Labor’s Constitution in Early 20th-Century Puerto Rico: The Rights to Strike and to Be Protected

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 9:00 AM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Sam Erman, University of Southern California
The early-twentieth-century constitutional thought of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) presents a puzzle. How did vociferous opponents of governmental interference in labor disputes become deeply involved in World War I–era federal regulation of labor relations?

Before World War I, the AFL asserted a right to strike that included nearly any form of pressure short of violence. Judges and executive officials were potential enemies. They issued anti-labor injunctions and deployed state violence against strikers. Labor wanted the state to stand back and let labor and capital have a fair fight. Yet, by the end of World War I, AFL leaders staffed federal entities exercising substantial control over labor relations.

Turning to Puerto Rico reveals that the AFL was never uniformly committed to state non-interference. Aware of the enormous power of government, the AFL sought to harness it where it could and prevent its alignment with capital where it could not. After the U.S. imperial turn brought annexation of Puerto Rico in 1899, the AFL provided the island’s unions money, advice, public relations, lobbying, and an organizational home. It backed their demands for massive increases in education spending and their decision to accept disfranchisement of Puerto Rican workers in return for protection from “benevolent” federal administrators. The AFL even accepted a Puerto Rican Socialist Party. One reason was that the AFL saw Puerto Rico as the vanguard of an AFL-led Pan-American Federation of Labor. The AFL coordinated this envisioned “Monroe Doctrine for labor” with federal officials involved in foreign affairs. Another reason for the collaboration was that annexation had brought islanders beyond the reach of immigration laws. In other contexts, the AFL advocated governmental restrictions on immigration.

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