the bourgeoisie almost succeeded in annihilating the trade-union movement. What possibility, one may ask, was there for such a weak union movement to successfully organize its own political party? Whatever merit there may be to this argument, it can no longer be offered today; for unlike the past, a frontal assault on the very right of unionism to exist is not even whispered aloud by any representative bourgeois politician.

In the middle 1920s when the CPPA leaders abandoned their child, they could point to a union movement that had been declining for the past five years. By 1925 the AFL alone had to admit the loss of one and a quarter million members. It might have been argued: how can we begin to build a union-based labor party if the base itself is in a state of disintegration?

Today, however, the AFL-CIO has 15 million members and is growing as against the AFL's three million—and declining number—in the earlier period. More than that, today, the majority of the working class in the decisive economic sectors of the country ore organized.

Another factor which militated against the formation of a stable labor party up until the 1930s was the matter of "public opinion." In the early days of American labor struggles it was a relatively easy matter for the powerfully entrenched anti-union forces to incite the broad mass of people against the unions. As late as the early 1920s, during the notorious Palmer raids, the bourgeoisie was capable of establishing in the minds of millions a mythical alliance between a mythical bomb-throwing bolshevik and a very real labor organizer. These unfounded suspicions were a major obstacle to unionization.

Today, all this is a matter of history. Unions have broken through public prejudice. They have become an accepted part of American life.

A majority class, an organized class, an increasingly homogeneous class, an experienced class: therein lies the present power and potential of the modern American working class. And its traditions of the past, which often recognized the value of independent political action, combined with this new power, indicate that it will seek fulfilment as a politically organized class, as labor has done in every other country in the world.

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