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A Call to Arms: McNeill’s Unshakable Faith in Labor’s Future

As the 19th century drew to a close, labor activists were forced to confront the implications of a long string of defeats suffered by their movement in recent years. One of the most venerable of labor editors, George McNeill, writing in the official journal of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in December 1896, encouraged trade unionists to renew their commitment to a struggle that had not always been successful. At the same time, he accurately predicted an even more momentous battle in the next century between the trade unions and “the giant monopolies.”

How can the trade unions successfully combat the giant monstrosities of the closing years of the nineteenth century?

The trade union is, theoretically and historically, the oldest form of the organization of the poor. It is as old and weak and as young and strong as the spirit of liberty.

The trade union is a democratic government. Its local unions were as the free cities of olden times—the saviors of civilization. Its national unions are as the union of the colonies and plantations into the states. The American Federation is as was the federation of the states before the adoption of the constitution. Trade union progress has been on the historic line of human development. Starting with the advanced members of its class, it has broadened and is broadening as rapidly as the lower-paid are advanced in material prosperity up to the level of organized effort. The trade unions hold the position of protectorate to the unorganized, who are at first enemies, and afterwards faithful allies.

The trade unions have a membership of about 1,500,000, mostly men, and an allied force in reserve of millions of men and women of its own class. In the inevitable conflict between the people and the capitalistic monstrosities, the trade unions have the hearty co-operation of millions of farmers and many business men and other intelligent members of the community. To this force must be added the awakened religious impulse of the poor priests and clergymen.

This is the position of one of the contending parties.

The managers of the trusts, syndicates and monopolies, with their allies, the bankers, brokers, newspaper managers, rich priests and clergymen, gamblers, dudes, corporation attorneys, sycophants to power and position, and some college professors, make up the active force of the other party. Their active allies are to be found in the professional politicians and in the ignorant, degraded and submerged poor of our large cities. To these must be added that class of men who live upon the vices and extravagances of the rich, and the namby-pamby, fossilized mechanics, business men and agents, who gently sink into the lower strata without a struggle. Presuming that the numerical force of each party is about equal, and agreeing that the power of aggregate wealth and the administration of political government is with the monopolists, the timid would at once conclude that monopoly was sure of the victory and that the trade unions were powerless.

It is the old, old contest that has ever been waged—the old enemy in a new form. The barons won Magna Charta from the king; the peasantry of this country won political independence from the mother country; the suffrage was won in England without the bloodshed of war, but not without the bloodshed of sacrifice.

Monopoly is the last full fruit of the present industrial system. It is poisonous, but it is also seedless as it is soulless. It is the antithesis of the trade union. It is and must be a despotism.

The trade unions seek to overcome the competition of wageworkers with wageworkers, in the interest of its class, and thus for all classes, by making all prosperous. The monopolists seek to overcome their competitors and make them servitors to their will.

There is no peace under despotism. The feudal barons fought each other; monopoly will contest with monopoly.

It is the function of the trade unions to create a democratic monopoly of labor. They must be the banking houses, as well as the army and navy; they must be the insurance offices and the fraternal society of laborers. The small unions must form themselves into national or international unions, and the American Federation of Labor must step forward out of its present loose form of federation into a compact government, in which the autonomy of each national and international union must be preserved. A system of revenue must be inaugurated commensurate with the seriousness of the work at hand. Guerrilla warfare must be replaced with a system of scientific warfare. The allied forces must be brought into closer relations. The men who fight the battles must be fed, and, if need be, pensioned when hopelessly disabled by lockouts or blacklisting.

Treaties, offensive and defensive, along the line of opposition to the power of trusts, syndicates and monopolies must be arranged with organizations working to this end, the trade unions holding their jurisdictions over all matters of wages, shop rules, strikes, etc.

Educational clubs must be established, under the charge of the federation, and every effort made to employ competent men to conduct educational work. The trade unions will succeed, because democracy will prevail over despotism. They will succeed, as they have always succeeded, in the ratio of their revenue, benefits and numerical strength. Cheap men are easily purchased, and cheap unions easily discouraged and defeated. One million five hundred thousand men, with a treasury of $15,000,000 can add a million men to the ranks and $10,000,000 in funds. If we put none but tied, true trade unionists on guard, we cannot fail. . . .

Resolutions must be followed by resolution. The esprit de corps must be stimulated. False leaders and all men who trade their birthright of unionism of the mess of pottage of political pelf must be relegated to the rear. The war for the emancipation of labor is now on. We cannot win by making faces at each other, or at the enemy, or by platform denunciation. We have written platforms, amended constitutions and adopted resolutions. We have cried out, "agitate, educate and organize,: and all this has been well, but now we must learn as well as teach. We must sacrifice our time and money, and, harder still, our peculiar fads, and join hands with all those who will help in the struggle for industrial liberty.

My faith is unshaken—yes, grows stronger as years roll on.

I may not live to see the day,

But earth will glisten in the ray

Of the good time coming.

God grant that day may come in peace, as it most assuredly will, unless, intoxicated with power, the plutocracy and aristocracy of wealth shall commit the final overt act in their conspiracy against liberty.

Source: American Federationist, December 1896.