A Brief History of Organized Labor and the Democratic Party, Part One


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By Ron Kaminski

This state and nation do best when there’s an opportunity for hard-working people, who play by the rules, to earn a decent standard of living. There was a brief period in our history following World War II and lasting through the mid-1970s where that was as true as it had ever been. Organized labor and the Democratic Party played an important part in making that happen. This is an attempt to explain how we got there.

Organized labor’s roots are as old as the nation. In that way, labor unions are as American as apple pie. The American labor movement made important contributions to expanding democracy, humanizing the employment relationship and improving our national standard of living.

The first unions existed exclusively in a few large port cities. Later, with the industrial expansion following the end of the Civil War, the number and size of unions slowly grew as wage earners became a larger part of the workforce. Today, roughly 90 percent of the workforce earns a living selling its intelligence, experience and strength to an employer for a wage.

American labor leaders and our nation’s Founding Fathers would probably argue that Abraham Lincoln got it right when he first observed, “There has never been but one question in all of civilization—how to keep the few men from saying to the many men, ‘You work and earn bread and we will eat it.’”

The power balance between England and her North American Colonies was unequal at its core. England’s landed aristocracy believed they had the unilateral right to dictate important economic and political policy on this side of the ocean. Here’s a titled aristocrat asking a question in 1774 before Parliament that goes to the core of the English/Colonial relationship: “For what purpose were they suffered to go to that country [the American colonies], unless the profit of their labour should return to their masters here?”

Similarly, under English law the employer/employee relationship was unequal at its core. The world’s industrial revolution began in England. English laws elevated the rights of those with property over those who had to sell their labor to earn a living. English business owners enjoyed the unilateral power to make any and all decisions about what happened in the workplace. In English common law when wage earners united to introduce limited democracy to the workplace, they were charged with forming illegal conspiracies!

Thirty years after the Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal,” English common law was used as the basis for an 1806 court ruling in Philadelphia. That common law court ruling and the state laws it inspired declared labor unions were illegal conspiracies on this side of the Atlantic as well.

The 1806 court decision was a victory of the “Haves” over the “Have Nots.” At this point in U.S. history, you had to be a white, property-owning male to vote in most local, state and federal elections. Naturally, the allegiance of elected and appointed government officials went to those who could vote over those without that right. While the amount of property required to vote varied, the reality was that many more business owners met the required property requirements than did their employees.

For wage earners, this early court decision and antiunion legislation that quickly followed underlined the importance of gaining the vote and actively engaging in political activity. Wage earners understood that anything negotiated in a labor agreement could be taken away with the stroke of a pen.

In the late 1820s wage earners first united to form local Workingmen’s Parties in Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. These political parties were radical for their time, and they advocated for “equality of citizenship.” Platform planks included ending the property requirement for voting, universal free public education, the 10-hour workday, mechanic’s liens on property for work performed and an end to debtor’s prison. While these third parties were short-lived, the appeal of their platform had a long-lasting populist appeal.

The American Federation of Labor

The 1880s and 1890s are sometimes referred to as the Golden Age. The American economy grew at a rapid rate, but the nation’s wealth was not broadly or fairly shared. This was the era of the Robber Barons. 1886 was an historic year. In that year Robber Baron Jay Gould famously bragged that he could openly defy labor unions and ignore a labor contract he’d signed because he had the money to “employ one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Gould’s boast is probably the boldest statement an owner ever made in labor/management relations.

That same year union representatives from across the country met in Columbus, Ohio, to form the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL is our nation’s oldest continuously functioning labor federation. It is the forerunner of today’s AFL-CIO. The 1886 AFL leaders advocated that unions were the primary tool wage earners should use to get their fair share of the wealth they helped create. Increasing union density, they felt, was critical to making this a fairer and more just nation.

One of the lesser-known events of 1886 was the Supreme Court ruling in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad. This was the ruling that made corporations human beings. The Supreme Court declared that corporations were persons and had due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment. This 1886 decision gave the rights of human beings to inanimate objects that could theoretically live forever!

Part two of this article, to be published in our October 2012 issue, discusses the American Federation of Labor and electoral politics and provides a summation of the benefits organized labor has provided to American society.


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