Why doesn’t America have a labour party, unlike almost every other advanced Western democracy? Henry Brandon of the Sunday Times once put the question to the legendary Walter Reuther (1907-1970), long-term president of the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), which itself has for its true believers the character of a secular religion.
“What puzzles Europeans most about the American trade union movement is that it has not tried to create its own political party to advance labour’s own interests,” said the interviewer for the London-based paper.
The lack of a labour party, and indeed the failure of a socialist tradition to take firm roots in American soil, can be attributed to a number of factors, not least of which is the nature of American unionism itself. After all, those with a background in unionism need little prompting to recall that the Australian Labor Party is the political wing of the industrial movement.
although the formal linkage of unionism and politics has grown more tenuous with time and the New Class activists who dominate the Labor agenda seem more concerned with same-sex marriage than with the concerns of the average working family, it’s not long since industrial issues were the bread and butter of Labor politicians. So, it is worth looking at the nature of American unionism in the first instance.
The giant who dominated American unionism in its years of foundation and growth in the late 19th century until his death in 1924 was Samuel Gompers. Gompers was born in 1850 London to a Jewish family with its roots in the Netherlands. Like millions of others, it was poverty and the hope of a better life in the New World that drove the Gompers family to emigrate to the United States, where they joined other immigrants in the teeming tenements of New York’s Lower East Side.
Gompers was a skilled worker, a cigar-maker by trade, and it was the skilled workers that dominated the emerging American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers advocated “pure and simple unionism” that aimed only to increase wages, improve working conditions and stop the unfair treatment of workers. His brand of unionism sought immediate change through group actions such as strikes to force employers to negotiate. As for political action, Gompers distrusted legislation and sought to make alliances in pursuit of specific industrial aims, putting more faith in organisation and collective bargaining than in government action.
This, at least in part, was due to the structure of American unionism, which persists to this day. Gompers is said to have formed the first modern American union, a cigar-makers’ local union. The local union is the building block for American unionism. The local union is more or less a union in its own right, and hundreds of them make up the international unions. Thus, the UAW would have had a local union for a particular plant and a co-ordinating department for each automobile-maker.
UAW locals might not even be concerned with making cars; they could be in any number of industries, some with little or no relation to car-making. The UAW is the international union; however, most of the action takes place at the local union level.
In Gompers’ day, many strikes were concerned with gaining union coverage in skilled trades. The union movement existed to enrich skilled workers. It was not until the mineworkers’ John L. Lewis began to advocate the organisation of industrial workers, many unskilled and semiskilled, in the new Fordist 20th-century industrial enterprises, that the labour movement began to broaden its reach. Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), of which Reuther’s UAW was a core member, did not unite with the AFL to form the union umbrella group the AFL-CIO until the 1950s.
One of the greatest struggles the union movement faced was turning union members into union activists. For the UAW, it was a battle waged on the factory floor for generations. And if anyone could have formed an American Labor Party it was Walter Reuther. Until 1968, every Democratic presidential candidate kicked off his campaign with a Labor Day rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square. Reuther had the chance to swing his weight behind the third party leftist candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, but ended up backing Harry Truman, dismissing Wallace as a dupe of Communists and foregoing the chance to form a labour party.
“Gomperism” prevailed. Reuther was an unusually internationally-minded man for a US unionist, but the labour movement – and the UAW-stayed in the Democratic fold, mixing it in the engine-room of politics.
American organised labour-in-politics was one of the founding pillars of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, along with the big cities, the blacks and the South.
Organised labour can put men and women on the streets and can swing elections. But ultimately it remains Gomperist, rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies.
Today, American industrial unionism is under threat from within and without, with a relative decline in power and membership despite signs of resurgence such as the two-million strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU). An American Labor Party looks further away than ever.