'universalism' (was Re: Asia and hormones)

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at igc.apc.org
Sun Jun 28 15:13:48 PDT 1998

At 03:42 PM 6/28/98 EDT, MScoleman at aol.com wrote: [SNIP]

The AFL was formed by white, male,
>skilled laborers who left the Knights because they were insulted at these
>privileges being extended to women and blacks. The Congress of Industrial
>Workers was formed in the early twentieth century to unionize those job
>categories looked down on by the AFL: auto and other atomated assembly
>maggie coleman mscoleman at aol.com


I'm not an historian (and I don't even play one on TV), but I think this is a rather incomplete and oversimplified explanation of why the AFL was founded. To be sure, racism, sexism, and jingoism were factors, but there were a number of other more compelling motivations. The skilled crafts recognized that they could wield market leverage that the KOL could and would not, since its preoccupation was not on negotiating the terms of labor but on broader social issues -- and the quest for an alternative to corporate capitalism. Powderly was opposed to strike action by workers. He advocated compulsory arbitration (yes, even back then). The crafts also resented the idea that the KOL admitted employers and other non-workers. The interests of shop keepers and farmers diverged from those of industrial workers. The interests of skilled crafts were defined by them as different from even the unskilled and semiskilled factory hands, as well as the non-worker elements. The KOL tended to disregard craft lines, while skilled workers were determined to preserve their craft distinctions and traditions. But maybe the most important factor was that the KOL was getting the shit kicked out of it as a consequence of the depression of 1884, which shifted the ground on which these battles were fought out. Wage cuts were widespread. In response, strikes broke out, including one against the RR run by Jay Gould. The KOL saw strikes as disruptive to its long-term social vision of the cooperative society, while craft workers recognized that their only effective defense was to wield their leverage through job actions. KOL challenged the precepts of corporate capitalism, while the pragmatic crafts workers were perfectly content to operate within the framework of a capitalist system as an accepted fact of life.

The crafts organized the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881. In 1884, its convention adopted a resolution for the 8-hour day, setting May 1, 1886 as a deadline, which led to Haymarket. Powderly refused to join in appeals for the lives of the Haymarket matryrs, not wanting the KOL to be tainted by implication with violence and anarchy. The AFL, founded in December of 1886, came out of these circumstances, setting May 1, 1890 as a date for the next round of 8-hour battles. Against the KOL's all-inclusive, centralized structure, the AFL was set up as a decentralized federation of autonomous craft unions, each with clearly delineated jurisdictions and control over their internal affairs, standards of apprenticeship and journeyman status, terms of admission, and bargaining strategies. It eschewed any and all permanent political alliances and long-range reformist programs. It focused on immediate working conditions and wage standards, adopting pragmatism in its political relationships based on "rewarding friends and punishing enemies." (This brief account, truncated here, is provided by Lee Balliet in his Survey of Labor Relations (BNA1881), but there are many other extensive treatments of the KOL, its demise, and rise of the AFL.)

In solidarity, Michael E.

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