Difficult Choices in The 1890s
In 1892, four dramatic labor struggles put organized labor at a crossroads. The Homestead Strike introduced to the public the significant use of a private army of Pinkertons, and when that failed, more than eight thousand state troops were mobilized to suppress the strike. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers at Homestead had been,
...a militant, mass-oriented union. A strong thread of class consciousness ran through its policy statements... It was the largest and strongest union in the country in 1892, with over 24,000 members when the great strike at Homestead began.
Yet the organization was crushed, and "six months later the workers were back at work without a union organization." Historian J. Bernard Hogg, who wrote a dissertation on the Homestead Strike, footnotes that struggle by observing,
The survival of the struggling American Federation of Labor during this period is in part attributable to the caution of its leaders. They made no effort to aid the Homesteaders. Gompers made some fiery speeches but confined himself to that. He knew a lost cause when he saw one and gave up an important branch of the federation rather than risk the whole organization. In this policy he was undoubtedly wise.
Three more defeats caught the attention of the labor movement. An 1892 uprising of hardrock miners in Idaho was brutally put down with federal forces. A strike conducted by railroad switchmen in Buffalo was broken by militia. And, a series of strikes by coal miners in Tracy City, Tennessee, intended to end the use of convict labor in the mines, were also put down by militia. The defeats were shocking to organized labor, and revealed,
...that the corporations... were much more powerful fighting units than was generally realized, capable of defeating the strongest labor organization, and that capital had secured a firm grip on state and local governments and would use the state's power to protect its interests.
The methods employed to attack unions were improving with each use:
...the mass media to arouse public opinion, the courts to provide a legal basis for the use of force, strikebreakers to keep operations going and for use as private armies, and jail for the leaders of the workers. All of this was done under the protective umbrella of an appeal to law and order, the sanctity of private property and the United States constitution, and "Americanism."
Labor historian Joseph Rayback observed that for labor to maintain or advance,
Two roads were open: conversion of the A.F.L. into a political movement or the development of industrial unionism.
Many in the AFL favored political action, but Gompers was fearful that passing a program put forward by socialist trade unionists would grant socialists control of the federation. Content to work within capitalism, Gompers opposed grand programs of reform, whether they were based upon political or economic action. He managed, using "some tricky parliamentary procedure," to defeat a proposed turn toward a political program.
Gompers also wasn't about to give up craft unionism for industrial organizing. Yet the AFL didn't control all of organized labor, and organizing industrially had great appeal when unions were under attack.
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