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16. What’s What in the Labor Movement: A Dictionary of Labor Affairs and Labor Terminology (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1921), 395; Daniel DeLeon, “What Means This Strike?” (New York: People’s Library, 1899), 21.

17. Greene, Pure and Simple Politics, 2 – 3. 18. The growing use of the term “business unionism” can be traced with Google’s advanced search

function. Bruce Laurie’s choice of “prudential unionism” for the AFL in Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth- Century America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 176 – 210, is an exception to the wide- spread reliance on “business unionism.”

19. Robert F. Hoxie, “Trade Unionism in the United States,” Journal of Political Economy 22 (March 1914): 212 – 17. See also Robert F. Hoxie, Trade Unionism in the United States (New York: D. Appleton, 1919), a collection of his lectures and essays published after his death in 1916. For a careful discussion and use of the term “business unionism,” see Clayton Sinyai, Schools for Democracy: A Political History of the American Labor Movement (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 75 – 77.

20. Hoxie, “Trade Unionism in the United States,” 212 – 13; Hoxie, Trade Unionism in the United States, 103 – 4, 125 – 35, 186.

21. Hoxie, “Trade Unionism in the United States,” 213n1.

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dom” organization and declared its leaders “pure and simples,” and “ignorant, stu- pid, and corrupt labor fakirs.” 16 Among present- day scholars, “pure and simple,” as Julie Greene observes, is somewhat ambiguous and used with less and less precision.17 Still, traces of DeLeon’s condemnation of the AFL as a narrow conservative move- ment remain embedded in the phrase. It is time to think again about the inherent conservatism of pure and simple trade unionism and whether the AFL was the nar- row, conservative organization its adversaries claimed.

“Business unionism,” another inherited and largely pejorative label for the AFL, has eclipsed “pure and simple” in its frequency of use.18 “Business unionism” was one of four “functional types” of unionism — “business,” “uplift,” “revolutionary,” and “predatory” — first posited by University of Chicago economist Robert Hoxie in the years before World War I.19 Unlike “uplift unionism,” which, Hoxie wrote, “at times even claims to think and act in the interest of society as a whole,” business unionism “expresses the viewpoint and interests of workers in a craft or industry rather than those of the working- class as a whole.” It “aims chiefly at the here and now . . . regardless of the welfare of workers outside the particular group.” In Hox- ie’s opinion, business unionism was “best represented in the programs of the railroad brotherhoods.” For Hoxie, the AFL did not fit easily into the narrow self- interested business unionist box.20 Moreover, Hoxie included in his published writings a warn- ing from a “friendly critic” against using the single construct of “business unionism” to characterize organized labor in the United States. “Business and uplift unionism are not in reality distinct and independent types,” the critic observed, and in the real world most so- called “business unions” include aspects of “uplift unionism,” with its idealistic aims and mutualist ethos.21

Nevertheless, scholars today increasingly use the single label “business union- ism” to characterize the AFL and to distinguish its brand of unionism from idealis- tic social reform unionisms. “Business unionism” most commonly denotes the AFL’s acceptance of “capitalist economic relations and the prevailing social and political


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22. Quote from Lichtenstein, Strasser, and Rosenzweig, Who Built America, 107 – 8. See also, among others, Laslett, “Samuel Gompers and the Rise of American Business Unionism,” 62 – 88; Victoria Hattam, Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Prince- ton University Press, 1993).

23. Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (New York: Verso, 1997), xiv – xv; Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor (New York: Monthly Labor Review Press, 1999), 11, 17.

24. As Kim Voss asserts in The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 235: “After the Knights of Labor disintegrated, the American labor movement once again became the domain of a small group of skilled workers, organized primarily along craft lines. . . . Consequently the failure of the Knights marks the moment when, from a comparative perspective, the American labor movement began to look exceptional.” For the incorporation of the prevailing notion of the AFL as a body of conservative skilled craftsmen into general histories of the Progressive Era, see Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 32, 129 – 31.


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order,” its disengagement with broad social reform that would benefit all citizens, its willingness to cooperate with business, and its adoption of businesslike or professional practices such as high dues, benefit systems, and centralized control.22 But some go fur- ther, depicting the AFL’s “business unionism” as an antisocial enterprise run largely to enrich union bosses at the expense of the members and the rest of the working class.23

In this essay I call into question the reigning view of Progressive Era AFL pure and simple unionism as a conservative or narrow “business unionism” support- ive of the prevailing social, political, and economic order. I begin by first considering whether the Progressive Era AFL is best understood as an organization of “skilled,” “craft” unionists. These two terms, widely associated with the AFL, need attention because they are used not only to characterize the membership and structure of the AFL but also to imply its conservatism.24 These labels, I argue, fail to capture the het- erogeneity of the membership and structure of the Progressive Era AFL and when used as part of dichotomous binaries — “skilled” versus “unskilled” and “craft” versus “industrial” — set up false distinctions between the AFL and other labor organiza- tions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In the second half of the essay I turn to a reassessment of the so- called “con- servative” social philosophy and program of the national AFL, drawing largely on the writings and speeches of Gompers as the principal spokesperson for the domi- nant outlook of the AFL. It is the Progressive Era AFL’s social reform program that I claim best reveals the radical side of pure and simple trade unionism. My definition of radical is broad and follows that of the Oxford English Dictionary: “touching or act- ing upon what is essential or fundamental.” Core tenets of the AFL’s social reform program, I contend, were a radical challenge to laissez- faire capitalism and to the Pro- gressive Era class structures and ideologies that upheld it.

The Progressive Era AFL’s Shifting Membership Labor scholars often rely on a dichotomous frame of “skilled” versus “unskilled” to categorize Progressive Era labor organizations, contrasting the “skilled” craftsmen


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25. I put the terms skilled and unskilled in quotes to indicate the problematic nature of the labels. On “skill” as a socially constructed category, see Anne Phillips and Barbara Taylor, “Sex and Skill: Notes toward a Feminist Economics,” Feminist Review 6 (1980): 79 – 88; Ava Baron, “Technology and the Crisis of Masculinity: The Gendering of Work and Skill in the US Printing Industry, 1850 – 1920,” in Skill and Con- sent: Contemporary Studies in the Labour Process, ed. Andrew Sturdy, David Knights, and Hugh Willmott (New York: Routledge, 1992), 67 – 96. On the “skill” involved in so- called “unskilled” work, see Dorothy Sue Cobble, Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illi- nois Press, 1991), 51– 58; Mike Rose, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (New York: Penguin, 2005).

26. For the list of affiliates and their memberships in 1899, 1904, 1914, and 1920, see Lewis L. Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor: History, Politics, and Prospects (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1933), 476 – 84.

27. On the carpenters, see Richard Schneirov and Tom Suhrbur, United Brotherhood, Union Town: The History of the Carpenters Union of Chicago, 1863 – 1987 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 6 – 7, 9 – 11, 25 – 28; Christopher Tomlins, “AFL Unions in the 1930s: Their Performance in Historical Perspective,” Journal of American History 65 (1979): 1021– 42. For the 1910 membership, see Gary M. Fink, Labor Unions: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977), 51.

28. Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor, 484.

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of the AFL with the “unskilled” membership of the IWW.25 A cursory look at the actual job titles and membership figures of AFL affiliate internationals from 1899 to 1920, however, raises doubt about whether the Progressive Era AFL was an organi- zation limited to the “skilled.” 26 Numerous artisanal craft unions such as broom and whisk makers and wood carvers are listed as AFL affiliates, particularly in the ear- liest years. But these organizations were small and declining in membership. They were outnumbered, and strikingly so after the turn of the century, by the new and rapidly growing unions of street railway employees, longshoremen, seamen, and teamsters. All of these trades, rightly or wrongly, were perceived as “unskilled” or “semi- skilled.” The “elite” of the building trades — bricklayers, plumbers, and electri- cians — are listed as well; but so too are the hod carriers or “common laborers’ union,” a union self- described as wholly composed of the “unskilled,” with tens of thousands of members by 1914, along with others outside the “elite,” such as the painters and the carpenters. The carpenters, for example, the largest of the building trades unions, with a membership of 232,000 by 1910, took in entry- level mill and other manufactur- ing woodworkers as well as a growing number of construction workers whose jobs by the early twentieth century consisted largely of repetitive piecework and heavy labor.27

The upsurge of “unskilled” or “semi- skilled” workers in the AFL between 1897 and 1904, as the AFL’s membership jumped from 264 thousand to 1.6 million, caught the attention of contemporary commentator William English Walling, a social reformer and socialist who helped launch the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.28 In 1904, Walling noted the changes in the skill mix and structure of the turn- of- the- century AFL and proclaimed the birth of a “new unionism” in the United States. Walling contrasted the British trades unions, primarily composed of skilled workers, with America’s AFL unions, a group he judged as moving decidedly toward a mixed- skill member-


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29. William English Walling, “The New Unionism — The Problem of the Unskilled Worker,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 24 (1904): 12 – 31; William English Walling, “British and American Trade Unionism,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 26 (1905): 109 – 27. For more on Walling, see Leon Fink, Progressive Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Democratic Com- mitment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), chapters 4, 5; Richard Schneirov, “The Odyssey of William English Walling: Revisionism, Social Democracy, and Evolutionary Pragmatism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2 (2003): 403 – 30; and Schneirov, introduction to William English Walling, American Labor and American Democracy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2005), xi – xlvii.

30. Walling, “The New Unionism,” 22 – 25; Walling, “British and American Trade Unionism,” 115 – 118; Theodore W. Glocker, “Amalgamation of Related Trades in American Unions,” American Economic Review 5 (1915): 555.

31. Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor, 484. 32. Glocker, “Amalgamation of Related Trades,” 554 – 75; Lorwin, The American Federation of Labor,

70 – 71.


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