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Labor organization and class alliance

Industries, communities, and the Knights of Labor

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The analysis reported here helps to clarify the dual role played by craft organization in labor movement development. In the United States, as in France, community rather than industry was the more promising ground on which to build an inclusive working-class organization. Craft organization in the community always helped mobilize less-skilled workers, and the effect was strongest during the period when the labor movement was growing most rapidly. In contrast, craft organizations within a local industry may have impeded less-skilled workers' organization during the Knights' early years. Only later, when the Knights found themselves on the defensive - attacked by employers, the press, and the craft unions affiliated with the rival American Federation of Labor - did craft locals provide unambiguous support for the organizational efforts of less-skilled workers in their own industries.

This dual role must be reckoned with if we are to understand class formation. Because labor historians and others who study working-class movements often pursue research agendas dictated by the dominant tendencies of a single country, their studies tend to exaggerate each country's peculiarites. This study pursued a different line of inquiry by asking its questions from a comparative framework, and by seeking out local variation. The results suggest that craft workers in all countries probably harbored both exclusive and solidaristic tendencies. We need to undertake other studies that might illuminate the conditions that lead to solidarity or exclusivity. Such information will go a long way toward elucidating the dynamics of labor-movement development, thus explaning how oft-mentioned factors such as state action and the pace of capitalist development had the effects they did.

Finally, these findings support recent arguments about American exceptionalism put forward by Ira Katznelson and his collaborators. In two influential books, Katznelson argues that America's unique pattern of working-class formation stems, in large part, from the radical division between the politics of work and the politics of community in the United States.Footnote 1 Katznelson believes that the institutional set that supported the divorce of workplace and community system (that is, political parties organized around community concerns and trade unions organized around workplace issues) was largely in place by the 1860s.Footnote 2 After that the die was cast, except perhaps in small communities where the two spheres were not yet so radically divided.Footnote 3 Based on this study I would argue that community remained the most important arena for labor organization even in large urban areas until 1886. But periodization aside, both the quantitative findings and the Trenton case study suggest that the divorce of the community from the workplace must have had a profound effect not only on working-class politics, but on the growth of the union movement as well.

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  1. Ira Katznelson, City Trenches (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), and Katznelson and Zolberg, 1986.

  2. Katznelson, esp. 67, and Katznelson and Zolberg, esp. 27.

  3. This is the argument put forward in the Martin Shefter essay; he is basing it on recent case studies of small, single-industry towns. (See esp. 241–242 of “Trade Unions and Political Machines: The Organization and Disorganization of the American Working Class in the Late Nineteenth Century.”) The findings reported here suggest that larger, industrially diverse towns were more likely to encourage working-class alliances. See also, Richard Jules Oestreicher's book, Solidarity and Fragmentation: Working People and Class Consciousness in Detroit, 1875–1900 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).

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Voss, K. Labor organization and class alliance. Theor Soc 17, 329–364 (1988).

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