American Association for Labor Legislation

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American Association for Labor Legislation

United States 1905


The American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL) was a pioneering organization that dealt with labor reform and legislation during the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Its commitment to social welfare is expressed by the slogan that appeared on its 1915 Review of Labor Legislation article: "To create a minimum standard of life below which no human being can fall is the most elementary duty of the democratic state." The AALL reform leaders were motivated primarily by the problem of worker insecurity around incidents such as on-the-job accidents, work-related illnesses, and employer-caused unemployment. The organization dedicated itself to promoting better employee compensation in the United States. The AALL also worked diligently for a national system of compulsory social insurance and protective labor legislation. AALL members, taken as a whole, basically felt that government action was necessary whenever the private business sector failed to meet basic employee needs. As a result of its work, the AALL laid the foundation for many modern social programs now in effect, such as unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, Social Security, and pension insurance.


  • 1885: Indian National Congress founded. In the years that follow, the party will take the helm of India's independence movement.
  • 1890: U.S. Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1895: Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière show the world's first motion picture—Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory—at a café in Paris.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1904: Russo-Japanese War, which lasts into 1905 and results in a resounding Japanese victory, begins. In Russia, the war is followed by the Revolution of 1905, which marks the beginning of the end of czarist rule; meanwhile, Japan is poised to become the first major non-western power of modern times.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1905: Albert Einstein presents his special theory of relativity.
  • 1905: In the industrial Ruhr region in Germany, 200,000 miners go on strike.
  • 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1914: On the Western Front, the first battles of the Marne and Ypres establish a line that will more or less hold for the next four years. Exuberance is still high on both sides, but will dissipate as thousands of German, French, and British soldiers sacrifice their lives in battles over a few miles of barbed wire and mud. The Eastern Front is a different story: a German victory over Russia at Tannenberg in August sets the stage for a war in which Russia will enjoy little success, and will eventually descend into chaos that paves the way for the 1917 revolutions.

Event and Its Context

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many social scientists believed that through research, analysis, and reporting, poverty in the United States could be eliminated or at least greatly reduced and social problems reversed. Professionals such as doctors, economists, journalists, political scientists, and sociologists often teamed up to gather and disperse this information. With knowledge provided by such support groups, citizens often pressured politicians to help the poor.

Reform Groups

Concerned citizens found support in a variety of voluntary associations dedicated to the improvement of the lives of American citizens. Among the more popular reform organizations were the National Consumers' League, Women's Trade Union League, Urban League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and American Civil Liberties Union. One of these organizations, the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL), worked in the area of labor legislation, at a time when labor unions were making modest, but steady, reforms in the workplace. During its first two years of existence, AALL membership grew to about 2,000 members and was fairly steady from that year on.

Founders and Early Leaders

In 1905 a small group of reform-minded academic economists, including John R. Commons and Richard T. Ely, formed the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL) in Madison, Wisconsin. The AALL was the U.S. component of the International Association for Labor Legislation, a reform organization headquartered in Europe that promoted consistent labor laws among industrialized countries. During AALL's first few years, Henry W. Farnam, Henry Rogers Seager, William F. Willoughby, John B. Andrews, Adna F. Weber, and Charles Henderson were among its leading core activists.

Ely, Farnam, Seager, and Willoughby served as the AALL's first four presidents, and Weber, Commons, and Andrews served as its first three secretaries. These men all came from academia and thus felt they could rationally and independently deal with labor problems without taking either the side of capital or of labor. Each felt a social and moral duty to improve the condition of workers. These "social environmentalists" were united in the belief that conflicts were increasing between a rapidly developing manufacturing community and employees, who lacked adequate protection in the form of labor laws. As people moved from the country to the city, rural workers were increasingly without labor support, and as more people crowded into urban areas, workers became more dependent on their employers. The AALL leaders were not against the growth of U.S. industry, as one might suspect, but felt such growth must be accomplished in unison with adequate labor protections.

Motivation for Formation

The originators of the AALL were motivated by the problem of worker insecurity: the overwhelming feelings of workers in response to the industrial hazards and adverse conditions in the workplace and what could result financially if they were involved in a serious mishap. Worker insecurity was an even greater problem when one considers the fact that during the nineteenth century insurance in any form was virtually nonexistent except for the wealthy, and existed only in limited quantity and monetary coverage early in the twentieth century.

AALL reformers felt that employers, left to their own devices, would abuse employees through overwork and unnecessary exposure to hazards. The organization's founders shared the belief that a government body should assume responsibility for correcting the social wrongs associated with industrial capitalism, especially the problem of work-related accidents beyond the control of the employee.

General Purpose

During the AALL's early years, the group's purpose, under the direction of Ely and Commons, was the research and publicity of labor legislation and labor conditions in the United States. The AALL also pursued a national movement for compulsory social insurance and protective labor legislation.

As intellectuals and political activists, the AALL's leaders and their associates theorized about the social effects of security legislation, proposed policies, and drafted model bills. They sponsored studies and campaigned vigorously for industrial safety laws, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, and compulsory health insurance. Staff members compiled summaries and comparative analyses on a wide variety of protective labor legislation.

Switching Directions

By 1909, under the leadership of Andrews and Farnam (and against the wishes of Ely and Commons), this passive group expanded its purpose into policy advocacy while retaining its previous agenda of research and publicity. The much more active AALL began to promote aggressively, lobby for, and coordinate major changes in worker's compensation, occupational health and safety, and child labor laws. It also moved its headquarters from Wisconsin to New York City, primarily because leadership was transitioning to men from eastern universities such as Yale, Columbia, and Princeton. Civic leaders, journalists, academics, social workers, labor leaders, and reform groups generally supported their coordinating efforts.

From 1911 to 1941 the AALL published its quarterly journal, The American Labor Legislation Review. The early motto was "Conservation of Human Resources" and, later during World War I, the slogan changed to "Conservation of the workers—sound policy for the state and nation in time of peace—becomes an imperative duty in meeting the acute strain of war."

Social Insurance

In the 1910s, when American hospitals were first developing into modern institutions, the AALL organized the first national conference on "social insurance" or, as it was called then, "workingmen's insurance." These progressive reformers argued for health insurance and appeared to be gaining support in the United States. Opposition from medical interest groups and the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 hindered the reform effort.

In 1910 the AALL estimated that the annual social and economic cost of sickness in the country's industries exceeded $7.7 million. Frederick Hoffman, in a 1915 report for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, estimated that out of a total labor force of about 38 million workers, 25,000 had died and about 700,000 had suffered serious injuries as a result of industrial accidents in 1915. In response, the AALL called for government-provided health care and workers' compensation so that job absenteeism could be decreased and work productivity could be increased. On the employer side, the AALL felt that a company that cared about the health and safety of its employees would generate more profits. Such reasoning led to improvements of health and safety laws in the early twentieth century. Many companies, for instance, installed restrooms in their facilities along with drinking fountains, baths, and showers. To assure that workers kept up work efficiency in the afternoon, many companies offered free or minimally priced nutritious meals.

By its second decade, the AALL had made substantial gains and had become a leader in promoting social insurance and protective labor legislation. The expanded goal of the AALL reformers was to prevent workers and their families from falling into poverty as a result of work-related accidents or illnesses. The AALL began to differentiate the working poor (or the "worthy poor" and "unemployed") from the nonworking poor (or the "unworthy poor" and "unemployable"). The organizations stated that the working poor were worthy of help because their condition was based on external problems brought on by working conditions, whereas the nonworking poor were not worthy of help because their condition was based on their own internal problems.

Historian Robert Bremner commented that the popular view shifted from seeing the poor as victims of their own devices to seeing the poor as victims of environmental causes, such as industrial accidents. Although it inadvertently ignored some employees, the AALL campaign to improve industrial safety laws, workers' compensation, and unemployment and health insurance did help most workers in the United States.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt's policies of the New Deal era benefited from the earlier social welfare reform movement that had been so staunchly supported by the AALL. The commitment to worker security in the Progressive Era of the 1920s guided the development of most social welfare legislation, such as the enactment of Social Security in 1935, which was accomplished during the catastrophic unemployment of the depression.

Views and Beliefs

The AALL reformers, as a whole, viewed themselves as independent from both the employer and the employee and serving as expert mediators to both sides of labor issues. Their scientific research showed the world that they were disinterested in promoting either side but were simply developing an unbiased view of labor and management. As a result, members of the AALL felt they were uniquely qualified to lead U.S. public opinion to a more rational and truthful view of the state of labor and management. Worker insecurity, in their view, was an injustice to the individual employee and a threat to the profitability of capitalism.

Outsiders held a wide range of opinions about the organization. Some people believed that the AALL served the interests of capitalists because part of the contributions for its support came from wealthy industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller. Others saw the AALL reformers as independent intellectuals who argued for rational conclusions. Legal scholar Ernst Freund wrote in 1915 that the public should receive unbiased information and that information should come from the disinterested AALL. Some claimed that the AALL was controlled by organized labor. Still others viewed the reformers as aggressive and influential lobbyists who were trying to influence the course of social legislation and reform. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, compared the AALL to the local gossip and busybody. Because such attacks came from all sides, little damage was done to the AALL. However, the AALL was forced consistently to defend its stand of neutrality when it came to any form of labor matter.

The difficulty of the situation is emphasized by the example in 1909 when a letter was to go out to both labor and management on a union-label controversy. AALL leaders decided to place the union label on the letter that was to be delivered to union members, but leave it off of the letter that was to go to management. Unfortunately, both versions of the letter eventually ended up in the hands of opposing camps. Such practices provoked criticisms from both sides of labor and management.


In 1941 the AALL disbanded after 36 years of working consistently to improve labor legislation in the four broad areas of working conditions, unemployment, health and safety, and social insurance. Throughout its existence the reformers of the AALL continued to stand by their belief that "good" labor legislation would benefit employees, employers, and the public.

Willoughby, the association's fourth president, described AALL policy when he said that all workers should possess a minimum level of economic security and that the government should assure that the industrial community provides that minimum economic security. Although other organizations were devoted to social welfare reform during the early twentieth century, the AALL was the most prominent one in the two critical areas of protective labor legislation and social insurance. For the most part, its activities were difficult because they professed a policy of prevention, not just relief. For instance, the AALL wanted to prevent poverty, not just lessen its effects.

The greatest contributions and influence of the AALL reformers were in their ability to identify social problems, develop reasonable solutions, and propose model legislation. Although the AALL failed in many of its campaigns, such as its long-term battle (with such opponents as business and labor leaders, insurance companies, fraternal organizations, and physicians) for compulsory health insurance in the 1910s, it did set the course for future social legislation in the United States. Historians of American social policy generally agree that the reformers within the AALL played an important role in social welfare reform during the first half of the twentieth century.

Key Players

Andrews, John B. (1880-1943): Andrews graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a doctorate in economics. In 1914 Andrews wrote the book A Practical Plan for the Prevention of Unemployment in America. He was appointed chairman of the Advisory Social Service Committee of the Municipal Lodging House (a New York City publicly funded homeless shelter).

Commons, John R. (1862-1945): Commons studied at Johns Hopkins University. He held teaching posts at Ohio Wesleyan, Oberlin, Indiana, and Syracuse Universities from 1890 to 1901. He became associated with the Industrial Commission and the National Civic federation during this time. Beginning in 1904, Commons held a professorship at the University of Wisconsin. He founded the Wisconsin tradition of institutional economics. He was one of the country's most respected writers and lecturers on political economics, institutional economics, and sociology, having written or edited such books as The Distribution of Wealth(1893); Documentary History of American Industrial Society, 10 volumes (1910-11); History of Labour in the United States, 4 volumes (1918, 1935); Legal Foundations of Capitalism (1924); Institutional Economics (1934); and Myself(1934). Commons helped to found the Wisconsin School of Labor History and was president of the National Consumers' League.

Ely, Richard Theodore (1854-1943): Ely was an innovative researcher and academic with a background in institutional economics. He was a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin and later at Johns Hopkins University. Ely was one of the founders of the American Economic Association (1885), the Christian Social Union, and the American Association for Agricultural Legislation. Among the books that Ely wrote were Labor Movement in America and Socialism and Social Reform (1920).

Farnam, Henry W. (1853-1933): Farnam was a professor of economics at Yale University. He wrote Shakespeare's Economics (1931) and Chapters in the History of Social Legislation in the United States to 1860 (1931).

Henderson, Charles Richmond (1848-1915): Henderson was a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, with a specialty in industrial sociology. He wrote the book Industrial Insurance in the United States (1909).

Seager, Henry Rogers (1870-1930): Seager was a professor of economics at Columbia University, with a specialty in political economy. Seager wrote the book Social Insurance: A Program of Social Reform (1910).

Weber, Adna Ferrin (1870-?): Weber was a professor of political economy at Columbia University and was the chief statistician at the New York State Department of Labor. Weber wrote the book The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Statistics (1899).

Willoughby, William F.: Willoughby was a professor of economics at Princeton University.

See also: Social Security Act.



Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Moss, David A. Socializing Security: Progressive-Era Economists and the Origins of American Social Policy.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Tone, Andrea. The Business of Benevolence: Industrial Paternalism in Progressive America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

—William Arthur Atkins

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