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Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States

Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States

by Victoria C. Hattam

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Why has labor played a more limited role in national politics in the United States than it has in other advanced industrial societies? Victoria Hattam demonstrates that voluntarism, as American labor's policy was known, was the American Federation of Labor's strategic response to the structure of the American state, particularly to the influence of American courts.


Why has labor played a more limited role in national politics in the United States than it has in other advanced industrial societies? Victoria Hattam demonstrates that voluntarism, as American labor's policy was known, was the American Federation of Labor's strategic response to the structure of the American state, particularly to the influence of American courts. The AFL's strategic calculation was not universal, however. This book reveals the competing ideologies and acts of interpretation that produced these variations in state-labor relations.Why has labor played a more limited role in national politics in the United States than it has in other advanced industrial societies? Victoria Hattam demonstrates that voluntarism, as American labor's policy was known, was the American Federation of Labor's strategic response to the structure of the American state, particularly to the influence of American courts. The AFL's strategic calculation was not universal, however. This book reveals the competing ideologies and acts of interpretation that produced these variations in state-labor relations.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Labor Visions and State Power

The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States

By Victoria C. Hattam


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07870-0


Labor, Ideology, and the State: Working-Class Formation in the United States

The particular path of working-class formation in the United States has set the broad contours of American politics. While labor movements in many West European nations have provided the core constituents for progressive organizations and social movements, American labor has played a more limited role in national politics. Ever since the turn of the century, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) has advocated a distinctive strategy of business unionism that privileged economic interests over political reform. Where labor unions in Western Europe advocated workers' interests in the political arena, and advanced an extensive program of state-sponsored social reform, American unions focused instead on workplace concerns, achieved through collective bargaining and industrial action on the shop floor. The high water mark of voluntarism was reached in the early decades of the twentieth century, under Samuel Gompers' leadership of the AFL. In this period, American labor adhered to a policy of nonpartisanship and political independence and at times even opposed government-sponsored social reforms, such as old-age pensions, minimum wage and maximum hours laws, and compulsory health and unemployment insurance.

To be sure, even in the golden era of business unionism, or voluntarism, as it was known, American labor never withdrew from politics entirely. The AFL always maintained some contact with the Democratic party, and continued to participate in electoral politics. However, the AFL's political activity was more circumscribed than that of its West European counterparts in three important respects: institutionally, strategically, and programmatically. Elaborating these three aspects of AFL strategy and contrasting them with English union activity at the turn of the century will help to identify the defining features of AFL voluntarism.

When the AFL entered electoral politics after the turn of the century, it did not sustain an institutional base from one election to the next. Instead, the AFL deliberately avoided creating a permanent political organization and even refused to establish formal ties with either of the major political parties. Nonpartisanship was needed, the AFL argued, to ensure labor's independence within the political system. If political action was pursued, it was carried out through ad hoc committees and temporary campaign organizations rather than through creation of more enduring political institutions. Second, since the 1890s political action has remained an auxiliary strategy for the AFL, used to supplement the primary tasks of organizing, bargaining, and protesting in the economic arena. Political action rarely received the AFL's unqualified support and was prohibited explicitly in many trade union constitutions. On those occasions when political reform was pursued, its advocates were quick to stress both the nonpartisan and auxiliary nature of their action. Finally, and most important, the limits of AFL politics can be seen in the program they supported in the political arena. After the turn of the century, the AFL both accepted and promoted a quite marked separation of work and politics: workplace concerns were to be addressed through collective bargaining and industrial conflict, leaving politics for citizens' concerns. The hallmark of AFL voluntarism was not complete abstention from electoral politics, but rather political participation with little or no regard for work-based concerns. In the early twentieth century, for example, whenever labor joined forces with middle-class reformers, they generally did so as Progressives rather than as workers, in an effort to advance the classless interests of democratic reform. Organized labor willingly joined in progressive cries for more efficient, competitive, and honest government through the introduction of referendum, initiative, and recall. But the AFL did not try to redress their workplace concerns through political reform.

Social legislation in the Progressive Era that regulated hours and wages and introduced arbitration and workmen's compensation schemes might seem to belie AFL voluntarism, as these laws clearly were aimed at regulating and improving the terms of employment. However, when examined more closely we see that the AFL's role in the campaign for social reform had all the markings of American voluntarism. The AFL rarely led the fight for labor legislation and usually played a supporting role to middle-class initiatives. More importantly, the AFL did not endorse all progressive labor laws, but selected bills carefully so as not to compromise its voluntarist principles. The AFL only supported laws targeted at especially vulnerable segments of the population—women, children, government employees, and members of especially dangerous occupations—as these groups could not organize easily to protect themselves. In contrast, it consistently opposed regulation of its core constituents—white adult males—for fear of weakening their organizational base. Improving working conditions and wages for adult males was central to the AFL's mission, but this was to be secured through organization and protest on the shop floor. Although the AFL voluntarism was modified during the Depression and New Deal realignment, it was not transformed entirely. To this day, the AFL-CIO is still considered unusual in its pursuit of economic issues over larger questions of social transformation.

The defining features of AFL voluntarism can be seen more clearly through a comparison of American labor politics with English trade union activity at the turn of the century. On all three dimensions—institutionalization, strategy, and program—the Trades Union Congress (TUC) adopted a very different approach from that of the AFL. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, for example, English unions maintained a more continuous institutional presence in electoral politics. The Labour Representation League, the TUC's Parliamentary Committee, the Labour Electoral Association, and the Labour Representation Committee constituted a series of organizations through which workers could express their views in national politics. Moreover, creation of the Labour party in 1906 provided English unions with a permanent institutional base in electoral politics that has enabled labor to maintain close ties with parliamentary politics ever since. English unions also differed from their American counterparts in the priority they awarded political action. Political reform was not relegated to a minor role, but rather held coequal status with union organizing. To be sure, politics was at times a divisive issue within the English labor movement as individuals and organizations disagreed over the specific program of reform. However, the central cleavage in England was not between advocates of politics and those of business unionism, but rather centered around disagreements between socialists and more moderate reformers over how radical their political platform ought to be. No significant faction within the English labor movement called for an antistatist strategy akin to AFL voluntarism. Finally, English labor did not promote a sharp division between work and politics. On the contrary, almost all factions within the English labor movement considered government legislation a legitimate and necessary weapon in their struggle to improve the terms and conditions of employment.

The English campaign for social legislation in the early decades of the twentieth century provides a useful counterpoint to AFL voluntarism. Unlike the AFL, the TUC campaigned extensively for legislation introducing old-age pensions, unemployment and health insurance, the eight-hour day, and workmen's compensation. Moreover, passage of the National Insurance Act in 1911 underscores the different relationship that had developed between labor and politics on the two sides of the Atlantic. Although English workers criticized the new insurance act, their opposition was very different from the AFL's attacks on social legislation. The TUC did not want to restrict government intervention in the workplace, but rather objected to the proposed financing mechanism for the new government policy. If anything, the TUC wanted the government to make a greater commitment to social insurance by funding the new policies on a noncontributory basis. To diminish labor opposition to the legislation, the Liberal government established trade unions and friendly societies as the administrative agencies for the unemployment and health insurance schemes. By providing financial rewards to unions and incentives to potential members, the government not only secured labor's cooperation but also further integrated English unions into the political system.

The puzzle to be explained, then, is why the English and American labor movements developed along divergent paths. Why, by the outbreak of the First World War, had the English and American labor movements begun to advocate workers' interests in such different realms? What led the AFL to adopt voluntarism as its principal strategy while across the Atlantic the TUC increasingly was incorporated into national party politics?

The divergent development of the English and American labor movements is all the more perplexing when we realize that the American labor movement was not always so different from its West European counterparts. The "new labor history" of the last two decades has uncovered a rich heritage of workers' protest in the United States and has shown that, contrary to earlier claims, American workers were not always staunch advocates of business unionism. Indeed, when one steps back to the 1820s and 1830s, it is difficult to distinguish American workers' protest from their West European counterparts. Displaced artisans on both continents protested the reorganization of work and production that accompanied industrialization, and looked to the government for assistance in their struggle. Moreover, for most of the nineteenth century American workers were quite successful at harnessing state power to address their concerns. Before the Civil War, for example, several states enacted laws that abolished imprisonment for debt, introduced mechanics' liens, reformed the militia service, mandated the ten-hour workday, established a system of public education, and introduced a number of important currency reforms. All of these issues had been advocated by either the Working Men's political parties or the General Trades' Unions (GTUs) of the 1820s and 1830s, whose efforts were rewarded with new legislation at the state level.

American labor, then, was not voluntarist from the beginning, but rather was quite actively engaged in party politics. It was not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that American labor turned away from the state and adopted instead a strategy of business unionism. To understand the particular pattern of working-class formation in the United States, we must set aside sweeping claims of American exceptionalism and focus more closely on this shift in labor strategy at the end of the century. Exactly which aspects of labor strategy changed with the adoption of voluntarism at the end of the nineteenth century?

It is a common misperception to assume that American labor was generally "reformist" simply because the AFL operated principally in the economic realm. Alongside the AFL's partial retreat from politics at the turn of the century has been a strong tradition of labor militance on the shop floor. In fact, strike rates have remained high in the United States even after the AFL's turn to voluntarism. As Table 1 indicates, the number of strikes per 100,000 employees often was higher in the United States than in the United Kingdom, and in many years was comparable to strike rates in France and Germany. American labor was easily as "radical" as its English counterpart on this score. As strike rates vary greatly from year to year, it is also useful to compare the mean strike rates in the United States and United Kingdom for the years 1900 to 1935. Despite the enormous standard deviations, the mean strike rates 8.2 and 4.7, respectively, again suggest that blanket claims of American exceptionalism need to be revised.

Neither notions of exceptionalism nor labor reformism adequately captures the unusual mixture of political moderation and industrial militance that constitutes American labor strategy. What is unusual about the American labor movement is not the absence of socialism, or the pervasive reformism, but rather the unusual bifurcation of labor strategies in the economic and political realms. Since the turn of the century, political moderation and industrial militance have existed side by side. What needs explaining in the American case is not the absence of a radical tradition per se, but rather its failure to take a political form. Why, we might ask, has the long heritage of workers' protest not been readily institutionalized within the political realm?

State Structure, Ideology, and Labor Strategy

The central argument of this book has two interrelated components—one institutional, the other interpretative. The institutional argument claims that the unusual structure of the American state played a decisive role in shaping American labor strategy. The division of power between branches and across levels of government, combined with the dominance of the courts within the divided American state, provided a distinctive set of incentives and constraints that shaped working-class formation along its peculiar American path. While no government welcomed the increase in workers' power in the early nineteenth century, different state structures left different institutions in charge of regulating workers' collective action. In France and Germany, for example, legislatures were the primary institutions responsible for curbing working-class organization through Le Chapelier and Socialist laws. In the United States, however, courts were the principal institution for containing workers' collective action under the common law doctrine of criminal conspiracy. England provides a hybrid case in which both Parliament and the courts were used to prevent workers from organizing. The unusual power of judicial interpretation and review in the United States repeatedly undermined the rewards of political organization as hard-won legislative victories were continually eroded by the courts. Even successful political mobilization seemed to provide little or no leverage over government policy toward labor in the United States.

The institutional argument, however, takes us only partway toward explaining the divergent patterns of labor movement development in England and the United States. After all, differences in English and American state structure existed throughout the nineteenth century but came to play a decisive role in the AFL's turn to voluntarism only in the last decade of the century. The interpretative leg of the argument considers the ways in which state-labor relations varied over the course of the nineteenth century. In order to explain the changing role of the state, we must attend to the ways in which ideology and culture mediated workers' relation to the courts. Only by considering the meaning or significance that workers brought to their particular institutional environments can we begin to decipher the distinctive pattern of working-class formation in the United States.

To explore the impact of state structure on labor strategy, I focused my research explicitly on labor's relation to the state, paying particular attention to workers' perceptions of, and responses to, judicial regulation of working-class organization and conflict. Two states, New York and Pennsylvania, formed the core of my research. Analysis at the state level was essential, as throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially in the antebellum decades, there was no national labor movement to speak of. Instead, almost all workers' organization and protest was carried out at the state level, with only tentative and short-lived forays into the national arena.


Excerpted from Labor Visions and State Power by Victoria C. Hattam. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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