Labor Parties

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LABOR PARTIES. The world's first labor parties appeared in a number of American cities after 1828, usually on the initiative of newly founded city labor organizations. They supported a variety of causes important to working men but failed to develop into a national force and did not survive the depression that began in 1837. Since then the city labor party has been a recurring phenomenon. The movement in New York between 1886 and 1888, for instance, attracted national interest by supporting the candidacy of Henry George for mayor. Similar labor parties appeared at the same time in Chicago and other cities and occasionally grew to state level organizations. In 1900 organized labor in San Francisco promoted a Union Labor party.

The first labor organization of national scope, the National Labor Union, formed a short-lived political party between 1870 and 1872. As well as supporting labor demands such as the eight-hour day, its platform reflected the then-current greenback agitation, demonstrating the connection with farmers' movements that characterized most labor politics in the late nineteenth century. Thus, the Greenback Labor Party, founded nationally in 1878, received the support of the Knights of Labor, whose division into district and local assemblies was admirably suited to political activity. Terence V. Powderly, the best-known leader of the Knights, was elected mayor of Scranton, Pa., on a Greenback Labor ticket in 1878 and later helped found the Populist Party in 1889. By then, however, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had replaced the Knights as the chief national labor organization. The AFL convention of 1894 refused to support the labor-wing of the Populist Party, partly owing to the parliamentary tactics of its president, Samuel Gompers.

Meanwhile, some Socialist trade unionists, chiefly of German origin, had founded the Socialist Labor Party in 1877. Their party sometimes participated in the various movements already discussed, but Socialist doctrines often caused dissension, which contributed to the demise of "united labor" parties. After the foundation of the more moderate Socialist Party of America in 1901, its members within the AFL constantly argued for endorsement of the Socialist Party, but they never succeeded. Had the AFL followed the example of the British Trade Union Council in forming a labor party in 1906, as seemed a possibility after several adverse court decisions, many Socialists would probably have supported it.

After World War I, a labor party finally did emerge. Initiated by several state federations of labor and city centrals, the National Labor Party was formed in 1919, and it renewed the earlier policy of alliance with farmers' groups by organizing the Farmer-Labor Party the following year. The AFL remained aloof. Only in 1924 did it join a coalition of farmers, labor groups, and Socialists in support of Robert M. La Follette's presidential candidacy under the banner of the Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA). Disappointing hopes for a new national party, the CPPA disintegrated after the election. The Farmer-Labor Party survived in Minnesota, and small minorities of trade unionists continued to support the Socialist Party of America, the Socialist Labor Party, and the Communist Party (under different names). The American Labor Party (now the Liberal Party) was a means by which mainly old-guard Socialists of the garment trades could support Franklin D. Roosevelt and still retain a separate identity from the Democratic Party. In general, the state of the American Left since 1924 has made the traditional "nonpartisan" policy of the AFL seem all the sounder. Adopted in 1906, this policy has aimed at "rewarding friends and punishing enemies" irrespective of party. In practice it has usually involved close alliance with the Democratic party.


Dick, William M. Labor and Socialism in America: The Gompers Era. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972.

McCormick, Richard L. The Party Period and Public Policy: American Politics from the Age of Jackson to the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

W. M.Dick/a. g.

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Greenback Movement ; Union Labor Party .

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Labor Parties

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