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Non-Partisan Politics

As early as 1920 Rochester Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) President Schaeffer had appointed a preliminary Committee on Non-Partisan Political Campaigns. The following year the AFL launched a full-scale program to establish such committees at all levels, as well as among progressive non-union groups. By July 1922, Gompers later reported, there were 40,000 Non-Partisan Political committees throughout the country . A special circular was sent to them urging that widest publicity be given to the following principles:

No freedom loving citizen should vote for any candidate who will not pledge himself to oppose any form of compulsory labor law;
No justice loving citizen should vote for any candidate for any office who will not pledge himself to oppose injunctions and contempt proceedings as a substitute for trial by jury;
No freedom loving citizen should vote for any candidate who will not pledge himself to vote for legislation abolishing child labor.

In August, 1922 the Non-Partisan Committee of the New York State Federation of Labor issued legislative demands that went beyond the AFL principles to insist that human labor was not a commodity, create a State Insurance Fund, establish the 8-hour day, provide children with free medical treatment and text-books, restore primary nomination of state and federal offices, repeal the Motion Picture Censorship Law, provide for direct law-making by voters through the initiative and referendum, provide electrical services at cost through state and municipal distribution, legalize light wines and beers, and defeat proposals to force unions to incorporate and to limit the right to strike.

That fall the AFL sent the voting records of members of Congress to all Central Labor Councils and to 40,000 local unions and urged members to study them and vote their interests. Labor’s success that year led the Executive Board to recommend retaining the national Non-Partisan committee. In New York the election of Al Smith as governor persuaded the state Labor Federation to establish Non-Partisan committees on a permanent basis and, following its own success at the polls, Rochester’s CTLC announced that “A campaign of political education will be carried on by a permanent committee.”

The official policy of non-partisanship was most clearly enunciated by Samuel Gompers in 1924 (the year the AFL backed the Progressive Party candidacy of Robert LaFollette), just months before his death:

It is the belief of the American Federation of Labor that the greatest results are to be achieved in politics by a devotion to principles rather than to parties and that the surest way to advocate principles is to support those candidates who accept the principles and to oppose those who reject them. There is nothing involved about this belief; nothing complicated about the practice. And it is the only way by which Labor can avoid the dissensions and schisms that inevitably must come from party partisanship.

Gompers’ successor, William Green, reaffirmed and sustained the policy of Non-Partisan politics through 1944, though doing so became increasingly difficult as the CIO pursued a contrary policy of extensive, direct political action. In 1944 Green dissolved an Ohio AFL Political Action Committee for its level of involvement in electoral politics. In Rochester the tension between the two policies broke out in a bitter debate over whether the CTLC’s official paper could make political endorsements, an action consistent with the Council’s contract with the publisher but at odds with the position of the Non-Partisan Political Committee.