Sunday, October 20, 2013

The "Pure and Simple Unionsim" of the American Federation of Laboir

Samuel Gompers, ca. 1890

A)     Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Union (FOTLU) – founded in 1881 as an umbrella organization of craft unions, one of whose leaders was the young president of the Cigar Makers International Union, an Dutch-English immigrant Jew named Samuel Gompers (who transforms this organization into the American Federation of Labor—AFL—in 1886, because of his interpretation of events after Haymarket).

1)      Samuel Gompers--later in life, Gompers was once asked what it was he hoped to gain for workers. His answer was "more"--more money, better working conditions shorter hours. Gompers and his organization aimed to gain a bigger share of the pie through collective bargaining--that is to say, by signing contracts with businesses, and then ensuring that they lived up to those contracts. This approach came to be known and "bread and butter" unionism or "pure and simple unionism." Gompers and his followers made accommodations to work within the capitalist wage system, which is perhaps the most striking difference (of many) between the AFL and the Knights of Labor.

2)     The Eight-hour Day – FOTLU in its early years was but a pale shadow of the Knights of Labor, and by 1884 had become a stagnant organization of about 25,000 members. In late 1884, through 1885 and into 1886 the organization agitated for the establishment of the eight-hour workday (the current “norm” was at that time was ten hours, although many workers worked longer days at the command of manufacturers), after a resolution submitted by Carpenters' Union leader P.J. McGuire was passed. FOTLU proposed a general strike after May 1, 1886 if a law were not passed limiting workers to an 8 hour work day. Workers around the country were greatly enthused by this prospect--particularly a group of anarchists in Chicago.

(a)    May 1 – FOTLU called for a general strike of all workers who had not been granted an eight-hour workday on May 1 of 1886

(b)   200,000 workers heeded the call around the country, and went out on strike.

B)  Haymarket

1)    Strike at McCormick Reaper – workers had been on strike at McCormick for several weeks before May 1 in a wage dispute

a)      Police violence – on May 3, the McCormick strikers were joined by other workers from around the city, in a show of support. The Chicago police (not for the last time) reacted by firing on the crowd, killing four workers and wounding many more. In response, an anarchist group called for a mass meeting the next evening in a working-class neighborhood near the old Haymarket.

b)      International Working People’s Association – this was an organization of anarchist, mostly philosophical anarchist who used means of agitation to persuade workers to join their cause. Many had previously belonged to the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First International), but had been forced to leave due to doctrinal differences with the Marxists heavily represented in that organization.

c) Anarchists and the turn toward "propaganda of the deed"--by the early 1880s, some socialists, frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of social change, and fired by the idea that a single person could, even by the seemingly inconsequential act of resistance or assassination, spark the masses to revolution, some individuals began carrying out acts against buildings or people in power as a means of sparking the revolution.

d)      Events at Haymarket

(i)    Only 1,500 people show up in dismal weather, perhaps only 300 or so remain near the end of the meeting.

(ii)   Chicago police march in, read “crowd” the riot act, and order them to disperse.

(iii)    A bomb is thrown (probably by Louis Lingg); some in the crowd, which had been forced to the sidewalks with the arrival of the police, begin firing into the police as well, who return the fire.

d)      Reaction of ruling elite – the indiscriminate arrest of Germans (and German-Americans), labor union leaders, socialist, and anarchists.

e)      The trial – the Haymarket Eight were indicted for conspiracy (none for direct involvement in the battle). The trial lasted six weeks

(i)    Albert Parsons – charismatic speakers, Confederate veteran, married to Lucy

(ii)   August Spies – editor of the anarchist newspaper, who printed a circular announcing the meeting that encouraged workers to come armed

(iii)    Louis Lingg – the likely bomb-maker (and possibly the thrower), who hung himself (possibly so as not to implicate the others.

f)      The sentence – all eight were found guilty of conspiracy after a trial of six weeks, and sentenced to hang; four swiftly were (Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel. Three survivors were eventually pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld (also important during the Pullman strike) in 1893.

F)  American Federation of Labor – established in 1886, in the aftermath of the Haymarket Square incident; provided an outlet for craft unions to distance themselves from the radicals arrested because of Haymarket.

1.      Pure and Simple Unionism – emphasis upon so-called bread and butter issues—wages, working conditions.  Accepted the capitalist system (which other working class movements did not do, including the Knights of  Labor).

a.       Need to control hiring practices – to maintain enough control to maintain wages and working conditions, workers had to maintain solidarity (by refusing to work at job sites that used non-union labor), and control the number of people who gained access to the trade.
b.      The “Walking Boss” – craft unions developed system to police members and the companies that hired them—the business agent, or “walking boss.”  BA’s job was to make sure that all of the craft people employed within a certain craft were union members; this left BA’s susceptible to bribes and “sweetheart” deals with firms.

2.      Running a Labor Union like a business – AFL unions were often run on the business model, with up-to-date accounting practices, etc. AFL unions charged an initiation fee, and relatively high dues, in order to build-up funds that could be used for a strike fund, and to pay benefits to members in case of death or serious injury.

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