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Wed

08

Sep

2010

How the Labor Movement Blew It
Wednesday, 08 September 2010 05:52
by Burton H. Wolfe

At the turn of the 20th Century the labor union movement had two directional choices: Follow the Knights of Labor headed by Terence V. Powderly or the American Federation of Labor directed by Samuel Gompers. Powderly advocated cooperatives for ownership by the people doing the work, a system that would have ended the ongoing class division and class struggle between entrepreneurs and laborers.

Gompers denigrated that idea and advocated, instead, operating labor in the same way that corporations sell their furniture, cans of soup, or any other product. Our product, he said, will be labor; we will sell labor in the same way the merchants and industrialists sell their products: we will sell our product to the entrepreneur, and our motto will be "More! More now for labor!"

Powderly warned that Gompers's method of operation would perpetuate confrontation between the two classes established, leading to strikes, lockouts, and boycotts resulting in the loss of billions of work hours, billions of dollars in wages and benefits, and billions of dollars in revenues for the entrepreneurs who would pass on their losses to consumers. Would anybody today be blind enough to claim that Powderly was wrong, that his predictions have not come to pass?

In short, the labor movement had one glorious opportunity to merge entrepreneurs and workers into one, and very stupidly the heads of the labor unions blew it and followed Gompers down the path to the destructive, wasteful conflict existing today. As the further result, the labor movement is being steadily weakened by the loss of unions and members. Had labor leaders followed Powderly, the work cooperatives he envisioned would be the powerhouse of the nation. Instead, the U.S. is being run and corrupted by corporate executives linked to each other by interlocking directorships and trusts that grow ever bigger and that run the politicians like an engineer runs a freight train.

Few are the Americans of today who understand that Gompers was a ruinous dolt rather than the hero he is proclaimed to be by labor union leaders, and that the decision to follow him has resulted in one of the greatest of all tragedies in U.S. history.

If you have never read the writings of Terence V. Powderly (1849-1924), you are remiss in your education. At the very least you should read his autobiography The Path I Trod, and the sooner you do so, the sooner you will understand what has gone wrong with the U.S. socio-economic apparatus and why. Meanwhile, for Labor Day, below the broken line, are excerpts from Powderly's First Annual Address to the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor in 1880.
 


So long as it is to the interest of one kind of men to purchase labor at the lowest possible figure, and so long as it is to the interest of another kind of men to sell labor to the highest possible bidder, just so long will there exist an antagonism between the two which all the speakers and writers on labor cannot remove.

In what direction should we turn to see our way clear to a solution of the difficulty?- - - Abolish the wage system.

This is the system which enables a half dozen men to sit at their tables in any of our large centers of trade, and, without thought of the welfare of the country, apart from their own interests, issue the mandates which direct the movements of the whole industrial population of the United States.

This is the system which makes every railroad superintendent, every factory or mine superintendent, an autocrat at whose nod or beck the poor, unrequited slave who labors must bow the head and bend the knee in humble suppliance.

Organization once perfected, what must we do? I answer, study the best means of putting your organization to some practicable use by embarking in a system of cooperation which will eventually make every man his own master - every man his own employer: a system which will give the laborer a fair proportion of the products of his toil. It is to cooperation, then, as the lever of labor's emancipation, that the eyes of the workingmen and women of the world should be directed, upon cooperation their hopes should be centered.

There is no good reason why labor cannot, through cooperation, own and operate mines, factories, and railroads. By cooperation alone can a system of colonization be established in which men may band together for the purpose of securing the greatest good to the greatest number, and place the man who is willing to toil upon his own homestead.

*Burton H. Wolfe, former director of the Homosapiens Educational & Legal Project in California and now a resident of Florida, is the author of hundreds of articles published in newspapers and magazines, and of such subject-definitive books as The Hippies (New American Library), Hitler and the Nazis (Putnam), Pileup on Death Row (Doubleday), and The Christianity Racket (World Audience Publishers). He produces two online journals, Wolfe's Lair and Florida Intelligencer, and he is the publisher of Mind Opening Books - http://mindopeningbooks.com.

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