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In the political realm, the founding doctrine of pure-and-simple unionism meant an arm's-length relationship to the state and the least possible entanglement in partisan politics. A total separation had, of course, never been seriously contemplated; some objectives, such as immigration restriction, could be achieved only through state action, and the predecessor to the afl, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (1881), had in fact been created to serve as labor's lobbying arm in Washington. Partly because of the lure of progressive labor legislation, even more in response to increasingly damaging court attacks on the trade unions, political activity quickened after 1900. With the enunciation of Labor's Bill of Grievances (1906), the afl laid down a challenge to the major parties. Henceforth it would campaign for its friends and seek the defeat of its enemies.
This nonpartisan entry into electoral politics, paradoxically, undercut the left-wing advocates of an independent working-class politics. That question had been repeatedly debated within the afl, first in 1890 over Socialist Labor party representation, then in 1893-1894 over an alliance with the Populist party, and after 1901 over affiliation with the Socialist party of America. Although Gompers prevailed each time, he never found it easy. Now, as labor's leverage with the major parties began to pay off, Gompers had an effective answer to his critics on the left: the labor movement could not afford to waste its political capital on socialist parties or independent politics. When that nonpartisan strategy failed, as it did in the reaction following World War I, an independent political strategy took hold, first through the robust campaigning of the Conference for Progressive Political Action in 1922, and in 1924 through labor's endorsement of Robert La Follette on the Progressive ticket. By then, however, the Republican administration was moderating its hard line, evident especially in Herbert Hoover's efforts to resolve the simmering crises in mining and on the railroads. In response, the trade unions abandoned the Progressive party, retreated to nonpartisanship, and, as their power waned, lapsed into inactivity.
It took the Great Depression to knock the labor movement off dead center. The discontent of industrial workers, combined with New Deal collective bargaining legislation, at last brought the great mass production industries within striking distance. When the craft unions stymied the afl's organizing efforts, John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and his followers broke away in 1935 and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (cio), which crucially aided the emerging unions in auto, rubber, steel, and other basic industries. In 1938 the cio was formally established as the Congress of Industrial Organizations. By the end of World War II, more than 12 million workers belonged to unions, and collective bargaining had taken hold throughout the industrial economy.
In politics, its enhanced power led the union movement not to a new departure but to a variant on the policy of nonpartisanship. As far back as the Progressive Era, organized labor had been drifting toward the Democratic party, partly because of the latter's greater programmatic appeal, perhaps even more because of its ethnocultural basis of support within an increasingly "new" immigrant working class. With the coming of Roosevelt's New Deal, this incipient alliance solidified, and from 1936 onward the Democratic party could count on--and came to rely on--the campaigning resources of the labor movement. That this alliance partook of the nonpartisan logic of Gompers's authorship--too much was at stake for organized labor to waste its political capital on third parties--became clear in the unsettled period of the early cold war. Not only did the cio oppose the Progressive party of 1948, but it expelled the left-wing unions that broke ranks and supported Henry Wallace for the presidency that year.
The formation of the afl--cio in 1955 visibly testified to the powerful continuities persisting through the age of industrial unionism. Above all, the central purpose remained what it had always been--to advance the economic and job interests of the union membership. Collective bargaining performed impressively after World War II, more than tripling weekly earnings in manufacturing between 1945 and 1970, gaining for union workers an unprecedented measure of security against old age, illness, and unemployment, and, through contractual protections, greatly strengthening their right to fair treatment at the workplace. But if the benefits were greater and if they went to more people, the basic job-conscious thrust remained intact. Organized labor was still a sectional movement, covering at most only a third of America's wage earners and inaccessible to those cut off in the low-wage secondary labor market.
Nothing better captures the uneasy amalgam of old and new in the postwar labor movement than the treatment of minorities and women who flocked in, initially from the mass production industries, but after 1960 from the public and service sectors as well. Labor's historic commitment to racial and gender equality was thereby much strengthened, but not to the point of challenging the status quo within the labor movement itself. Thus the leadership structure remained largely closed to minorities--as did the skilled jobs that were historically the preserve of white male workers--notoriously so in the construction trades but in the industrial unions as well. Yet the afl--cio played a crucial role in the battle for civil rights legislation in 1964-1965. That this legislation might be directed against discriminatory trade union practices was anticipated (and quietly welcomed) by the more progressive labor leaders. But more significant was the meaning they found in championing this kind of reform: the chance to act on the broad ideals of the labor movement. And, so motivated, they deployed labor's power with great effect in the achievement of John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's domestic programs during the 1960s.
This was ultimately economic, not political power, however, and as organized labor's grip on the industrial sector began to weaken, so did its political capability. From the early 1970s onward, new competitive forces swept through the heavily unionized industries, set off by deregulation in communications and transportation, by industrial restructuring, and by an unprecedented onslaught of foreign goods. As oligopolistic and regulated market structures broke down, nonunion competition spurted, concession bargaining became widespread, and plant closings decimated union memberships. The once-celebrated National Labor Relations Act increasingly hamstrung the labor movement; an all-out reform campaign to get the law amended failed in 1978. And with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, there came to power an anti-union administration the likes of which had not been seen since the Harding era. Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. In manufacturing, the unionized portion of the labor force dropped below 25 percent, while mining and construction, once labor's flagship industries, were decimated. Only in the public sector did the unions hold their own. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized, half the proportion of the early 1950s.
Swift to change the labor movement has never been. But if the new high-tech and service sectors seemed beyond its reach in 1989, so did the mass production industries in 1929. And, as compared to the old afl, organized labor is today much more diverse and broadly based: 40 percent of its members are white-collar workers, 30 percent are women, and the 14.5 percent who are black signify a greater representation than in the general population and a greater rate of participation than by white workers (22.6 percent compared to 16.3 percent). In the meantime, however, the movement's impotence has been felt. "The collapse of labor's legislative power facilitated the adoption of a set of economic policies highly beneficial to the corporate sector and to the affluent," wrote analyst Thomas B. Edsall in 1984. And, with collective bargaining in retreat, declining living standards of American wage-earning families set in for the first time since the Great Depression. The union movement became in the 1980s a diminished economic and political force, and, in the Age of Reagan, this made for a less socially just nation.
Foster R. Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor in America: A History, 4th ed. (1984); Robert H. Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 1920-1985 (1986).
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