In preparation for the election of 2004, the American labor movement — with the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations at its helm — has set in motion a plan to extend its political presence. It is opening its doors to those who are not necessarily members of any union to join the AFL-CIO in its political activities. The AFL-CIO wants to create an organization that includes those who are in agreement with labor’s aims although they may not be dues-paying members of any union.
To many who think of unions as being purely and exclusively collective bargaining agencies, this move may come as a surprise. But, it shouldn’t.
Very early in American history, shortly after the Constitution was enacted, working people organized into unions and fought for the right to vote. The federal Constitution had not guaranteed such a right. Most states had property qualifications: No real estate meant no right to vote. After bitter and occasionally violent protests, working people won the right to vote.
It happened during the teen years of the 19th century. In the late 1820s, the labor federation of Philadelphia launched its own “Workingman’s Party.” Shortly, thereafter, Working Man’s parties mushroomed in about two dozen cities across the country. Indeed, these were the first working-class parties anywhere in the world.
In the presidential election of 1828, the Workingman’s parties backed Andrew Jackson and are often credited with giving him the added strength he needed to win the election.
Each of these parties had its own platform, depending on its local and immediate situation. But, must significantly, every party favored universal free public education. In this respect, the unions were not alone.
Horace Mann, who headed up the Massachusetts Board of Education, was a vocal and effective advocate of public education. He maintained that a political democracy required a democratization of knowledge. He and others set the mood, but the unions provided the muscle.
Over the following years, unions were the ardent champions of public schools offering technical education and supporters of public higher education.
During the New Deal days, when the American labor movement was split between the AFL and the CIO, each of these federations had its own political vehicle.
The AFL had its Committee on Political Education and the CIO had its CIO Political Action Committee. When the federations merged, so did their political arms.
Thanks to their presence and their push, the American democracy was enriched with a Wagner Labor Act, a Fair Labor Standards Act for minimum wage and maximum hours, Social Security, Medicare, a Fair Employment Opportunities Act and more.
In a sense, organized labor has been a third party that, for most of its life, has not been a party as such. Its early slogan was “reward our friends and punish our enemies.” Officially, this has made labor nonpartisan. It is a force guided by program and principles — not necessarily by party.
It has been playing that role for close to two centuries, and it still is — as it calls upon sympathizers to join in labor’s political efforts to preserve and promote the principles of our democracy even though those who join are not necessarily dues-paying members.