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
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