A Socialist Labor Party Statement—


What Has It Done for America’s Workers?

The AFL-CIO has proclaimed 1981 the “Centennial of American Labor.” The proclamation is premised on the fact that the AFL’s organizational forerunner, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), was founded November 15, 1881. That group was incorporated into the American Federation of Labor at its founding on December 10, 1886.

The AFL-CIO’s centennial focuses attention on its claim to represent the interests of American workers. However, even a brief survey of the AFL’s history reveals that from the start it was built on the false premise of the brotherhood of capital and labor. Rather than uniting workers, it has divided them. Rather than serve as an instrument to advance workers’ interests in the class struggle, it has opposed all currents of radicalism, militancy and revolutionary socialism within the labor movement.

Ironically, the original AFL constitution paid lip service to the class struggle. It stated, “A struggle is going on in all nations of the civilized world, a struggle between the capitalist and laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to the toiling millions if they are not combined for mutual protection.”

Post-Civil War Class Struggle

This verbal recognition of the class struggle reflected the bitterness of that struggle during the post-Civil War period. The country was beset by massive unemployment that was periodically intensified by a series of capitalist economic crises. Working hours were long, working conditions brutal and exploitation ruthless.

Workers responded to these conditions by forming more than a dozen major national labor organizations and many smaller organizations. Between 1873 and 1880, the country was engulfed in a wave of strikes, which were frequently suppressed by armed troops.

One of the most important of the labor unions was the Knights of Labor. After a period of slow growth following its formation in 1869 in Philadelphia as a secret organization, the Knights of Labor was reorganized as a national organization in 1878. In the New York Labor News publication American Industrial Evolution, Justus Ebert wrote, “The Knights of Labor sought to unite every branch of skilled and unskilled labor...The Knights of Labor motto was ‘an injury to one is the concern of all’; its method the sympathetic strike and boycott by all for one and one for all.”

Although the Knights nominally professed a belief in arbitration, between 1878 and 1884 the organization conducted a large number of strikes, winning the hostility of capitalists from whom they often succeeded in wresting concessions. By 1884 the capitalists organized their own associations with the intent of destroying the Knights. As a result of the intensifying class struggle, nearly 100,000 Knights were involved in strikes and lockouts in the last few months of 1886 alone.

AFL Steps Backwards

The AFL was formed in opposition to the Knights of Labor. Samuel Gompers, who became the AFL’s perennial president, and other leaders of trades unions composed of skilled workers saw the Knights as an obstacle to their goal of organizing a federation of skilled trades unions. The FOTLU alternately waged war and conducted negotiations with the Knights. But in 1886, after the Knights refused to capitulate to Gompers’ terms, the AFL was formed from dissident craft unions nestled within the Knights and the FOTLU.

According to the AFL-CIO, that “action was a giant step forward toward the development of a modern trade union movement in America.” (American Federationist, March 1981.) In fact, the formation of the AFL was a step backward for the class interests of American workers.

The AFL founders, for example, proclaimed in no uncertain terms, “The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women’s and children’s labor and the lack of an apprentice system—so that the skilled trades are rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor. To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trade unions of America have been established.”

That declaration wrote off the majority of the American working class. As one modem labor historian noted, “By 1886 it was estimated that 65 to 75 percent of the labor population belonged to…[the semiskilled and unskilled] groups.”

Solidarity Undermined

The AFL’s emphasis on organizing only skilled workers had disastrous consequences for the working-class solidarity, which the Knights had sought to build. According to Ebert, “The American Federation of Labor runs counter to industrial and trade union evolution, as embodied in the trust and the Knights of Labor, by laying stress on one of the technical phases of industry, to wit, the specialization of labor. This gives rise to the principle of trade autonomy. The result is to split labor organization for protective purposes into distinct crafts, in which the minor crafts are dominated by and sacrificed to the interests of the strategic crafts whose members combine to corner jobs. This produces mutual scabbing and jurisdictional squabbles, both of which redound to the employers’ benefit.”

The new AFL intensified its warfare with the Knights of Labor. This internecine struggle was marked by raids of members and mutual scabbing. As the Knights were waning, Gompers remarked that the Knights “are just as great enemies of the trade unions as any employer can be, only more vindictive.”

Another pillar of the AFL was class collaboration and deep-seated hostility to any sort of classconsciousness in the labor movement. This attitude is reflected in Gompers’ autobiography in which he groups together such organizations as the American Railway Union, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA), the Western Federation of Miners, the American Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in a chapter entitled “Efforts to Disrupt the Federation.”

Gompers Rails at Socialists

Despite the important role played by the SLP and other Socialists in building the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gompers claimed, “The Socialists...rigorously opposed any organization or any movement to secure betterment under the existing industrial order.” This is amply refuted by the notable efforts of Daniel De Leon, the SLP and other Socialists to build organizations such as the ST&LA and the IWW. Socialists in the labor movement were well aware of the need to build economic organizations to better wage workers’ daily struggles against capitalism.

But, unlike Gompers and the AFL, the Socialists did not accept capitalism as the best of all possible systems. Their ultimate goal was to build organizations that, while waging immediate struggles for higher wages, shorter hours and improved working conditions, would not lose sight of its real objective to unite the workers in an organization capable of putting an end to the wages system and capitalist exploitation once and for all.

Quite naturally, the Socialists saw the AFL as a bulwark of capitalism. As De Leon wrote, “The organization of the Gompers style of unionism is builded on capitalist economics.” Moreover, De Leon noted, the AFL “neglects the drilling in classconsciousness, aye prevents it.”

Gompers and the AFL waged unceasing war against the ST&LA, the IWW and socialism in general. Every AFL convention was the occasion for Gompers to rail against Socialists and try to drive them out of the labor movement. One official AFL document of the period forthrightly states, “…The programme of the common ownership of all the means of production and distribution was declared alien to the trade union movement.” Another document declares, “The American Federation of Labor has demonstrated to the world that the spirit of the trade union movement is essentially conservative….”

According to Gompers, the ST&LA “was a movement that imperiled the American trade union….I did everything within my power to resist those efforts at disruption.” The IWW fared no better with Gompers. According to one modern historian, “…Gompers and his executive council warned all AFL affiliates…to refuse to cooperate with members of the new organization. AFL members were told not to support strikes; they were also absolved from the sin of crossing IWW picket lines.”

Class Collaboration Continues

In subsequent years, the AFL never deviated from the course of class collaboration. In 1925, for example, Roscoe Johnson, head of the Commercial Telegraphers Union, made the following declaration in his report to that union’s convention: “The goal of the SLP is the ‘Workers’ Industrial Republic,’ perhaps better understood as the ‘Socialist Cooperative Commonwealth,’ and the road to that objective remains securely blocked so long as the American Federation of Labor and its affiliates are maintained intact.”

When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, there were no references to the class struggle. This pleased the capitalist class, although there was never any doubt where the organization stood. Fortune magazine remarked, “These echoes of Marx’s Communist Manifesto are happily absent from the new AFL-CIO charter….”

To make sure no one missed the point, AFL-CIO President George Meany, in an address to the National Association of Manufacturers shortly after the merger, told the capitalists: “I never went on strike in my life, never ran a strike in my life, never ordered anyone else to run a strike in my life, never had anything to do with a picket line.”

Today, as the AFL-CIO pats itself on the back for 100 years of “struggle,” it reaffirms its historic commitment against working-class interests. The March issue of the AFL-CIO American Federationist noted, “Labor in America has correctly been described as a stabilizing force in the national economy and a bulwark of our democratic society.”

It doesn’t bother the AFL-CIO bosses that this “democratic society” is a capitalist society in which the national economy is owned lock, stock and barrel by a minority capitalist class that lives only by robbing American workers of the greater share of the social wealth produced by workers’ labor. Nor does it bother the AFL-CIO bosses that the same minority class exercises a monopoly over the state apparatus and uses the political power of the state in behalf of its class interests. Indeed, as the newest head of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland bluntly admits, the AFL-CIO unions have “committed themselves to work within the system….”


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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