Studies in American Political Development

Voluntarism Against the Open Shop: Labor and Business Strategies in the Battle for American Labor Markets

a1 University of Missouri – St. Louis


Was the American Federation of Labor's (AFL) embrace of “voluntarism” a decisive turning point in American labor and political history? Voluntarism was the belief that trade unions should focus on “pure and simple” gains in wages and working conditions, rather than independent labor politics and industrial unionism. This belief dominated AFL strategy by 1900, and the results seem self-evident. By rejecting public health insurance, unemployment insurance, and inclusive labor regulations, the Progressive era AFL helped delay the emergence of American social welfare protections and contributed to their limited reach. By rejecting an alliance with a social democratic political party and by unionizing on the basis of broad industries rather than narrow crafts, the AFL circumscribed the scope and ambition of American labor organization. Today American trade unions provide far less inclusive representation of the workforce than is true in comparable nations, 1 and labor is not allied with an explicitly social democratic party as is true in virtually all other capitalist democracies. 2


1 Franz Traxler, “Collective Bargaining and Industrial Change: A Case of Disorganization? A Comparative Analysis of Eighteen OECD Countries,” European Sociological Review 12 (1996):271–87; Bruce Western, Between Class and Market: Postwar Unionism in the Capitalist Democracies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

2 Maurice Duverger, Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State (1951; London: Methuen, Ltd., 1964, 20–22; Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Paty Systems: A Framework for Analysis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 1:192; Frances Fox Piven, ed., Labor Parties in Postindustrial Societies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 77–109.