6. The Grassroots Labor Parties of 1919-1920: A Missed Opportunity for Labor
Over time, there is a great variance in the extent to which workers are willing to challenge their traditional inferior/dependent position in society and to resist actively economic exploitation. Some eras are noted for combativeness on the part of labor, while at other times apparent worker timidity and passivity seem to prevail. We cannot take for granted, much less predict the timing or even the assurance that awareness on the part of the masses will evolve from job-consciousness, to union-consciousness, to class-consciousness. Still, specific years in the history of the workers’ movement are noted as times when the masses startled the world with militant challenges to continued ruling-class domination.
One such year was 1968. Challenges to traditional patterns of power were mounted virtually all over the world. In France, student and worker protests grew into a general strike of eight million, nearly toppling the DeGaulle government. The National Liberation Front in South Vietnam that year startled the Western world with the Tet Offensive, which ultimately changed the history of Southeast Asia. In Czechoslovakia, the violent repression of the Prague Spring of the same year similarly shattered all illusions concerning the “progressive” nature of Stalinism. Other earlier historical examples of this phenomenon include: 1789 and the storming of the Bastille; 1848 and a revolutionary tide which engulfed virtually every nation in continental Europe with a worker-led social revolution; 1871 and a period of direct proletarian rule in the Paris Commune.
The very air was “electric”
Likewise, 1919 was said to be a year when the very air was “electric” with possibilities; it seemed that virtually anything was possible. As a result, conservatives in the years 1919-1920 (like their counterparts in 1789, 1848, 1871, and 1968) came to fear that social revolution was on the agenda. The Bolsheviks in Russia, under the leadership of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, remained in power and indeed seemed to be consolidating their Revolutionary-Socialist regime.
Lenin and Trotsky came to personify to Big Business the threat of imminent political and economic change from below. In March 1919 the Communist International (Comintern or Third International) was created in order to encourage and support proletarian revolution on a global basis, and seemed to be enjoying more than a little success. A communist regime nearly came to power in Germany in 1919. Poland and Italy seemed to be on the verge of revolution. Hungary had earlier established a short-lived Soviet regime under Bela Kun (Murray: 15).
Political radicals in the United States, for their part, were energized, enthralled and thoroughly awed by events taking place in Russia. Their response to the most successful revolution the world had ever seen was a new sense of enthusiasm and commitment to lead a similar upheaval in the United States. In the political atmosphere of the time, traditional party loyalties were abandoned and new political organizations created by labor and the left, including not one but two Communist Parties (the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party) which were established by September of 1919 (Murray: 16, 36, 37).
A significant aspect of the social and political ferment in the U.S. following World War I was the remarkable flowering of grassroots efforts at independent political action by local and regional labor bodies. The official nonpartisan policy of the AFL at the national level was to support their “friends” in the two old parties. But in 1919, open and often violent government-sponsored strike-breaking by the administration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson offered ample evidence that neither business party was a friend of labor. The dilemma facing the working-class was in crafting an effective political fight-back strategy. Some favored an “inside” strategy of running pro-worker and pro-farmer candidates in the old party primaries in order to “capture” an existing party. That strategy was thoroughly tested in North Dakota.
Labor-Progressives in the industrial heartland, on the other hand, favored a separate class-based Labor Party based on unions. Though Sam Gompers and other high officials did everything in their power to undermine and discredit the grassroots movement for a national labor party, the Labor Party of the United States was founded in the summer of 1919. Opposition from the AFL on the right was matched by sectarian criticism and efforts to disrupt the Labor Party on the left by both the Socialist and Communist Parties.
The refusal of those on the political left to endorse a mass-based Labor Party offered the nation’s liberal reformers an opportunity to attempt to coopt the labor party and neutralize its class-oriented appeal. Though the laborites fended off the efforts by the liberals to create a cross-class Lib-Lab party, voter response to the 1920 Labor Party national election campaign was disappointing. Still in Washington State, where organized labor, farm organizations, and the Socialist Party endorsed independent labor-based political action, the potential constituency for a Labor Party was indicated.
Workers confront financial crisis
Of immediate concern to American workers in the year 1919 was the harsh reality of the financial crisis which confronted workers in the aftermath of World War I. Wartime inflation imposed a heavy burden on the working-class. By late 1919 the purchasing power of the prewar dollar had declined from 100 cents to a mere 45 cents. Food costs increased by 84%, clothing by 114.5% and furniture by 125%. Overall the cost of living was an average of 99% higher in 1919 than it had been four years earlier (Murray: 7). While business made record profits from the war, government policy was to hold wage increases substantially below the high and constantly rising cost of living. Organized labor was determined to correct this inequity when the war ended.
To add to the volatility of the situation, the composition of the rank and file of the labor movement of 1919 was qualitatively more combative than it had been prior to the war. Between 1915 and 1920 union membership in the United States doubled from two million to more than four million. This unprecedented growth was mainly among the unskilled and semiskilled in mass production industries such as meat packing, clothing, textiles, coal, railroads, and the metal trades. These hundreds of thousands of new members in the industrial-based unions were largely recent immigrants, who were willing to adopt aggressive, militant tactics to win their demands (Shapiro: 406).
To exacerbate the situation even further, American industrialists as a class in 1919 were said to be “spoiling for a fight” (Murray: 8). Wartime concessions to labor in the form of union recognition and collective bargaining agreements were viewed as temporary expedients that the capitalists planned to “takeback” once the war ended. Government economic policy of the time, too, rather blatantly favored corporate interests. The official government economic-stabilization policy, which assumed worker passivity in the granting of vast numbers of concessions, endorsed big business’s campaign to reduce of the cost of production through wage cuts and the elimination of union work rules (Montgomery: 73).
National strike wave
Labor’s resistance to this program of worker-austerity was a national strike wave which compared favorably to the better known strikes of 1934 and 1937. At sometime in the year 1919 virtually every kind of laborer was on the picket line striking for higher wages, shorter hours and the right to bargain collectively. In all there were more than 3,600 strikes involving a total of 4,000,000 workers, which equated to one-of-five wage earners in the United States (Murray: 8, 9). This level of worker-participation went unsurpassed until 4,600,000 U.S. workers joined the 1946 post-war strike wave.
Despite attempts by some historians to minimize the ideological component of the 1919 strikes, the whole nation was “stirred” by the rising tide of class-conflict which threatened to cross over into class-warfare. Anna Louise Strong’s gripping editorial in the Seattle Union Record at the opening of the Seattle General Strike accurately reflected the feelings of millions of American workers in 1919: “We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country. … We are starting on a road that leads — NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!” (Shapiro: 407, 421; Murray: 60 ).
What began as strike of 35,000 Seattle shipyard workers quickly became a General Strike of more than 60,000 under the direction of the Seattle Central Labor Council. The startling social and political implications of the strike were immediately apparent. As one historian noted, the strike committee assumed the responsibility and authority to “feed the people, care for the babies and the sick, preserve law and order, and run all industries necessary to public health and welfare” (Murray: 59, 60). Members of the strike committee exulted that workers were learning to manage the economy, without regard to the wishes of the capitalists.
Worker militancy was not restricted to any industry or single section of the country. Previously unorganized workers responded to the power they felt in being organized. Laborers who had not struck in a lifetime of work downed their tools and walked off the job and joined picket lines. Unionists who earlier had responded only to craft interests came to see the necessity for class-based action (Fine: 377).
The Seattle General Strike was not an isolated incident. There were in fact six or more city-wide work stoppages between September 1917 and February 1919. These occurred in relatively large cities such as Springfield, Illinois, and Kansas City, Missouri. In addition, Minneapolis – St. Paul and Bridgeport, Connecticut, were on the verge of general strikes in the years 1917-1918. The influence and prestige of both the Bolshevik Revolution and the British Labour Party helped energize these municipal conflicts. Strike committees identified themselves by the English language equivalent to the Russian word soviet — first as Workers’ Councils, later as Soldiers’ and Sailors’ and Workers’ Councils. In addition, a new robust form of labor organization, the shop committee, emerged in practically all of these strikes (Shapiro: 408).
Worker militancy and solidarity were displayed in industry after industry. In New York, 50,000 men’s clothing workers struck for 13 weeks for a 44 hour week. In New England and New Jersey, 120,000 textile workers walked off their jobs. Women telephone operators in New England struck for higher wages. Later, 400,000 coal miners defied both the Democratic Party Administration of Woodrow Wilson and a federal court injunction when they walked out of the pits until they won a immediate pay raise. Even the police in Boston went on strike!
Urban race riots in the summer of 1919 added to the sense of crisis in the land. The post-war economic slow down and the demobilization of up to 5,000,000 soldiers, sailors and marines and the resultant job crisis which accompanied the postwar stagnant economy contributed to rising racial tensions. The worst violence occurred in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois. Prior to World War I, African-Americans had either hidden or left the area when white rioters invaded predominantly Black neighborhoods. But in the summer of 1919, for the first time in modern history, African-Americans — frequently led by war veterans — armed themselves and fought back. This was especially true in Chicago where five days of rioting left 38 people dead.
The most important strike of 1919 was in the steel industry. John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor and William Z. Foster, who had jointly coordinated the earlier successful drive to organize meat packers, called a strike which shut down virtually the entire steel industry. More than 300,000 steel workers left their jobs. Like the meat packers, the steel workers were winning their strike. The tide turned against labor when the police and army violently attacked the picket lines. Strikers and their supporters were beaten, shot, arrested and driven out of town until the strike was broken.
Repression of labor and the left in the years 1919-1920 culminated with the so-called “Palmer Raids.” Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, initiated a shocking assault on civil liberties by attacking and arresting political radicals of virtually every description. In the fall of 1919, the Justice Department ordered a series of nationwide arrests of working-class political activists. Palmer then followed those with a series of “raids.” In a single night, January 2, 1920, Bureau of Investigation agents under the supervision of J. Edgar Hoover conducted raids in 33 cities and incarcerated more than 2,700 people. Similar police action and subsequent deportations continued until May 1920.
Palmer, while a Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives, had represented himself as a “friend” of labor. As Attorney General, however, he turned on the AFL, the UMW, and the railroad brotherhoods. When the coal miners struck, he filed for a strike-breaking injunction. He threatened railroad unionists with similar legal sanctions when they talked of strike action. Palmer apparently decided to launch his abortive campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination by establishing an unambiguously antilabor, antiradical, pro-business record (Zieger: 27).
Shift to the left
Despite the repression, there was in the years 1919-1920 a perceptible shift to the left in politics all over the world — including the United States. Union solidarity created a sense of hope for a better future and a growing sense of class-consciousness among workers. American laborers, more than ever before, thought in group and class terms. Significant layers of the population concurred with the sentiments of Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs “that the day of the people had arrived” (Fine: 377). In response, Socialists in the U.S. generally moved to the left; thousands joined one of the two newly emergent Communist Parties. It was in this larger context that unionists who had traditionally voted for the old parties were ready to embrace the concept of Labor Party based on the unions (Fine: 378).
The growing Labor Party sentiments of the rank-and-file were adamantly resisted by the AFL’s national leaders. Sam Gompers, who dominated the labor federation until his death in 1924, successfully resisted the politicization of the labor movement throughout much of his career. The constitution of the AFL reflected Gompers’s commitment to what he called “nonpartisan” political action. Article III, Section 8 affirmed that “Party politics whether they be Democratic, Republican, Socialistic, Populistic, Prohibition, or any other, shall have no place in the conventions of the American Federation of Labor” (Carroll: 170, 171).
Labor-based politics were deemed to be “extravagant expenditures of strength.” Gompers argued that: “Political movements are ephemeral. The trade union movement is not for today. Its continued existence is too valuable to be gambled in the political arena.” Therefore the AFL’s political program was a decidedly limited one — lobbying efforts for specific objectives and the election of trade unionists or the friends of labor to public office. Organized labor, under Gompers’s tutelage, worked for one measure or one person at a time, rather than “dissipating” its energy in implementing an entire political program (Carroll: 171, 172). The AFL’s nonpartisan policy slogan called on unionists to “stand faithfully by our friends, oppose and defeat our enemies” (Carroll: 173).
Critics of the AFL’s political strategy quickly emerged. Socialist Party advocates in the early labor movement immediately criticized the policy of seeking influence with political insiders. Lobbying Congress, they pointed out, was bound to be unsuccessful when there were other, larger, more powerful, hostile interests with unlimited funds to spend in influencing legislation. Dissidents insisted that only a labor-based political party with a coherent program designed to promote the material interests of the worker could successfully advance labor’s interests in the political arena (Carroll: 173).
Labor Party proponents insisted that electing Democratic and Republican party “friends of labor,” too, would prove futile in the long run. They argued that it was virtually impossible even for a unionist elected by one of the business parties to defend the interests of the worker while holding elective office. When labor activists were elected on one of the old party tickets, they then owed allegiance to that party and its bosses. As a result, their hands were so tied that they could do very little. The laborite Democrat or Republican office holders, consequently, confronted the choice of either going along with the pro-business leadership of their party or returning to the workbench. After enjoying the affluent life-style of a politician, such a choice involved too great a sacrifice for the office-holding-unionists and their families to risk by opposing the pro-business orientation of the party leadership (Carroll: 175, 176).
Despite the experience of the Populist fusionists of the 1890s, some still sought a compromise position between establishing an independent class-based party and continuing to support one of the old parties. This was the so-called “inside” strategy of attempting to take over an existing political party and “transforming” it into a vehicle for progressive change, which continued to deter activists in the farmers’ and workers’ movement from launching an independent Labor Party based on the unions.
One noteworthy “inside” strategy was pursued by North Dakota’s agrarian-oriented Non-Partisan League (NPL) in the years 1916-1921. The NPL, initially, was established by members of the North Dakota Socialist Party to be an adhoc organization, part of a fight-back movement to resist the exploitation of the state’s farmers by grain dealers, banks, and railroad companies. A.C. Townley, an experienced SP organizer, together with a small cadre of exceedingly talented socialists in the overwhelmingly rural-agricultural state, published a party newspaper known as The Iconoclast. As early 1908, the editor of the paper proposed a system of state-owned grain elevators and flour mills, state hail insurance, and a state credit bank (Gieske: 10, 11; Fine: 364, 365; Montgomery: 74).
Still Socialists got little response from the state’s farmers although farmers were outraged by the injustices suffered by farmers and workers in an economic system dominated by corporate-capitalism. But when the SP decided to introduce its party program to the Republican-voting farmers by inviting them to participate in the North Dakota Socialist Party as “Non-Partisans ” — a term which was understood to mean “nonparty” members of the Socialist Party — Townley seized upon the opportunity and volunteered to work as “non-partisan” organizer of the North Dakota farmers. When the state SP voted to discontinue the program, A.C. Townley continued his work with the NPL as an autonomous organization of farmers and workers, one which was not associated with any party (Gieske: 11, 12; Fine 370).
The NPL’s objective was political power for farmers, through an “inside strategy.” That is entering the primary elections of the existing parties as non-partisans in order to “capture” that party and elect NPL candidates to office under the designation of one of the old parties. In North Dakota, the NPL proposed to take control of the Republican Party and “socialize” the platform of the Grand Old Party (GOP). In other states, NPL slates were entered in the Democratic Party primaries; sometimes slates were simultaneously entered in both of the old-party primaries (Gieske: 12; Fine: 371).
Townley’s “inside strategy” resulted in an electoral triumph in the 1916 North Dakota elections. NPL candidates were elected to state-wide office in the races for Governor (Lynn Frazier), Attorney General (William Langer) and Congress (J.M. Baer). In addition, other League endorsed winners included 72 of the 97 Republicans in the state legislature and 15 of the 16 Democrats. The state senate, of which only half the members were up for election, was the single elective body in the state not dominated by NPLers. Yet, despite the dimensions of the NPL’s electoral victory, Republican regulars in the Senate managed to deadlock most of the League sponsored bills until the control of the state Senate, too, was in the hands of NPLers following the 1918 election (Gieske: 12, 13; Fine 371, 372).
In the 1919 session of the North Dakota legislature, the NPL program was enacted into law. A state bank (the Bank of North Dakota) and a state owned flour mill (Dakota Maid Flour) were established. Farmers’ needs were further addressed by the enactment of legislation providing for state owned grain elevators and a state hail insurance program. Labor’s interests were protected by a workers’ compensation law, restrictions on injunctions during strikes, and what has been described as the country’s best mine safety law — among other measures. Labor historian David Montgomery has praised this remarkable session of the NPL dominated North Dakota legislature with the assertion that there has been: “No more dramatic demonstration of democracy … in American history” (Montgomery: 74; Gieske: 13).
But the Non-Partisan League controlled the North Dakota government for only two years. Townley’s “balance-of-power” strategy failed on two fronts. First, the League’s very success convinced the Democrats and Republicans to forge an anti-NPL coalition of the business-parties. Old party leaders and supporters temporarily fused their parties in order to defeat NPL incumbents, putting the League into the position of being an independent party — like it or not. These political “machines” managed to defeat the League in virtually all of the state primaries except for the first few elections in North Dakota and Idaho.
Second, the Non-Partisan League’s program was subject to “betrayal” by some of the officials it helped to put into office. Townley had miscalculated. Democratic and Republican candidates recruited by the League when elected, did not remain loyal to the NPL program (Gieske: 16; Fine: 372, 375, 376). On October 28, 1921, NPL rule ended in North Dakota when Governor Lynn Frazier faced the combined forces of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties in a recall election, and was defeated by a vote of 111,434 to 107,332. The League, thus, was forced to become a party despite its vaunted “non-partisanship” (Fine: 372). Later in Minnesota, it was as an acknowledged independent political entity known as the Farmer-Labor Party during the 1920s and 1930s that the NPL won some of its most notable victories over both Democratic and Republican Party candidates.
For organized labor, the experience of the largely agrarian NPL was of marginal interest, at best. Sam Gompers and the national labor movement believed they had a warm “friend” in Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Never before had a U.S. labor leader attained the influence that the AFL president was believed to exercise in the Democratic Administration. For the first time in U.S. History, a sitting president was invited to address an AFL national convention. Gompers was said to have both unprecedented prestige and “personal entree” in the Wilson government (Carroll: 185).
Yet the workers’ movement gained little from Gompers’s prodigious efforts among labor’s Democratic “friends.” In 1919 Wilson administration officials “ruthlessly and shamelessly trampled upon the rights of the workers.” The Justice Department of A. Mitchell Palmer “viciously” misused the injunction to break the coal miners’ strike. Federal troops were ordered to shoot down striking steel workers. The Republican-dominated Congress enthusiastically applauded Wilson’s antilabor actions (Carroll: 185, 186).
Discontented local trade union officials and rank-and-file unionists concluded that, in order to make workers’ votes count, the time had come to implement a class-based political strategy. The idea that workers ought to have their own party, with no ties to business, was seen as the obvious solution to problems confronting the labor movement (Carroll: 186).
The first important Labor Party emerged during a 1918 Bridgeport, Connecticut, metal workers strike. President Wilson’s use of executive authority to force these striking arms and munitions workers back to work with no concessions convinced the strikers to turn to independent political action. On September 16, 1918, the Bridgeport workers established the American Labor Party, in their words, “as an instrument of industrial emancipation thus paving the way for an autonomous republic.” Their platform was heavily influenced by the British Labour Party manifesto Labour and the New Social Order (Shapiro: 410).
In 1918 and 1919, unionists established Labor Parties in rapid sequence in 45 U.S. cities (Shapiro: 410). The Bridgeport workers completed the process in their state in February 1919 with the Connecticut Labor Party. The Chicago Labor Party was endorsed November 1918 by a direct vote of the rank-and-file membership of the city-wide labor federation. The Central Federated Union of New York City followed in January 1919 by chartering the American Labor Party of Greater New York. In May 1919, the Pennsylvania State Federation declared for a Labor Party. Indiana’s state labor body formally approved of independent political action in September 1919 (Fine: 382, 383). Labor Parties were later established in the key states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, and California. Farmer-Labor alliances coalesced in several agricultural states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Washington State (Shapiro: 412, 413).
These grassroots organizations were controlled by rank-and-file unionists from the bottom up. The state and local Labor Parties received the bulk of their income from local affiliated unions, whose representatives dominated the political organizations. Class-independence was a jealously guarded attribute. The city, county, and state Labor Parties declared their complete separation from and opposition to both of the old parties. They adamantly opposed both fusion tickets and “nonpartisan” political action (Fine: 383-385). The constitution of the American Labor Party of Greater New York, for example, stipulated that: “No candidate of the Labor Party shall accept endorsement of either the [D]emocratic or the [R]epublican parties … nor shall the Labor Party endorse any candidates of the above-mentioned parties” (Fine: 384, 385).
Local leaders of the Labor Parties were typically either former members of the Socialist Party or non-socialist Labor-Progressives. In 1919 the Socialist Party of America split four ways. Thousands became Communists. Others, like A.C. Townley, embraced nonpartisan politics. Some were content to remain in the Socialist Party. Others — such as Max S. Hayes, former SP member from Cleveland — joined the newly emergent Labor Parties. Hayes would be the first president of the National Labor Party and the party’s candidate for vice-president in 1920. Also on the LP’s national committee were former SP activists Duncan MacDonald, the president of the Illinois Federation of Labor, and William Kohn, who represented the largest labor federation in the nation — the Central Federated Union of New York (Fine: 380).
The non-socialist Labor-Progressives, however, were central to success of the Labor Party movement. Chief among them was John Fitzpatrick, the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who delivered the keynote addresses in both the 1919 and 1920 conventions of the national Labor Party. It was the influence of Fitzpatrick and that of his co-thinkers in the AFL that bolstered the Labor Party movement against the unanimous opposition of Sam Gompers and the national presidents of the various craft unions affiliated with the AFL (Fine: 381, 382).
All Power to the Workers!
Not one to shy away from controversy, Fitzpatrick earned a reputation for his frequent defense of the rights of women teachers and unskilled immigrant workers. Even after Congress voted to declare war in April 1917, Fitzpatrick continued his vehement opposition to World War I. When Wilson sought to justify the American involvement in the European conflict with the demagogic slogan that the war would “make the world safe for democracy,” Fitzpatrick countered; he sought to “make the U.S. safe for the working class” by launching a massive effort to organize the stockyard and the steel mill workers.
Fitzpatrick expressed his general approval of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and frequently remarked that he only wished workers in the U.S. would do as “thorough a job of overthrowing their masters.” In 1918 Fitzpatrick added independent political action to his militant labor philosophy. He played a crucial role in role expanding labor’s fight to the political as well as the industrial field (Fine: 381, 382).
Fitzpatrick’s influence was evident in the Chicago Federation of Labor’s ringing endorsement of the Labor Party movement. “The time is ripe … a new day has dawned … an opportunity that comes but once in a lifetime is presented. … Labor in Chicago and labor in all other centers of America will join with their brothers and sisters of other lands under the slogan: ‘ALL POWER TO THE WORKERS! THE HOUR OF THE PEOPLE HAS COME!’” (Shapiro: 411). The powerful rhetoric was followed by determined action. Fitzpatrick’s influence was instrumental in the creation of numerous Illinois Labor Parties established in quick succession, the Chicago Labor Party (November 17, 1918); the Cook County Labor Party (December 29, 1918) ; and the Illinois Labor Party (April 12, 1919) (Shapiro: 411).
The movement crested November 22, 1919, with the founding convention of the Labor Party of the United States in Chicago. More than 1,200 delegates from 33 states attended. The meeting was one of the largest rank-and-file gatherings of wage earners, (largely grassroots union activists straight from the workplace) in the history of the American labor movement. Delegates primarily represented local as opposed to national unions. And despite the oftstated policy of the AFL to steadfastly oppose the idea of a Labor Party, unions with one-third to one-half of the national labor federation’s voting power endorsed the Labor Party movement (Shapiro: 412; Fine 383).
The name chosen for the national Labor Party has caused more than a little confusion for contemporary students of the movement. The delegates at the founding convention opted to designate the organization as the Labor Party of the United States (LPUS). Informally the LPUS at various times was referred to as the American Labor Party (ALP); the U.S. Labor Party (USLP); and the National Labor Party (NLP); or simply as the Labor Party (LP). The convention prior to the 1920 presidential election, in a largely unsuccessful attempt to attract the votes of farmers, changed the official name of the LPUS to the Farmer-Labor Party (F-LP) (Shapiro: 413). This only further confused matters for Farmer-Labor Party was the name associated with A.C. Townley’s NPL in Minnesota. Yet Townley refused to cooperate with or endorse the national movement for a Labor Party based on the unions. Except in the western states of Montana, South Dakota, and Washington, Townley and his Non-Partisan Leagues in 1920 supported one of the old-party candidates for president (Fine: 376, 377).
By whatever name the Labor Party was known, central to the party’s message was a principled program based on working-class independence. The LPUS’s Declaration of Principles held that: “The Labor Party was organized to assemble into a new majority the men and women who work, but who have been scattered as helpless minorities in the old parties …” (Fine: 379). Democratic and Republican politicians were labeled “confidence men” who, “by exploitation, rob the workers of the product of their activities and use the huge profits … to finance the old parties …. They withhold money from the worker and use it to make him pay for his own defeat.” The Labor Party’s mission was to “reverse this condition” and to enable the working-class to “take control of their own lives and their government.” This was to be achieved “peacefully” by workers “uniting and marching in an unbroken phalanx to the ballot boxes” (Fine: 379).
The LPUS’s platform, “Labor’s Fourteen Points,” was originally written by the Cook County Labor Party but in short order was adopted as the blue print for the 1919-1920 national Labor Party movement. Some of the points of the platform addressed rather familiar progressive issues. The Labor Party, for example, demanded equal rights for women, an inheritance tax, and a graduated tax on income, corporate profits and land use. A high priority for the political wing of the labor movement was the restoration of civil liberties which had been severely breached by the Wilson administration during the war and the 1919-1920 “Red Scare” which followed (Shapiro: 411; Fine: 378).
Other demands went well beyond these rather modest reform-oriented measures and constituted a set of radical-socialist demands. Labor Party activists understood the unions to be instruments for fundamental change, and demands that required far-reaching economic change became the party’s cardinal principles. Most controversial were calls for the public ownership of the nation’s utilities and resources and for democratic management — under workers’ control — of industry and commerce. These proposals constituted what quickly became the “doctrinal bedrock” of the labor party movement (Shapiro: 406, 407 , 412; Fine: 379, 380).
Russian and British Influences
The influence of the Bolshevik Revolution was clearly reflected in both the demands and the language of the LPUS. The Russian Soviets, or Workers’ Councils, were believed to be institutions designed to ensure direct workers’ control over industry in that revolutionary state. LPUS rhetoric made liberal use of the phrase “New Majority,” which was understood to be the literal English language equivalent of the Russian word bolshevik. The official paper of the LPUS was even called the New Majority.
The British Labour Party may have had a more profound impact than even the Bolshevik Revolution. Labor in Great Britain seemed poised to take power with a socialist program. To American unionists, the English example, which had received wide and mostly laudatory attention here, seemed to present a “safe and sane” model worthy of emulation. Even the “socialist” designation in 1919 was deemed credible rather than provocative; after all, that government could operate key industries successfully had been demonstrated in the United States during the war. U.S. unionists were confident that, under the right circumstances, socialism could win widespread public acceptance (Shapiro: 408).
An internationalist perspective was incorporated into “Labor’s Fourteen Points.” Stressing international working-class solidarity, and in contrast to Woodrow Wilson’s support for the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations), the LPUS proposed “a league of the workers of all nations pledged and organized to enforce the destruction of autocracy, militarism, and economic imperialism throughout the world” (Fine: 379).
Labor bureaucrats resist
Sam Gompers, International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ President Daniel Tobin, and other top AFL officials remained determined to stem the rising tide of support for a national Labor Party. High officials in the AFL remained committed to the so-called “nonpartisan” political policy, which in practice meant political support for one of the two business parties (Fine: 386). Gompers first warned that being “carried away by alluring schemes” would be a “great mistake” (Shapiro: 412). High officials in the AFL remained committed to the so-called “nonpartisan” political policy, which in practice meant political support for one of the two business parties (Fine: 386). These bureaucrats deplored the very existence of the LPUS as an attack on the trade union movement itself. Meanwhile, the AFL’s special committee on post-war reconstruction attempted to coopt the labor insurgents by endorsing virtually all of Labor’s Fourteen points, with the exception of the central demand to nationalize industry under workers’ control (Shapiro: 412).
Officials in the labor bureaucracy first attempted to prevent the founding of local labor parties. When that effort proved futile, they concentrated on interfering with their functioning in order destroy the fledgling LPs. Sam Gompers personally called the New York City unionists to a conference where he denounced independent labor-based political action. Tobin, who was treasurer of the AFL as well as president of the Teamsters, spoke for traditional AFL “nonpartisan” politics at the Indiana State Labor Party founding convention (Fine: 386).
Gompers’s active opposition to independent politics sometimes went beyond attempts at persuasion to the point of deliberately splitting existing labor federations. One case concerned the Central Federated Union of New York. The leaders of the Manhattan and Bronx unions proved steadfast in their support of the American Labor Party, so Gompers persuaded the Brooklyn section to withdraw from the larger body and packed several meetings with hostile delegates to force the change in policy (Fine: 386). John Fitzpatrick, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor and a central leader of the LPUS, responded to these unethical tactics, declaring that “the A.F.L. is trying to scare everyone to death who dares rise up and oppose its political ideas” (Fine: 387).
The relentless opposition of Gompers and the AFL national leaders proved decisive. They simply ignored the wishes of the rank-and-file membership on the question of labor-based politics. Delegates to the United Mine Workers of America 1919 convention, for example, unanimously passed a pro-labor party resolution which mandated that the UMW leadership convene a national convention for the purpose of launching a labor party based on unions. The coal miners’ union executive board simply ignored the resolution (Fine: 387).
Perhaps most galling, however, was the disingenuous, hypocritical attitude of Sam Gompers toward the labor party proponents. Behind the scenes, Gompers dispatched paid AFL officials to remove pro-labor party presidents of central labor federations and, if necessary, “reorganize” local bodies which favored independent political action. While using his administrative power to crush the grassroots political movement, the AFL president attempted to stay on good terms with the dynamic and effective union organizers who favored a labor party, such as Fitzpatrick. At one point Gompers wrote the following misleading message to the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor: “… it is hoped that we shall live at least until after the close of the coming campaign when we, too, may be in a position to compare notes as to who will have the excuses and regrets to feel and express” (Fine: 389). Contrary to the fraternal tone of the letter, Gompers was actively engaged in undermining the prospects of success for the Labor Party.
To their credit, Labor Party proponents were not coerced into abandoning the Labor Party concept. Still, the golden opportunity presented to labor in 1919 was missed. The chief culprits were Sam Gompers and other AFL officials who were capable of advancing nothing more than the failed policies of the past.
SP and CP opposition
More surprising than the AFL hierarchy’s opposition to independent political action was the attitude of the Socialist Party (SP) and Communist Party (CP) leaderships. The LPUS had no desire to split the vote that was typically cast for socialist candidates, nor to invest time and money organizing where the Socialist Party was well established. They offered an “olive branch” to the SP, proposing cooperation (Fine: 385). The SP National Executive Committee in response, adopted a stance that could only be called sectarian, directing that no SP member could join, endorse or cooperate with the United States Labor Party (or the Farmer-Labor Party as it would be known in the 1920 election season). This abstentionist policy was justified on the grounds that the Labor Party did not explicitly pose socialism as the necessary alternative to capitalism (Dobbs: 109).
Even more inexplicable was the stance of the now unified Communist Party, which, like the SP failed the test presented by the Labor Party movement. The LPUS rank-and-file as well as many of its leaders were openly supportive of the new workers’ and farmers’ government in Russia. Not only were LP supporters sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution, they had demonstrated an openness to being influenced by its example (Dobbs: 110). Communists could have grasped the opportunity presented to them by supporting independent labor candidates against their two parties of Big Business. The CP could have offered their fraternal support in the struggle for a mass party, with a proletarian program, based on the unions, and consisting of workers, farmers, and a strong contingent of the doubly oppressed including African-Americans and working-class women (Dobbs: 110).
Instead, the Communists turned their backs on the Labor Party movement, denouncing it as a danger to the proletariat. In the convoluted view of CP leaders, a labor party based on unions would prove to be an obstacle to the overthrow of capitalism. CP members and supporters were cautioned that there must be “no compromise” with the Labor Party (Dobbs: 111). The CP could see nothing “progressive” in either the Socialist Party or the Labor Party of the period, and rejected the idea of nominating their own candidates because that would indicate a willingness to run the capitalist state. So, the official political strategy of the CP in the 1920 general election in the United States was to call on class-conscious workers to abstain from voting and boycott the elections (Dobbs: 112, 113).
Some significant votes
Despite the short-sighted lack of support from their “natural” allies, the local Labor Parties did win some statistically significant vote totals. In Chicago the LP supplanted the Socialist Party as the working-class rival to the Democrats and Republicans. In the spring of 1919 John Fitzpatrick garnered more than 56,000 votes in the Chicago mayoral race. At about the same time, Labor Party mayors were elected to office in eight Illinois cities, including such middle-sized communities as Aurora, Elgin and Rock Island. The Labor Party candidate in the important industrial city of Joliet lost by a mere 247 votes, and there were other near-victories in Kansas City and Topeka, Kansas, and elsewhere (Shapiro: 412). Though the movement began to decline by the summer of 1920, Dudley Field Malone received nearly 70,000 Labor Party votes for mayor of New York that year. In Seattle, James Duncan, the secretary of the Labor Council polled a remarkable 35,000 votes running on a labor ticket (Fine: 397).
The decline in support for the LPUS resulted, in part from the reality that the various labor parties did not immediately sweep to electoral victory. But the main cause was the active opposition to the movement from the American Federation of Labor, partisans of the old-parties both inside and outside of the labor movement, and from the Socialist and Communist parties (Fine: 390, 391).
Just as the movement for an independent labor party began to ebb around 1920, some of the more advanced liberals associated with several influential political journals such as the New Republic and The Nation put forth a proposal for a liberal-labor (or “Lib-Lab”) coalition. Known as the “Committee of Forty-Eight,” these liberals argued that the reform movement could only survive by “reaching down” to the working-class and winning its active cooperation by endorsing new forms of self-government and comprehensive social welfare programs (Shapiro: 413).
The proposed coalition was not simply a cynical attempt by liberals to win the votes of the working-class. The advanced progressives of the 1919 and 1920 era, were convinced that the war had exposed the bankruptcy of political liberalism. The highly touted pre-war “Progressive Era” reforms had failed to achieve their stated objectives. The left-liberals, as a group, were simultaneously repulsed by the Wilson Administration’s violation of civil liberties and attracted by its economic achievements through the program of “wartime socialism” — government intervention in industry to keep the war machine running smoothly (Shapiro: 413).
Robert Buck, the editor of the New Majority, the LPUS’s national paper, expressed the ambivalence the labor party proponents felt toward the Committee of Forty-Eight: “Some think that this organization will try to make the Labor Party change its name, modify its platform and merge in a harmless outfit like the old Bull Moose outfit. Others think that the Committee of Forty-Eight has more genuine intentions and will affiliate with the Labor Party. This is a question
[only time will]
decide” (Fine: 391). Buck had been a Progressive Party activist in 1912 and had been elected as a Chicago Alderman on the “Bull Moose” ticket. He was in 1920 anxious to distance himself from his liberal past. Like many of the intellectuals of the labor party movement, Buck had come to identify himself as a “red” of “the constructive type” (Fine: 391, 392).
The Forty-Eighters considered it essential to win the support of the grassroots labor parties, and so expressed their deepest sympathy for labor’s struggles. They even proposed a program of “public ownership and democratic management” for public utilities and basic natural resources (but stopped short of endorsing the nationalization of industry and commerce as a whole) (Fine: 389; Shapiro: 414). When the Labor Party of the United States (LPUS) scheduled a presidential nominating convention to meet in Chicago in July 1920, the Forty-Eighters appealed to their supporters to meet in the same city at the same time. At no time prior to the opening of the two conventions, however, had any working agreement been accepted by the two bodies (Fine: 390).
From the opening gavels of the two conventions, unionists clearly were determined to maintain an independent class-based party, while the Forty-Eighters were anxious to merge (Fine: 391). The largely upper-class and elitist liberals were confident that, in time, the LPUS leaders would recognize that their fledgling party “needed the guidance of liberal mentors.” After all, the Forty-Eighters had vast amounts of experience, established national reputations, and important connections. Most important, though, they had a presidential candidate of national prominence, someone who would immediately legitimize the party.
LaFollette for president?
Proposed to head the Lib-Lab campaign was the highly renowned Senator from Wisconsin, Robert M. LaFollette — a “proven campaigner with instant voter appeal” (Shapiro: 414, 416). With LaFollette at the head of a national presidential campaign, the labor parties could be an integral part of an impressive coalition. As the country’s most prominent opponent of “monopoly and privilege,” LaFollette could potentially unite such disparate supporters as the American Federation of Labor, the Non-Partisan League, possibly the Socialist Party — along with pacifists, isolationists, farmers and intellectuals — into a powerful third party movement. Such a Lib-Lab coalition could raise enough money for a major campaign effort and win significant national campaign coverage and even entice editorial endorsement and support from the William Randolph Hearst chain of daily newspapers (Shapiro: 414, 415).
But while a LaFollette candidacy seemed to have obvious advantages, the laborites resisted being coopted by liberals. There was a powerful expression of working-class consciousness in the Labor Party directors’ distrust of the middle class leaders of the Committee of Forty-Eight. LaFollette’s supporters were moderate reformers with an advanced liberal position which foresaw little role for labor in a Lib-Lab movement beyond attracting the votes of workers. Forty-Eighters denounced “crooked” politicians, the influence of the “interests,” and the irresponsible use of great wealth. Lib-Lab proponents sought an alliance with labor based on nothing more profound than a shared sense of disdain for a mutual enemy — “privilege and exploitation” (Fine: 391; Shapiro: 416).
Forty-Eighters wanted a party that was neither doctrinaire nor radical, without an exclusive class identity or a program of demands that could be characterized as “incendiary.” They preferred a party based on reasoned moderation in which pragmatism virtually became the program. Their goal was fairness to all — business, farmers, workers — without regard to class. The Labor Party proponents rejected such a formulation as “naive and decorous” (Shapiro: 416).
To LPUS leaders, World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution were transforming events, that had permanently altered global class relationships. Immediate tasks, as the laborites saw them, included the destruction of the anachronisms of the recent past beginning with the wage system and such depoliticizing myths as the supposed harmony of the classes. From that perspective the progressive politics of the Forty-Eighters amounted to little more than timid rather innocuous proposals designed as “vote catchers.” Laborites believed that the time had arrived to construct a genuine “industrial republic,” and that only a politically aware and independent working-class movement could take the lead in that process. From this perspective, the strike wave of 1919 was not simply a series of collective bargaining disputes, but examples of the heightened level of the class-struggle in the post-war era. The liberals’ emphasis on punishing the personal failings of individual capitalists collided with labor’s determination to pursue systemic all-encompassing change. That is the fundamental explanation for the collapse of the proposed liberal-labor coalition (Shapiro: 416, 417).
Effort at Compromise
Still a genuine effort was made at compromise. Robert Buck, the editor of the New Majority, negotiated personally with Senator LaFollette. The Senator agreed to run on an “advanced but not socialist” platform. LaFollette feared that the new party might be no more than a mere “flivver” and have a “lunatic stigma” attached to it, and was concerned that a program “full of revolutionary language” would have a psychologically negative impact on voters (Shapiro: 417). For their part, Buck and the other directors of the Labor Party were equally determined not to engage in “compromise or buncombe.” They were willing to wait for electoral victory, even if it came as late as 1940, rather than be manipulated and dominated by the “wishy-washy” liberal agents of the ruling class (Shapiro: 418).
After three days of heated discussions and mutual recriminations, LaFollette offered the laborites a compromise proposal. The primary obstacle for the liberal Senator was labor’s demand for “an ever increasing voice for the workers in the management and control of industry and the progressive elimination … of private exploiters.” In the view of the liberal leaders of the Forty-Eighters, this amounted to thinly disguised “Sovietism.” The pro-business liberals arrogantly dismissed the working-class as simply another interest group; one that was “none too broad in its social outlook.” LaFollette proposed an “effective share in the responsibilities and management of industry” for labor and would go no further on the question (Shapiro: 418).
This was not enough for the LPUS negotiators. At the minimum, they insisted on calling for an increasing and not merely an equal share for labor in the management of industry. Robert Buck and others, furthermore, insisted on the demand for the democratic management in the operation of publicly owned utilities and natural resources. Laborites also denounced the Forty-Eighters’ equivocation on the question of equality for African-Americans. The conflict between the laborites and the liberals involved more than mere words in a platform. In the end the laborites rejected LaFollette’s merger proposal which they dismissed as “lukewarm” (Shapiro: 419; Fine: 393).
Yet, the sentiment for a merger of the Committee of Forty-Eight and the Labor Party of the United States was so powerful in the summer of 1920 that a combining of their forces in fact did take place. But it was far from what the liberal leaders had envisioned. The delegates to the Forty-Eighters convention simply walked out en masse and marched as a body to the meeting hall of the trade unionists. The Labor Party movement, in short order, virtually absorbed the bulk of the grassroots membership of the liberal reform movement. The rank-and-file rebellion at the Forty-Eighters’ convention was embraced by all of those willing to concede to the Labor Party’s insistence that the demand for the nationalization of industry and commerce under workers’ control be included in a joint platform (Fine: 392).
The delegates in this merged convention first changed the name of the organization to the Farmer-Labor Party (F-LP) and then set about to nominate a national presidential slate to run with the various state and local candidates. Heading the national ticket was Parley Parker Christensen, an attorney from Salt Lake City, Utah. His nomination pleased the Forty-Eighter delegates, for he was one of them. The Labor Party delegates were also satisfied with the selection, as Christensen’s law firm frequently defended labor cases including those involving radical members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Max S. Hayes, the Cleveland, Ohio, trade union leader, former Socialist Party official and National Chair of the LPUS, agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination (Fine: 393, 394: Dobbs: 108).
As a Forty-Eighter who did not hesitate to endorse Labor’s Fourteen Points, Christensen was an acceptable candidate to all segments of the F-LP. But his candidacy was not without its weaknesses. The name Parley P. Christensen was hardly a household word. Some cynics have noted that in Salt Lake City, the candidate may have been best known for possessing a “dazzling array of white linen suits” (Shapiro: 405). Though others acknowledge that Christensen was a tall and striking man, he was not an outstanding personality. His name was not associated with any crisis or riveting event in labor history. He was neither a spellbinding orator, nor an accomplished writer (Fine: 394).
To complicate matters further, the 1920 F-LP national campaign was run by political novices. The Farmer-Labor Party leaders and activists, for the most part, were trade unionists much less adept on the political than on the economic field. They had little if any experience in raising money, organizing campaign meetings, distributing political literature or rallying the party’s followers. The entire national campaign was funded by a paltry $24,000, and so the message of the F-LP campaign — which emphasized the need for independent labor-based political action in opposition to both the Democratic and Republican parties — generated a limited response ( Fine: 394; Shapiro: 405; Dobbs: 108, 109).
In all, 265,411 votes were cast for the FLP’s national ticket. Though the rather disappointing national total constituted less than one per cent of the votes cast, the Farmer-Labor Party had substantial support in nine states and made a good showing in three western states where the local Non-Partisan Leagues had endorsed independent political action. In terms of raw votes, Washington State was first with 77,246; Illinois followed with 49,630, while the South Dakota F-LP vote total was 34,707. More than three-fourths of the vote total was concentrated in just six states (Fine: 395; Shapiro: 405). To put the F-LP vote in perspective, it should be noted that 1920 was the year that the much-loved Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, incarcerated in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, made his celebrated run for president and received more than 900,000 votes.
Despite these poor showings, the potential electoral strength of a labor party in the United States was glimpsed in the state of Washington, where state and local F-LP candidates finished ahead of the Democrats. That Washington should lead the nation in support door labor-based political action surprised no one. Seattle had a massive five-day General Strike in February 1919 to resist a pay cut scheduled for unskilled shipyard workers. To maintain public order during the complete suspension of the normal functioning of the city, unarmed labor guards patrolled the Seattle streets. A committee composed of unionists improvised eating places and milk stations and even issued permits for garbage trucks and funeral processions to use the city streets. Puget Sound area Longshoreman further solidified the region’s reputation as a bastion of class-conscious union strength by their refusal to load munitions destined for Admiral Kolchak and his “White Armies” fighting against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War (Fine: 395, 396).
A large and lusty labor movement
The Seattle labor movement of 1919-1920 was both respected and feared as “large, lusty and ‘radical.’” To an extent this view was based on the local AFL rank-and-file tradition of labor solidarity. The IWW had long been active in the state; when the authorities attempted to suppress “Wobbly” activities, AFL locals as a rule, came to the defense of their class brothers.
Two violent incidents in Northwest Labor History stand out in this regard. The first was in 1916 when Seattle IWW members chartered a boat to travel to the mill town of Everett, some 20 miles to the North. As they arrived to support striking shingle weavers, they were met at the dock by the local sheriff and as many as 200 armed deputies who opened fire. The “Everett Massacre” left four Wobblies dead, and one dying. Three years later in Centralia, the IWW members in that logging community decided to defend their union hall against an impending attack by American Legion members. In the aftermath of the brief but bloody battle, Wesley Everest, a Wobbly armed defender was abducted from a jail cell in the middle of the night and lynched. While pro-business daily papers ran anti-IWW accounts of both the Centralia and the Everett events, the Central Labor Councils of Spokane and Seattle defended the rights of the IWW members and raised money for their trials (Cravens: 149).
The wartime economic boom resulted in a dramatic increase in the membership of AFL unions in Seattle. From a base of 15,000 members in 1915, the Seattle area union organizers by 1919 had recruited a total of more than 60,000 members. Seattle local unions had long been considered a “haven” for those with views on the political left. Hulet M. Wells, the Central Labor Council President in 1915, for example, was also a veteran member of the Socialist Party (SP), who had been convicted, for opposing the World War I military draft.
Others closely identified with the Labor Council, such as Anna Louise Strong, were well known as a defenders of the rights of those with unorthodox beliefs, such as anarchists and pacifists. After the U.S. officially entered the war, Strong was removed from her position on the Seattle School Board in a recall election because of her anti-war views. The central labor body, further, endorsed the creation of a Workers’, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Council for the city. The Seattle Union Record, a labor owned daily paper, frequently praised the Russian Bolsheviks and regularly promoted the concept of nationalized industry with direct worker control of the means of production and distribution (Cravens: 149).
Labor Party Support
But it is the objective economic conditions, rather than the radical beliefs of some key members of the Seattle labor movement, that explain the unusually high level of support for the Labor Party. Washington, and especially the Puget Sound area, differed from the rest of the nation primarily in the political unity of its farmers and workers behind the concept of an independent labor party. In the spring of 1919, the skyrocketing cost of living, rapidly declining farm prices, and impending layoffs in the postwar economic slowdown combined to cast a pall of gloom over workers and farmers throughout the region. In addition, A. Mitchell Palmer and his “Red Scare” was viewed as threatening to all those who spoke out against economic injustice. Many in farm and labor organizations concluded that united political action was necessary. The matter in dispute was reduced to tactics. It was the age-old question that has confronted farmers and workers in virtually every generation. Should they pursue an “inside strategy” and endorse old party candidates friendly to workers and farmers or an “outside strategy” and establish an independent farmer-labor party (Cravens: 150)?
There was three-way split in the Farmer-Labor coalition. The Labor-Conservatives in the movement, largely from the agrarian counties in Eastern and Central Washington, favored the NPL strategy of endorsing a slate of candidates in the Republican Party primary election. Labor-Radicals, for their part, were unambiguously in favor of an independent political strategy. The Labor-Progressives, the third and by far the largest faction of the three (mostly from the Western Counties that ring Puget Sound) would prove decisive in the discussion (Cravens: 150, 151).
The state’s Labor-Progressives were centered in the Seattle labor movement, especially the shipyard locals. Critical to the outcome of the debate over politics in Seattle was James A. Duncan, the Secretary of the Central Labor Council, who has been described as a “red-headed Scottish immigrant … tough minded, canny, yet gentle” (Cravens: 151). Duncan would become a staunch advocate of an independent farmer-labor ticket in the 1920 elections. He was supported in this endeavor by Harry Ault, the editor of the Union Record, which in 1919 reached 80,000 working-class families each day (Cravens: 151).
The Labor-Radicals, though numerically the smallest of the three groups, were important because they often held the balance of power in the Puget Sound unions, and often filled key leadership positions in the Seattle and Tacoma shipyard unions. Among the Labor-Radicals were veteran Wobblies — so-called “borers within” — who held dual membership in both IWW and AFL unions. Others were SP members who interjected into their political discussions with Labor-Progressives the need to develop class-consciousness among workers (Cravens: 151).
The discussions culminated June 1919 with the founding of a farmer-labor political organization known as the Triple Alliance, which would be the basic support group for the state’s Farmer-Labor Party (F-LP). The three allied bodies included farmers through the Washington State Grange, the AFL members through the State Federation of Labor, as well as thousands of the state’s railroad workers through the Railroad Brotherhoods. A network of county alliances was established to coordinate local political activities. Almost immediately, the Bellingham Triple Alliance entered a candidate in the mayoralty election who received a substantial 40% of the vote. This level of support encouraged Labor-Progressives and in the fall of 1919, the Seattle Alliance nominated James Duncan, Secretary of the Labor Council, to be candidate for mayor in the March 1920 municipal elections (Cravens: 152).
The Duncan campaign had just gotten underway when government repression intervened. On November 13, 1919, Federal Justice Department agents seized the Union Record and arrested Ault, on sedition charges related to two editorials. After the Centralia Lynching, Ault had published a commentary characterized by the Wilson Administration as “inflammatory.” In condemning the violence in Centralia, Ault blamed the conservative elements in the community, not the IWW. In the second instance, the editorial endorsement of the Triple Alliance candidates in the Seattle municipal elections was said to violate the wartime Sedition Act. Though the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence, the Union Record was barred from publishing for two weeks (Cravens: 152).
This government repression intimidated and frightened some into abandoning their efforts at independent class-based political action, but the greater impact was to embitter those in the farmer-labor movement against the Wilson Administration and the Democratic Party. The Justice Department officials under A. Mitchell Palmer may have seen the event as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of government to interfere with and even incarcerate working-class political activists virtually at will. Both Labor-Conservatives and Labor-Progressives saw the episode as proof that the Republican Party endorsed anti-labor “open-shop” campaign and the Democratic Party “Red Scare” were part of the same capitalist conspiracy against the working-class. Triple Alliance supporters were convinced that the real reason for the seizure of the paper was to suppress efforts at labor-based political action (Cravens: 152).
The raid on the Union Record and the arrest of Harry Ault resonated beyond the ranks of the Triple Alliance. Democrats who thought of themselves as pro-labor were also were outraged. At the grassroots level, many “unceremoniously” abandoned the Democratic Party and joined the Farmer-Labor Party. In eight counties where no F-LP branches were in existence, former Democratic Party leaders openly started Farmer-Labor Party county organizations (Cravens: 155, 156).
The Washington State Socialist Party, too, was attracted to the idea of an independent labor party. In opposition to the national SP leadership, the state secretary, Lena Morrow Lewis, pledged her party’s vote (which had on occasion approached the 50,000 mark) to the Triple Alliance coalition on the condition that the F-LP maintain an independent political stance and not actively campaign against Eugene Debs for president. The Socialists also requested adequate representation on the F-LP’s various internal boards. Once a general working agreement on these issues was reached, several prominent Washington State Socialists actively participated in the campaign (Cravens: 154, 155).
The Triple Alliance coalition was not problem free, but for the most part it held together until the November elections. Members of the Grange and some of the Labor-Conservatives in Central and Eastern Washington remained enamored by the NPL’s “inside strategy” and proposed running Triple Alliance candidates in the Republican Primary. They were quite adamant about the idea until the candidates in question announced that they were members of the Farmer-Labor Party and refused to run as Republicans. With strong labor support in the more industrialized and urbanized Puget Sound Region and at least the paper endorsement of the Railroad Brotherhoods and the Grange, it was clear from the outset that the 1920 Washington state Farmer Labor Party candidates were likely to receive substantial vote totals.
Impressive Electoral Showing
This was borne out by the official election returns. The Labor Party presidential candidate won 77,246 (19%) votes, more than in any other state; yet it was lowest number of votes cast for any statewide F-LP candidate in Washington. The Triple Alliance candidate for governor led the ticket with 121,371 (30%); the candidate for the U.S. Senate polled 99,309 (26%); and the average F-LP vote for other statewide offices exceeded 100,000. The F-LP vote averaged 26% statewide, a very impressive showing for a party in existence only five months. Three F-LP candidates were even elected to the state legislature. Meanwhile, the Democrats averaged only 16% (Cravens: 157).
Impressive as the state-wide totals were, it should be remembered that Farmer-Labor Party support was concentrated in the western counties of the state. Both Farmer-Progressives and Labor-Progressives tended to be located there. In addition the bulk of the AFL membership was in and around the Puget Sound region in clusters which centered in Seattle but extended to Everett on the North to Tacoma on the South. In Western Washington, the 1920 vote for governor divided by party as follows: a bare majority of 50% for the Republican Party, a substantial 36% for the Farmer-Labor Party, and a mere 14% for the Democratic Party (Cravens: 157).
On a national scale, working-class leaders almost spontaneously began to move toward the formation of an independent labor party. Those trade unionists involved no longer thought simply in terms of collective bargaining with separate employers. They had begun to generalize demands for economic and social justice and present them to the capitalist class as whole. The Labor Party movement was an effort to challenge the monopoly of the capitalist two-party system of politics in the United States and establish a mass party which interjected the interests of workers into the nation’s political dialogue (Dobbs: 109).
But despite the potential for almost immediate electoral success as demonstrated in Washington, the grassroots Labor Party Movement of 1919-1920 was one of those turning points that did not turn. Had an independent labor party based on the unions been added to the mix of U.S. politics in 1919-1920, an important component in the process of the development of class-consciousness among American workers would have been institutionalized. As incidents of class-conflict continued to occur and were perceived as such by growing numbers of workers, the level of political participation on the part of workers and farmers would likely have increased rather than decreased. The struggle for a government that was responsive to the needs of workers and farmers rather than bankers and businessmen would have surely reached a qualitatively higher plane (Dobbs: 109). Had labor voted as a bloc in the 1920s, even if that bloc was limited to the votes of AFL members, combined with those of the members of the railroad brotherhoods, in addition to the votes of union members’ families and those sympathetic to labor, the total vote would have been in the 10,000,000 range (Zieger: 37).
With such enormous potential, efforts to overcome the obstacles to a U.S. Labor Party continued in the 1920s. The Conference for Progressive Political Action (CPPA) in the years 1922-1924 would try to forge a high level of unity in the cause of labor-based independent political action among AFL unions, the Railroad Brotherhoods, the Socialist Party, the Women’s Trade Union League and liberal reformers. But it would become another “Lib-Lab” coalition unable to pull the labor leadership down the road to independent political action.
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Cravens, Hamilton. “The Emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Washington Politics, 1919-
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