The dog that didn’t bark: Comparing Labor in the United States and Australia

Frank Bongiorno, King’s College, London

Robin Archer Why is There No Labor Party in the United States?, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2007 (368 pp). ISBN 9-78069112-701-9 (hard cover) RRP $54.95.

This excellent book could just as easily, although less marketably, have been titled Why Is There a Labor Party in Australia?, for it’s a comparative study of the two labour movements in the late-nineteenth century, the era in which an Australian Labor Party emerged and a United States Labor Party did not. Why Is There No Labor Party in the United States? is a reminder of the valuable historical insights that can be generated when comparative history is practiced in a carefully designed project by a scholar in command of the relevant sources and historiographies. An Australian working at the London School of Economics, Robin Archer is interested in similarity and difference more than in shared or transnational histories, although he also shows that the labour movements in the two countries had a mutual awareness even as they each looked to the British labour movement for lessons and precedents to be applied in their own national settings.

Archer’s basic methodology is to suggest that because there are some significant similarities between the United States and Australia and yet one produced a labour party and the other failed to do so, examining differences seems likely to produce valuable findings, so long as causal chains can also be adequately traced. As it happens, his approach yields some powerful conclusions on both labour movements, and labour historians and political scientists in each country—as well as anyone else interested in why labour parties happen—will find much here that is instructive.

The book takes as its starting point a decision by the American Federation of Labor at its 1894 annual convention that ‘party politics whether democratic, republican, socialistic, prohibition, or any other, should have no place in the convention of the A.F. of L.’ (p. 1). At this moment, labour parties were already well represented in the legislatures of four Australian colonies. Part of Archer’s argument is ‘negative’, and he spends several chapters dealing with various explanations that have been offered for the lack of a labour party in the United States, only to pour a liberal (but very scholarly) dose of cold water on each in turn.

Archer points out that racism was also strong in Australia.

To summarise the case in outline does insufficient justice to its ingenuity, and to the richness of the evidence that Archer brings to bear in making it. America’s prosperity—Werner Sombart’s notion that ‘all Socialist utopias’ (or, to adapt him slightly, all efforts to create a labour party) ‘came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie’ (p. 24)—cannot be the key because an equally or even more prosperous late 19th century Australia appears to have provided no barrier to the emergence of such a party. As Archer nicely puts it, ‘[w]ith more beer and pies than was good for them, Australian workers set about forming a labor party’ (p. 27).

Racial animosity has sometimes been cited as a reason for the absence of a labour party in the United States. Yet Archer points out that racism was also strong in Australia and, in any case, rather than hindering the emergence of a labour party, it actually encouraged unity among white workers while simultaneously promoting the critical cross-class alliances needed for a viable labour party. In the United States, racism would later undermine working-class political organisation, but in the era that Archer sees as critical, the 1890s, it was a less influential factor in dividing workers. For instance, the great internal migration of black workers to factories in the north was yet to gather serious momentum and although there was emerging hostility among ‘natives’ and ‘old immigrants’ towards the growing presence of southern and eastern European migrants, numbers were still not large and the union movement ‘had not yet embraced racial hostility’ towards them (p. 69).

Meanwhile, to cite the achievement of manhood suffrage for whites in the United States by the mid-19th century as a reason for the lack of a labour party is unconvincing because the vote had also been gained in Australia roughly the same time, yet proved no barrier. In each case, rather than convincing workers that they had no need for a labour party, it did much to assist labour leaders by providing their efforts with a much-needed cloak of legitimacy. The electoral system was also insignificant as a factor. Both countries had a first past the post system based mainly on single-member electorates, and the tendency of working class voters to be concentrated in particular areas gave labour parties their chance.

Egalitarianism, too, has sometimes been seen as undermining efforts to create a labour party in the United States—it seemed unnecessary in a society that seemed less hierarchical than Europe. Yet the Australian case reveals that egalitarian ideas could actually promote the emergence of a labour party, and political leaders in both countries argued that a labour party was needed to counter the puffed up self-importance of the wealthy and privileged. Liberalism, says Archer, also helped rather than hindered the establishment of labour parties in both countries, and there’s no evidence that a stress on the importance of individual freedom upset labour party formation, as it was strong in both places. Even factors that did set the United States apart in the 1890s, such as a federal system of government, an elected president and a system of judicial review that gave the courts the authority to override legislatures, do not, on closer examination, appear to explain the absence of a labour party.

In the United States it was common for workers to be killed during industrial disputes.

Archer’s analysis of violence and repression underlines the usefulness of the comparative approach. Australian labour historians have taken for granted that the state repression of the unions in the 1890s played a major role in persuading them to form a labour party. Yet it’s useful to be reminded that when repression is too severe, as Archer suggests of the United States, it hinders rather than helps labour party formation. In the United States it was common for workers to be killed during industrial disputes; Archer’s list of strike casualties makes for chilling reading. The language of sacrifice was, of course, part of the vocabulary of Australian unionism in Australia, but unionists have very rarely been called on actually to sacrifice their lives. This fate was much more common in the United States and, naturally, the known danger of being shot will have acted as a disincentive from active unionism to many more workers than were ever directly threatened. Moreover, the National Guard, often responsible for killing workers, was frequently funded by employers and acted a part of their armoury of strike-breaking weapons. US governments were also prepared to allow private police and security forces to be used against workers, in a way that was unknown in 1890s Australia, although not a century later by which time Messrs Reith, Howard and Corrigan had overcome previous taboos in the maritime dispute of 1998. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the forces deployed against US strikers was enormous. In Australia 830 troops were called out in the maritime strike of 1890, which involved perhaps 50,000 workers, and no one was killed. The Pullman strike in the United States in 1894, which was precipitated when a rolling stock manufacturer cut his workers’ wages massively while refusing to lower the above-market rents he was extracting from them to live in a company town outside Chicago, eventually involved around 150,000 workers, as well as 32,000 state and 16,000 federal troops. Unlike in the Australian maritime strike, all major strike leaders were arrested and 25 people were killed. In Melbourne in 1890, Colonel Price provoked outrage for telling his troops that if they were ordered to shoot disorderly strikers, they must ‘fire low and lay them out’ (pp. 116–117). And although Price entered Australian labour movement folklore for his brutality, it should remembered that no one was ever actually called on to fire a shot.

In Australia, the unions most vigorously repressed in the 1890s strikes, the shearers and miners, lived to fight another day and their leaders played a powerful role in the labour movement. They were enthusiastic in supporting a labour party, and in a strong position to do something about it. Their day to day interaction with the leaders of the skilled unions promoted a sense of class consciousness and common purpose, in which the maritime strike came to be seen as the ‘property’ of the labour movement as a whole, not merely of this or that union (p. 133). Archer believes that the greater strength of ‘new unionism’ in Australia had a positive effect on the development of the Labor Party. In the United States, repression meant the ‘new unions’ of semi-skilled and unskilled workers were virtually moribund at a critical moment when the US labour movement was considering the formation of a labour party. They had every incentive to support the formation of a party, but lacked the clout to carry through their aims. On the other hand, key craft unions in the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, were opposed to a labour party and able to block the new unions’ efforts to form one. They feared the division and disruption that the attempt to create such a party might bring about. Unlike the new unions which had been all but destroyed by 1894, craft union leaders still believed they had something to lose in the formation of a labour party. In other words, the effect of the much greater repression in the United States helped direct the subsequent balance of forces in the labour movement in a way that undermined moves towards the formation of a labour party.

Key craft unions in the American Federation of Labor were opposed to a labour party.

Archer argues convincingly that the ‘new’ and more inclusive unions of semi-skilled and unskilled workers were stronger in Australia than in the United States, and that this was significant because they were more likely than exclusive unions of highly skilled workers to support a labour party. Exclusively-minded craft unionists were able to play a spoiling role in the United States in a way that did not occur in Australia due in part to the greater strength of ‘new unions’. The Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (later the Australian Workers’ Union), he argues, was able to form the kind of bridge between the working class and the small farmers that was essential in establishing a labour party. In Australia, shearers were ‘alliance brokers’ between the working class and the selectors, with the ‘squatter’ as their ‘common enemy’ (p. 48). Meanwhile the ‘new unions’ of shearers and miners promoted the mass mobilisation of working people and class consciousness, and so were central to the great industrial struggles out of which a labour party emerged.

In the United States, however, the collapse of the American Railway Union in the 1890s was decisive in undermining the chances of a viable labour party. Before its suppression in the Pullman strike, its members were spread throughout the nation; they were found in concentrated groups in many country areas, as well as in the cities; they were mobile and could therefore disseminate ideas and organisations; and their employers, the railway companies, were regarded with hostility by many workers and farmers, thereby providing the common enemy usually needed as the basis for a populist alliance. US railway workers, says Archer, could have played a similar role to shearers in Australia in brokering a political partnership. That they did not was the result of their organisational weakness at a critical moment in US labour history. Archer might have taken the argument further. The case of Victoria in Australia reveals the difficulties experienced in sustaining a labour party in the absence of a large shearing workforce in the 1890s, and the ultimate dependence of Labor Party development in the new century, especially outside Melbourne, on a politicised railway workforce (Bongiorno 1996).

There are two other prongs to Archer’s argument. While he possibly overstates the secularism of Australian society, he argues persuasively that religious affiliation played a more formative role in the US party system, with the result that any effort by a labour party to bring about some kind of realignment came up against some firmly entrenched loyalties. From the mid-nineteenth century, ‘two distinct ethno-religious subcultures’ (p. 189) attached themselves to each of the major parties. An evangelical traditional became associated with the Republican Party, and a liturgical tradition with the Democrats. As a consequence, for Americans—much more than for Australians—party choice was an expression of ‘ethno-religious’ identity. Moreover, loyalties forged during the American Civil War reinforced the passionate commitment of many electors to their own political party.

Religious affiliation played a more formative role in the US party system.

Any US labour party of the 1890s, then, would have experienced great difficulty in disrupting these alliances and configurations in its own interests. In Australia, by way of contrast, the party system emerged later; was less developed when the Labor Party emerged; and, although religious denomination had played some role in shaping people’s party loyalties, these were less firmly grounded than in the United States. More generally, the US labour movement confronted the question of whether to establish a labour party at a time, the mid-1890s, when religious loyalties were resurgent, whereas in Australia it was a period of relative quiescence in sectarian conflict. Australia, moreover, had experienced no civil war capable of deepening the loyalty of voters to their own side of politics. Finally, any effort to set up a labour party in the United States had the potential not merely to founder, but to create damaging dissension in the unions themselves along religious fault lines; a danger perceived by craft union leaders.

Another form of sectarianism was also less damaging in Australia; that among the socialists. Whereas many commentators once emphasised Australia’s status as a pragmatic country where doctrinaire ideas of any kind—socialism included—made little progress, labour historians since the 1980s have underlined the role played by socialism in the political mobilisation of workers and formation of labour parties (Burgmann, 1985; Scates, 1997). Archer does not question this finding, but rather makes the point that personal animosity, political schism and doctrinal argument were more powerful influences in the United States, with the result that many union leaders saw the idea for a labour party being promoted by socialist intellectuals as containing the potential for great disruption. In Australia, the quest for parliamentary representation and the task of organising stronger unionism were seen as mutually reinforcing. In the United States, with its stronger socialist sectarianism, they were treated as alternatives, and the debates around whether to create a labour party were, as a consequence, more highly charged. Ironically, argues Archer, it was the strength of Marxism, not its weakness, that helps explain the lack of a labour party in the United States.

Archer’s book is one in the eye for American commentators who have relied on textbook explanations for why the United States is as it is, and imagine their own brand of government so superior and exceptional that when a new president is elected, they:

speak in awed tones about the peaceful transfer of power that is taking place, and the genius of the American system that allows it, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are other countries that have managed this trick for generations. Some have even managed it without assassinations and civil wars (p. 13).

One of those countries that has done so, as Archer reminds us in this fine book, is Australia—and it has managed the trick even while sustaining a labour party for more than a century.


Bongiorno, F. 1996, The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875–1914, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Burgmann, V. 1985, ‘In Our Time’: Socialism and the Rise of Labor, 1885–1905, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Scates, B. 1997, A New Australia: Citizenship, Radicalism and the First Republic, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Frank Bongiorno is an Australian labour historian. He has recently taken up an appointment in the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London.

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