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


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By Ron Kaminski

Part one of this article, published in our September 2012 issue, discussed the history of organized labor and the Democratic Party.

The American Federation of Labor and Electoral Politics

Samuel Gompers was the first elected president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was not a social reformer. He believed in limiting the goals of organized labor to helping workers get their fair share of the profits their work created. He much preferred lobbying both major political parties for favorable legislation than actively supporting candidates for office. Gompers was against the AFL endorsing any political party because he didn’t want the labor movement to be beholden to that outside influence.

Gompers had other reasons for steering the AFL clear of political parties. An earlier national association of labor unions, the National Labor Union (1866–1872), had believed so strongly in the importance of political power that, at its 1872 convention, it turned itself into the National Labor Reform Party. After its presidential nominee refused to run for the office, the organization quickly died.

Over time, however, the AFL leadership saw the ties between the Republican Party and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) were growing stronger. Organized in 1895, the NAM was vehemently antiunion. Its goal was to actively promote the right of employers to make all decisions about what happens in the workplace. It lobbied actively to oppose legislation establishing employee rights and safeguards. It argued that any business legislation that limited the management’s prerogative to maximize profits was un-American. The NAM even went so far as to hire detectives to spy on labor leaders, including Gompers, to find damaging information that could be used publicly to discredit them. With the help of the NAM and similar associations, antiunion messages were being preached from the pulpit, taught in schools and published in our nation’s newspapers.

Perhaps in response to the NAM’s attacks on labor, Samuel Gompers gave this classic explanation of why organized labor exists. Gompers put it this way: “What do we want? More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning, less crime; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” While his words painted a better and more hopeful future for the nation, the antiunion press reduced Gompers’ statement to one word: “more.” This ugly union stereotype has been repeated over and over, and variations are still with us in 2012.

The AFL was in its 20s when it first put together a nationwide coordinated political effort. It wanted to encourage its affiliates to endorse and elect labor-friendly candidates. This was done using the motto that the AFL was going to “reward our friends and punish our enemies.”

The AFL Endorses a Presidential Candidate

It took another six years for the AFL executive board to finally come around to endorsing a political party’s presidential candidate. In 1912 President Woodrow Wilson actively sought and received the endorsement of the AFL. In this four-way race for president, Democrat Wilson faced former President Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose Party candidate; Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate; and Republican President William Howard Taft, who was running for reelection.

Wilson won with less than half the popular vote. However, he and the Democratic Party kept organized labor’s trust. During Wilson’s time in office, the Secretary of Labor’s office was added to the Presidential Cabinet. Congress passed the Federal Trade Commission Act establishing a bipartisan commission to prevent anticompetitive business practices. Congress enacted the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which updated the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Samuel Gompers, at the time, hailed the Clayton Act as labor’s Magna Carta. Only later through court cases did it become clear that it was considerably less helpful than first hoped. Congress similarly ratified the Seaman’s Act, which recognized the right of the merchant marine to organize unions. The Seamen’s Act also established the nine-hour day and set minimal standards for safety and cleanliness. Congress also approved the Adamson Act, which created the long-hoped-for eight-hour day and overtime for interstate railroad workers.

Since 1912, with the exceptions of the 1924 and 1972, the AFL and later the AFL-CIO has consistently endorsed, with varying levels of success, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Organized labor did not, however, do the same for Democratic Party candidates in the Senate, House or local offices. The majority of the time, Democrats received labor’s support because Democrats are generally supporters of meaningful workplace democracy.

Organized labor has historically viewed Democrats as favoring an economic policy that benefits wage earners. The ties between the two entities were strongest during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. The New Deal programs passed by that Democratically controlled Congress and signed into law embodied the idea that government works to protect and empower all its citizens equally.

In their attempt to pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression, Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that wage earners were the job creators. Without a steady demand for goods and services, employers would not put people back to work. President Roosevelt put it this way: “It is to the real advantage of every producer, every manufacturer, and every merchant to cooperate in the improvement of working conditions because the best customer of American Industry is the well-paid worker.” Fairness was a common theme in New Deal legislation. Child labor was finally regulated, the eight-hour day created and a social safety net featuring Social Security was established during the Roosevelt Administration.

Perhaps for private sector unions the most notable piece of legislation was the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA ended the idea that unions were conspiracies. It established as government-protected rights the creation of unions and the process of collective bargaining.

During the New Deal, government became the employer of last resort. It borrowed money to put people back to work in order to prime the economic pump of recovery. The Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration employed the unemployed and put them to work building parts of the nation’s infrastructure. On the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s campus, the College of Liberal Arts building is the direct result of this Great Depression-era legislation.

We All Do Better When We All Do Better

There was a 25-year period following the end of World War II when the nation’s wealth was broadly shared and the American Dream became reachable for a greater number of families than at any time in our nation’s history. That period of opportunity was both the result of high levels of union density (the spill-over and trickle-up effect that union contracts had on nonrepresented employees) and the impact of worker-friendly legislation like the Equal Pay, Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

There are more union-supported Democratic president’s and pro-wage earner legislation than there is space to list. Each and every law established the broadening of employee rights and protections in the workplace and community. None of them were voluntarily supported by supporters of maximizing stockholder value. In fact, large employers, their associations and their allies in elected office actively resisted these laws.

The United States is a great nation because its government is based on the Jeffersonian idea of equality. Our greatness depends upon our individual and collective responsibility to take care of ourselves and each other. This idea is as old as the nation. After all, only when the 13 colonies united did we have the strength to break free of England to create a more fair, just and safer nation.

Historically the modern Democratic Party and the American labor movement stand ready to support legislation that levels the playing field so that every American has a fair shot at living a long and meaningful life. Both organizations believe that America works best when our economy helps support responsible, hard-working and disciplined wage earners with good-paying, safe jobs that reduce the fear of not being able to provide for our families.

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