The New International Encyclopædia/Labor Organizations

Edition of 1905. See also the disclaimer.

2116433The New International Encyclopædia — Labor Organizations

LABOR ORGANIZATIONS. Under this head are included those more or less prolonged associations of productive workers, whose principal purpose is the improvement of the conditions of employment. The labor organization is thus differentiated on the one hand from the strike—a temporary association—and on the other hand, from friendly societies and socialist organizations, which, though frequently recruited exclusively from the ranks of labor, are chiefly devoted to other ends than the improvement of the conditions of employment. Among labor organizations two distinct classes are discernible—those organized on the trade or occupational principle and those which transcend occupational bounds and attempt to amalgamate in a single, homogeneous organization, all classes of labor. The former—the trade union—is treated in detail in the article on Trade Unions, where a further discussion of the relation of the trade union to the general labor organization is given. The latter class alone is considered in the present article, and for brevity the term labor organization will be restricted to this group, the non-trade organizations.

In England the first great wave of labor organization came about 1830. The repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 had been followed by an unprecedented activity among trade unions, which resulted in an outburst of strikes that were as generally unsuccessful as they were violent and costly. The conviction became general among wage-earners that the old trade union was too exclusive in membership and too conservative in policy; and this conviction was increased by the socialistic agitation of Robert Owen, William Thompson, and others. In 1829 a Grand General Union of the United Kingdom was established among the textile workers. In 1830 some twenty organized trades united in the formation of the National Association for the Protection of Labor. In January, 1834, came Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

The character of this organization was strikingly similar to that of the Knights of Labor. Both began as secret organizations with elaborate ritual and fantastic ceremonies, and both abandoned at a subsequent period the policy of extreme secrecy. Both admitted trade unions as a unit, but both placed the greater emphasis upon amalgamation, and established local unions of mixed membership, known in the Grand National Consolidated as 'miscellaneous lodges.' Both laid special emphasis upon the organization of women and unskilled laborers, both looked forward to the supersession of the wage system by some scheme of coöperative production, and both conducted disastrous experiments in coöperation. Finally, both grew with unhealthful rapidity; "within a few weeks the union appears to have been joined by at least half a million members."

The Grand National had contemplated a universal strike as the first step toward general coöperation, but the strikes which it inaugurated proved unsuccessful, and in August, 1834, it was transformed into the British and Foreign Consolidated Association for Industry, Humanity, and Knowledge. This in turn spent its strength in coöperative experiments, and from that time until the appearance of the new unionism, English labor organizations were chifly, though not exclusively, characterized by the attempt to foster coöperative production.

With the reawakening of English socialism in the early eighties came another determined assault upon the conservative methods of the old trade unions. The feeling became prevalent among those trade unionists who were also socialists that the progress of the masses was actually hindered by the aristocratic exclusiveness of the skilled trades, whose unions were inclined to build up extensive systems of insurance benefits and avoid politics, particularly socialism. Among labor leaders the struggle centred largely about the control of the Trade Union Congress; in the world at large, the efforts of the new unionists were characterized by the attempt to organize the unskilled workers of the cities, with the ultimate object of forming a large party in favor of municipal ownership, and later of introducing municipal socialism. In London the efforts of the new leaders—John Burns, Tom Mann, Benjamin Tillet, and others—were crowned with unexpected success. In 1888 the match girls organized and won a strike. In 1889 the gas-stokers were organized into the Gasworkers' and General Laborers' Union, and succeeded in winning an eight-hour day with a slight increase of wages. In 1889 came the famous strike of the London dock laborers, which, under the able leadership of John Burns, and with the generous support of the public, resulted in an epoch-making victory. The result of these successes was the complete victory of the new unionists in the Trade Union Congress, and a large crop of organizations among the unskilled workers, all of which are marked by the common characteristics of low dues, few or no insurance benefits, aggressive trade policy, political activity, and a strong leaning toward socialism.

In the United States, as in England, labor organizations first appeared in considerable numbers about 1830. The earliest manifestations of the new movement were political. In 1829 a workingman's ticket was placed in nomination in New York, and one delegate to the State Assembly was elected. This political movement spread into Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and contributed to the formation of the Loco Foco Party (q.v.), which played an important part in the political movement of that period. Political organization hastened organization for trade purposes, and about 1833 we hear of numerous municipal federations of trade unions, one of which, the General Trades Union of the City of New York, succeeded in having its president elected to Congress. In 1832 the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Workingmen was organized at Boston, a typical labor organization of the period, which seems to have devoted itself to debate and educational work.

The three most important labor organizations which appeared before the Civil War were all organized in 1845: the New England Workingmen's Association in March, the New England Protective Union in September, and the Industrial Congress of the United States in October. The first two were closely identified, the Protective Union being largely devoted to coöperation. All three exhibited the familiar characteristics of the early labor organization. Unskilled laborers, women, farmers, and even other employers were admitted. The most diverse reforms were championed: abolition of slavery, women's rights, land nationalization, the withholding of supplies from the American army in Mexico. The socialistic character of the movement is shown by the fact that George Ripley and Charles A. Dana were prominent among the founders of the New England Workingmen's Association, while the initial meeting of the association was addressed by Robert Owen and Albert Brisbane, 'the father of American Socialism.'

All three of these associations became moribund in the early fifties, and from that time until the end of the Civil War the most striking phenomenon is the multiplication of trade unions of the narrower kind. But during this period, also, there were not lacking men, even among the prominent trade-union leaders, who characterized the trade union as exclusive, and warmly advocated the formation of broader organizations which would elevate the masses by other means than the strike and the regulation of apprenticeship. In 1866 their efforts resulted in the formation of the National Labor Union, which, starting with a large membership and good prospects, wasted its strength on the attempt to found a Labor Reform Party, and died in 1870 'of the disease known as politics.' A slight connection may be traced between the National Labor Union and the International Workingmen's Association, which was founded in London in 1864, and moved its headquarters to New York in 1872, soon after which it disappeared. The International, however, came under the domination of Karl Marx, and was rather a socialistic party than a labor organization.

The work laid down by the National Labor Union fell into the hands of a remarkable labor organization, the 'Noble Order of the Knights of Labor.' (See Knights of Labor.) Although it began as a local union of garment workers, and in the course of its existence chartered many national unions, it contemplated from the very beginning something essentially hostile to the exclusive trade union. Following out this policy, no effort is made to restrict the membership to wage-earners, a universal practice among trade unions, but in general persons over sixteen years of age are eligible to membership. In their district assemblies, and even in the local assemblies, the members of different trades are amalgamated without respect to occupational limits. Finally, the government of the Knights is far more centralized than any federation of trade unions; the general executive board, to take a single illustration, may suspend any local or district officer, expel any member, revoke any charter, and by a unanimous vote may settle any strike. In other words, the Knights of Labor is a centralized national union of mixed trades, and not a federation.

The latest phase in the development of labor organizations is represented by the American Labor Union, possibly the most important labor organization of the present. See Labor Union, American.

Historically considered, the labor organization is distinguished from the trade union by an absence of exclusiveness, by the effort to secure the benefits of organization for the unskilled workers, by a more emphatic note of altruism, by a decided preference for coöperation, for legislative and political action over strikes and boycotts, and, it must be admitted, by a general tendency to take short cuts to universal reform. On the whole, the labor organization has been far less productive of tangible results than the trade union. But its work has not been in vain. The trade union of to-day is far less exclusive, far less monopolistic than it was before the appearance of the Knights of Labor and the new unions of England. Most important of all, the trade union now realizes the truth of that fundamental thesis of the Knights of Labor—that machinery is fast obliterating the line between the skilled and unskilled trades—and devotes a large share of its strength and funds to the organization of the lower classes of labor. This is the primary object of the American Federation of Labor. See Labor, American Federation of.

Fur an account of a momentous struggle, which bears much resemblance to the contrast between the labor organization and the trade union, see Problems of Organization under Trade Unions, where a general bibliography is also given. See, also, Socialist Parties under Socialism.