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The Practical Utopians: American Workers and the Cooperative Movement in the Gilded Age

Author(s):Leiken, Steven
Reviewer(s):Fones-Wolf, Ken

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Steven Leiken, The Practical Utopians: American Workers and the Cooperative Movement in the Gilded Age. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005. xxi + 233 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8143-3128-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ken Fones-Wolf, Department of History, West Virginia University.

To most early practitioners of labor history, the fascination of Gilded Age workers with cooperatives was evidence either of their utopianism or their backward-looking resistance to modern industrial capitalism. Hard-headed trade unionists did not waste time with such impractical visions; instead, the cooperative movement was symptomatic of either middle-class intrusion or socialist misdirection. During the last three decades, these assumptions have withered away. No chasm separated trade unionists from the Knights of Labor, who hoped to prevent the complete triumph of “the wages system.” In fact, most workers harbored both sentiments. However, until now we have not had a modern study of the cooperative movement that places it in its historical context and appreciates the burden of promise which so many workers invested in it.

Steve Leiken, a Lecturer at San Francisco State, begins with a discussion of the cooperative ideology emerging out of the Civil War era. Rooted in working-class republican ideals, the cooperative stores “spoke to a moral vision of the marketplace holding that collective voluntary action could harness, temper, and ultimately transform the market economy” (2). These stores also built upon the example of England’s Rochdale system that fused cooperative ideals with a pragmatic joint stock financing that made these enterprises more securely capitalized. Indeed, the British connection exerted considerable influence in Philadelphia where former Chartists injected English cooperative ideas into the American labor reform movement.

Not coincidentally, Philadelphia was also the birthplace of the Knights of Labor, which wedded the vision of a reform society to trade unionism. Especially for those working in trades where new labor processes and mechanization threatened skilled labor, the practicality of cooperative stores soon fostered ideas of cooperative production. Worker-owned factories offered a solution to the prevailing system of destructive competition and promised to preserve the “republican citizenship, democracy, and producerism” (25) at the heart of the American craftsman’s ethos. Of course, this world view contained contradictions and assumed a great deal about the gender, racial and skill divisions within the working class. Notions of the male breadwinner omitted women, and cooperators rarely counted less skilled men among their members. Meanwhile, nothing aroused the ire of cooperators more than potential competition from black or Chinese workers. This discussion of ideology in the era of emancipation would have benefited from juxtaposing working-class republicanism against ideas of free labor and contract explored in the work of Amy Dru Stanley and Heather Cox Richardson.

Despite the fact that many of the early leaders of the Knights of Labor harbored cooperative ideals, the Order proved to be an ineffective vehicle for the cooperative movement. Its most ambitious plans demanded a centralized bureaucracy and taxes on members that most Knights rejected for resembling either the “organizational realities of the new industrial economy” (65) or a variant of state socialism. But accelerating labor conflict gave cooperation a new vitality. The Knights opened a cooperative coal mine and other ventures in response to strikes and lockouts. Worker-owned enterprises became weapons in labor’s “great upheaval” of the mid-1880s, vested with symbolic power. Unfortunately, starting a business in a crisis environment was rarely a winning formula. Problems of credit, mismanagement, the apathy of consumers and a persistent localism doomed cooperative production sponsored by the Knights.

In the final two chapters, Leiken shows the cooperative movement in its most successful contexts. In the single-industry town of Stoneham, Massachusetts, cooperative shoe factories became the means to protect the republican cohesiveness of community life for twenty years. As corporations began to dominate the industry, cooperation garnered support in Stoneham for the stability and security that worker-controlled production provided. These cooperators were not utopians, but rather male heads of households seeking to make it to old age without upsetting the status quo. They were men who commanded respect in the community, but who also broadened their solidarity enough to include a labor feminist like Fannie Allyn. Ultimately, however, cooperatives in this tight-knit community fell victim to internal divisions, competition with each other, and the vicissitudes of the market economy.

The second case study of Minneapolis demonstrates that cooperative successes were not limited to small, single-industry towns. In Minneapolis, coopers created numerous cooperative factories to meet the demands of this major grain milling and shipping center. Cooperation here demonstrated the practicality of this idea, building slowly and cautiously, and taking advantage of the craftsman’s control of production. Of course, Minneapolis cooperators also had their utopian side, eventually expanding into new areas and sponsoring more than thirty cooperative enterprises in the city. Ultimately, however, the cooperative factories of Minneapolis foundered on the narrowness, not the utopianism, of their vision. They failed to link their goals to the broader success of labor reform, defying the plan of the Knights of Labor to regulate the labor conditions, output, and prices of the cooperatives. Without such regulation, corporations could pit one factory against the other, thereby destroying worker solidarity and control.

Both the Stoneham and Minneapolis examples raise an unexamined question: were cooperative factories more likely to emerge in particular types of industries? And, at what cost? To take a twentieth century example, window glass manufacture, cooperatives emerged there because the costs of entering production were low, the product market allowed niches to form, and skilled worker control of production was difficult to eliminate. But even there, cooperative glassworkers regulated production and cut their own wages so much that they went from being among the best paid industrial workers to below the national average for manufacturing. It would be nice to know what sacrifices the Stoneham shoemakers or the Minneapolis coopers were making to achieve stability.

In the end, the practical utopianism of Gilded Age cooperators “was riddled with contradictions. Profoundly democratic, the cooperators often fought to preserve their advantages over women, nonwhites, and unskilled workers” (158). Moreover, the accumulation of failed efforts often undermined labor solidarity. Frequently, cooperators “berated themselves or their fellow Knights for their apathy or for lacking the necessary knowledge” (83) of how to benefit the working class. At the same time, worker-owned factories faced enormous barriers — credit, management skills, corporate hostility, and unrealistic expectations from workers to cite just a few. Leiken surveys this well, attentive to the gender, racial and skill level divisions that also helped destroy the movement from within. Thanks to this fine little book, we should never again think of cooperatives as something completely separate from practical trade unionism.

Ken Fones-Wolf is completing a book, Glass Towns: Industry, Labor and Political Economy in West Virginia, 1890-1930s to be published by the University of Illinois Press in 2006.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century