The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance


The People
December 23, 1995
Vol. 105 No. 17


This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance (ST&LA). Despite its brief existence of barely 10 years, the ST&LA played an important role in the history of both the labor and socialist movements in the United States. Endorsed by the Socialist Labor Party the following year, the ST&LA was the first organization of labor unions in the United States to openly challenge capitalist-class rule and acknowledge a socialist goal, joining the economic forces of labor with a revolutionary political party.

This step forward was not a bolt from the blue. It reflected the experiences of Socialists and classconscious workers in the union movements that preceded the ST&LA.

From 1880 to 1895, two union organizations dominated the field -- the American Federation of Labor, which was just gaining a foothold in the labor movement, and the Knights of Labor, whose strength was waning at this time. In the early 1890s, there was still some basis for believing, as the SLP did, that these unions were not hopelessly committed to a procapitalist course.


By 1889, the trade unions in New York City were organized into three separate bodies, the Central Labor Union, the Central Labor Federation and District 49 of the Knights of Labor. The CLU was organized in 1882 by 14 trade unions and the SocialistIC Labor Party. "The predominance of the socialist element is clearly shown in the declaration of principles," wrote Commons and Associates. "It asserted that 'there can be no harmony between capital and labor under the present industrial system,'...and ended by pointing out 'as the sacred duty of every honorable laboring man to sever his affiliations with all political parties of the capitalists, and to devote his energy and attention to the organization of his trade and labor union, and the concentration of all unions into one solid body for the purpose of assisting each other in all struggles -- political or industrial...'"

The CLU organized an independent labor party for the 1886 mayoral election in New York City, and its candidate placed second in the voting. According to Commons and Associates, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (soon to become the AFL) was duly impressed, and its 1886 convention adopted a resolution urging "a most generous support to the independent political movement of the workingmen."

By 1888, however, some CLU unions were collaborating openly with the capitalist parties. The socialist unions and the SLP withdrew and established the CLF in February 1889. Both bodies held charters from the AFL. In November, the CLU again professed its opposition to the capitalist parties and approached the CLF to merge for the sake of "harmony." The CLF agreed, but as a precaution entrusted its charter to the care of an official who secretly turned it over to AFL President Samuel Gompers. In December, the reorganized CLU adopted a constitution that forbade officers of affiliated unions from lending their names to the capitalist parties. When the CLU unions failed to enforce the rule, the two bodies separated again, and the CLF, having discovered that its charter had been returned to the AFL, asked that it be restored. However, AFL President Samuel Gompers and other opponents of socialism in the AFL hierarchy saw their opportunity and refused. The decision caused an uproar that forced Gompers to put the question on the agenda of the next national convention at Detroit in December 1890. Lucien Sanial, the SLP's representative in the CLF and editor of the WORKMEN'S ADVOCATE, was sent to present the CLF's case.

The convention upheld Gompers' view that the AFL should be a "pure-and-simple" economic organization open to all political views, but an advocate of none. As events soon proved, however, the only politics Gompers opposed was working-class, or socialist, politics.

When the AFL met in convention at Chicago in 1893, Socialist delegates from other local unions introduced a "Political Program" that, among other things, called for the collective ownership of the industries. The convention adopted the program, including Plank 10, the call for collective ownership, by an overwhelming margin and despite Gompers' opposition. A resolution referring the program to the local unions for debate also was adopted, but not before Gompers and his supporters persuaded the convention to delete a recommendation that the locals endorse it.

Nonetheless, most local unions endorsed the program and virtually all of them approved Plank 10. Gompers promptly set out to thwart the will of the majority and planned to prevent Socialist delegates from taking their seats at the 1894 convention in Denver, but abandoned that plan as too high-handed. Instead, he made deals with delegates to defy their unions by opposing the political program, used his authority as chairman of the convention to squelch those who rose to speak in favor, and by prearrangement had his cronies introduce a flood of amendments to dilute the program and bog down the debate. That strategy worked, and the Political Program and Plank 10 went down to defeat. Gompers' machinations outraged many delegates, however, and when it came time to elect a president for the AFL they elected John McBride of the United Mine Workers to take Gompers' place. McBride was as reactionary and backward as was Gompers, but the Socialists threw their votes to him. The Socialist votes were enough to make the difference, with the result that Gompers was deposed and McBride was installed. McBride's personal triumph was a short-lived one, however, and Gompers regained the presidency in 1896.


From 1891, SLP members, Daniel De Leon among them, were also active in District Assembly 49 of the Knights of Labor. De Leon was a member of Local Alliance 1563. In 1893, DA 49 elected De Leon among its delegates to the General Assembly. The administration of Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly was known to be corrupt, and many Knights were convinced that he had misused funds collected in 1892 to provide relief for the Homestead and Couer d'Alene strikers to pay the salaries of union officials. Under Powderly's leadership, the JOURNAL OF THE KNIGHT OF LABOR also fell into disrepute. At the 1893 General Assembly, DA 49's delegates, though few, held the balance of votes in a struggle between Powderly and James R. Sovereign for the office of grand master workman. DA 49's delegates agreed to help Sovereign replace Powderly in exchange for Sovereign's promise to appoint Sanial as editor of the JOURNAL. When Powderly was out, Sovereign reneged on his promise, and turned the JOURNAL over to another official of the national administration.

The final blow came when it was learned that Sovereign and other K of L officials were using their offices to promote a business scheme in which they held stock, and when Sovereign struck a business deal that allowed the Democratic Party in Maryland to use the JOURNAL (with a different front page and masthead) as a campaign newspaper in 1894. At the General Assembly in 1895, De Leon was one of eight delegates sent by DA 49. He was refused his convention seat when trumped-up charges were brought against LA 1563. Returning to New York, he delivered a detailed written report to the District Assembly. When the District's other delegates returned from the GA they corroborated De Leon's report and reported their own experience at a District meeting. Sovereign also attended, but the District voted to expel him and all members of the General Executive Board. At the same time, it was decided to establish a new national alliance of unions, which was done at a District meeting held on Dec. 15, 1895. When the District left the K of L it took 13,000 trade union members into what became the core of the ST&LA. To this were quickly added the unions of the CLF, the Brooklyn Socialist Labor Federation, the United Hebrew Trades and several unions from New Jersey, New England and Canada.


The ST&LA was the first union to openly challenge capitalist rule and acknowledge a socialist goal, joining the economic forces of labor with a revolutionary political party. As an outgrowth of the failure of earlier party activities in the procapitalist unions, it had learned from those experiences.

The Alliance rejected the idea of the brotherhood of capital and labor. In place of the corrupt procapitalist unionism of Samuel Gompers and company, the bedrock of the ST&LA was the class struggle. De Leon underscored this in a 1900 debate with Job Harriman, a proponent of "pure-and-simple" trade unionism, when he declared, "The trade union which can do good to the workingmen must be a trade union which has a certain central characteristic; it must recognize the class struggle between the capitalist class and the working class."

In its Declaration of Principles, the Alliance recognized limitations on its capacity to "resist the aggressions of concentrated capital." But that did not mean that the new organization abstained from the day-to-day struggle against capital. It fought the capitalist class with the weapons at its disposal, without losing sight of its ultimate goal.

The ultimate objective, the ST&LA's declaration announced, was "the summary ending of that barbarous [class] struggle at the earliest possible time by the abolition of classes, the restoration of the land and of all the means of production, transportation and distribution to the people as a collective body, and the substitution of the cooperative commonwealth for the present state of planless production, industrial war and social disorder."

That the ST&LA was actively fighting for rank-and-file interests, and that its Marxist principles were generating alarm within the capitalist class, is apparent in the following passage quoted from Justus Ebert's TRADES UNIONISM IN THE UNITED STATES, 1742 - 1905.

"It was with the foregoing declaration of principles," Ebert wrote, "that Senator Perkins of California startled the U.S. Senate in 1897, saying: 'This is how the working class is organizing now.' It was in accordance with these principles that the Pittsburgh, Pa., Steel Pressed Car Company and the Slatersville, R.I., textile strikes were fought and won...that ST&LA men participated, with great honor to themselves, in the Morris Heights, N.Y., and the Bloomfield, N.J., strikes...that the American Woolen Company (the Woolen Trust) was given the struggle of its life throughout the New England states, when it introduced the two loom system...that the members of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance voted for the Socialist Labor Party and its demand for the unconditional surrender of capitalism at every recurring election."


The 1896 convention of the SLP endorsed a resolution introduced by De Leon supporting the Alliance. The resolution began by stating, "Both the AFL and K of L, or what is left of them, have fallen hopelessly into the hands of dishonest and ignorant leaders." The resolution restated the necessity of an organization of labor proceeding from the principle of the irrepressible conflict between capital and labor, a conflict which, it said, "is essentially a political one, needing the combined political and economic efforts of the working class."

The resolution concluded, "We hail with unqualified joy the formation of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance as a giant stride towards throwing off the yoke of wage slavery and of the robber class of capitalists. We call upon the Socialists of the land to carry the revolutionary spirit of the ST&LA into all the organizations of the workers, and thus consolidate and concentrate the proletariat of America in one irresistible classconscious army, equipped both with the shield of the economic organization and the sword of the Socialist Labor Party ballot."

Though the goal of the ST&LA was clearly the formation of a socialist society, De Leon had not yet formulated the concept of the industrial form of government to replace the political state. Socialist unions were necessary for the protection of the working class and to defeat those agents of capital, the labor fakers. But he did not foresee industrial unions as the structure of a new socialist society.


During its short existence, the Alliance faced a formidable array of foes besides a hostile capitalist class. It also was forced to struggle against treacherous elements within the labor movement, and particularly those who benefited materially from procapitalist unionism. Since the classconscious element of the working class was still weak, the ST&LA never fully realized its potential, and the union's comparatively small membership dwindled.

But during the period of the ST&LA, De Leon continued to learn and combine these experiences on the economic field with his theoretical knowledge of Marxism. Out of these events gradually emerged the developed concept of the mission of unionism which De Leon outlined in a speech in April 1904, now published under the title of THE BURNING QUESTION OF TRADES UNIONISM.

The unions could provide the power both to protect workers against the capitalist class and to wrest control of the industries from that class, De Leon said. With the entire working class organized into Socialist Industrial Unions, they would be in a position to take over the industries, thereby expropriating the capitalist class and supplanting the capitalist political state with a government of workers.

In the next year, the ST&LA merged "into its own ideal" when it joined the Industrial Workers of the World. De Leon again summed up the twofold role of industrial unionism, writing, "Industrial unionism is the Socialist Republic in the making; and the goal once reached, the industrial union is the Socialist Republic in operation. Accordingly the industrial union is, at once, the battering ram with which to pound down the fortress of capitalism, and the successor of the capitalist social structure itself."

The ST&LA was a major event in the early years of the socialist movement, and was a factor of immeasurable value in the formulation of the Socialist Industrial Union concept. The principles of revolutionary unionism embodied in the ST&LA are still fundamental to the working class today, if it is to break with the faker-led unions and realize its full potential in a socialist society.