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A History of Trade Unionism in the United States

The American Federation of Labor


The

best examples of the "middle stratum" industrialism are the unions in the garment industries. Enthusiastic admirers have proclaimed them the harbingers of a "new unionism" in America. One would indeed be narrow to withhold praise from organizations and leaders who in spite of a most chaotic situation in their industry have succeeded so brilliantly where many looked only for failure. Looking at the matter, however, from the wider standpoint of labor history, the contribution of this so-called "new unionism" resides chiefly, first, in that it has rationalized and developed industrial government by collective bargaining and trade agreements as no other unionism, and second, in that it has applied a spirit of broadminded all-inclusiveness to all workers in the industry. To put it in another way, its merit is in that it has made supreme use of the highest practical acquisition of the American Federation of Labor--namely, the trade agreement--while reinterpreting and applying the latter in a spirit of a broader labor solidarity than the "old unionism" of the Federation. As such the clothing workers point the way to the rest of the labor movement.

The first successful application of the "new unionism" in the clothing trades was in 1910 by the workers on cloaks and suits in the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union of America, a constituent union of the American Federation of Labor. They established machinery of conciliation from the shop to the

industry, which in spite of many tempests and serious crises, will probably live on indefinitely. Perhaps the greatest achievement to their credit is that they have jointly with the employers, through a Joint Board of Sanitary Control, wrought a revolution in the hygienic conditions in the shops.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America have won great power in the men's clothing industry, through aggressive but constructive leadership. The nucleus of the union seceded from the United Garment Workers, an A.F. of L. organization, in 1914. The socialistic element within the organization was and still is numerically dominating. But in the practical process of collective bargaining, this union's revolutionary principles have served more as a bond to hold the membership together than as a severe guide in its relations with the employers.[80] As a result, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers attained trade agreements in all the large men's clothing centers. The American Federation of Labor, however, in spite of this union's success, has persistently refused to admit it to affiliation, on account of its original secessionist origin from a chartered international union.

The unions of the clothing workers have demonstrated how immigrants (the majority in the industry are Russian and Polish Jews and Italians) may be successfully organized on the basis of a broad minded industrialism. On the issue of industrialism in the American Federation of Labor the last word has not yet been said. It appears, though, that the matter is being solved slowly but surely by a silent "counter-reformation" by the old leaders. For industrialism, or the adjustment of union structure to meet the employer with ranks closed on the front of an entire industry, is not altogether new even in the most conservative portion of the Federation, although it has never been called by that name.

Long before industrialism entered the national arena as the economic creed of socialists, the unions of the skilled had begun


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