Do you think the labor movement is a social movement? Why or why not? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The history of the American labor movement is most definitely a component of the larger social movements of the last two centuries. While the obvious genesis of the labor movement was the extremes to which laborers were routinely subjected in most industries, with unsafe working conditions, brutally-long hours, the exploitation of children as sources of cheap labor, and low pay with few if any benefits such as health care all common characteristics of the state of American industry, the movement's philosophical underpinning were much broader than attempting solely to improve those unsatisfactory conditions. There is no question that Luddite movements existed in which industrialization was deemed hostile to the interests of laborers, but most leaders of the American labor movement recognized the value to even the most humble of humanity of labor-saving machines. One of the earliest and most influential leaders of the American labor movement, Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor (the AFL, which would later merge with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and become known as the AFL-CIO), in an insightful letter to an overtly hostile, anti-organized-labor member of the judiciary, Judge Peter Grosscup, addressed not only the legitimate right of workers to agitate against unsafe and inhumane working conditions, but the broader social implications of the direction in which macroeconomic conditions were heading. In a prescient indictment of the increasing consolidation of wealth in too-few hands, an issue of great interest to many on the political left today, Gompers wrote the following to Grosscup:

"What shall the workers do? Sit idly by and see the vast resources of nature and the human mind be utilized and monopolized for the benefit of the comparative few? No. The laborers must learn to think and act, and soon, too, that only by the power of organization, and common concert of action, can either their manhood be maintained, their rights to life (work to sustain it) be recognized, and liberty and rights secured."

"You evidently have observed the growth of corporate wealth and influence. You recognize that wealth, in order to become more highly productive, is concentrated into fewer hands, and controlled by representatives and directors, and yet you sing the old siren song that the workingman should depend entirely upon his own 'individual effort'."

Beyond Gompers' and others' concern about the broader direction of the nation and the role of labor in its future, prominent members of the labor movement routinely interacted with and supported social movements centered on other issues, such as women's and civil rights. Eugene V. Debs was an early and important leader of the Socialist movement whose views on a whole range of topics leaned, obviously, hard to the left, and who is recognized as one of the most important figures of the American labor movement during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. One of the country's most important civil rights figures, Martin Luther King, Jr., didn't confine himself to the interests of blacks alone. The Reverend King was well-known for his social advocacy on broad array of issues including those affecting the rights of workers. In a speech before the Illinois AFL-CIO on October 7, 1965, King stated the following:

"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life."

King, as did many others, recognized that the success of the civil rights movement was intricately interwoven into the broader social movements of the time, including the labor movement. These disparate movements, including, as noted, the struggle for voting rights among women (a struggle that obviously predated King's period of advocacy), all moved together towards a common goal of better conditions and equal rights for all. That is not to say that there weren't schisms between the various movements, as there were sometimes very serious disagreements regarding strategies and concerns about the influences in the labor movement of far-left radicals like Debs. That the labor movement was and remains a component of a larger social movement, however, is beyond question.

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