World War I was a turning point for the labor movement

tags: WWI, the labor movement

Elizabeth McKillen is a professor of history at the University of Maine. She is the author of Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left, and Wilsonian Internationalism (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy: 1914-1924 (Cornell University Press, 1995)

April 2017 marks the 100th year anniversary of U.S. entrance into World War I.   Doubtless most of the commemorations of this event will focus on the significant legacies of the war for international political configurations and for the future U.S. political and military role in the world.  Yet labor historians and activists also need to use the anniversary of the so called “Great War” to take stock of its significance for U.S. workers.  To date, historians have focused most attention on the decision of the AFL leadership to support the U.S. war effort, and on the subsequent appointment of many AFL leaders to government war boards.  These appointments, as Joseph McCartin has shown, helped to fuel the development of an industrial arbitration system that would dominate U.S. labor relations for much of the twentieth century. Yet the war bitterly divided workers both in the United States and abroad and provoked a powerful counter-reaction against the Wilsonian internationalist agenda at war’s end.

Continuing divisions among U.S. labor activists about whether the liberal capitalist values embodied in the Wilsonian vision really served the class interests of workers would influence the course of U.S. labor internationalism throughout the twentieth century.  Most recently, working-class disillusionment with the Wilsonian world vision has manifested itself in the activism of groups such as U.S. Labor Against the War, created to oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, and in the strong working-class backlash against the Democratic Party’s economic internationalism in the recent presidential election.

During the early twentieth century, the Second International, composed primarily of European socialist and labor organizations that sometimes included U.S. representatives, often declared its opposition to bourgeois and imperialist wars and discussed tactics for opposing such wars.  Yet proposals for a general strike in the event of the outbreak of war were voted down and constituent groups failed to agree upon any other concrete plans of action to stop war.  Following the cascading series of events that led European powers to declare war against each other in August 1914, labor and socialist organizations in belligerent countries found themselves in a conundrum.  They opposed the war in principle, but had no unified plan for ending it.

Most European labor and socialist groups thus reluctantly chose to support their nations’ war efforts in order to avoid government repression and to protect workers’ rights during wartime.  By contrast, the prolonged period of U.S. neutrality between August 1914 and April 1917 afforded American workers and labor activists a unique opportunity to debate the war and to develop plans for thwarting U.S. intervention in the conflict in venues that ranged from neighborhood union halls and city labor councils, to Socialist street rallies, immigrant fraternal meetings, national trade union conventions, and the pages of the vibrant labor and socialist press.

Working-class critiques of the war were as diverse as the U.S. working class itself.  European immigrants often vehemently disagreed among themselves about which nation was most responsible for causing the war; significant regional, occupational, and political differences divided even native-born workers.  Yet several themes predominated in working-class circles that rarely reverberated in the corridors of the White House.  Workers throughout the country argued that the war was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. “ European nations, they believed, were warring against each other in order to protect the economic interests of their capitalist classes, yet it was workers who were disproportionately fighting and dying in the brutal trench warfare that quickly became the hallmark of the conflict.  Similarly, they argued that it was the American capitalist class that lay behind the effort to increase U.S. military preparedness and to involve the United States in the war.  When preparedness groups lobbied on behalf of an increased defense budget and universal military training, labor and Socialist groups from coast to coast staged counter-preparedness and antiwar rallies and filled the pages of the labor press with anti-militarist articles and cartoons. ...

Read entire article at The Labor and Working-Class History Association

comments powered by Disqus