The Single Tax and the Labor Movement


Peter Alexander Speek

[A Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, No. 878, 1917, pp. 62-72]

Like the explosion of a shell in the labor circles of New York came Judge Barrett's sentence of the boycotters on July 2, 1886. On the evening of the same day delegates of the Socialist Labor Party, of the Cigarmakers', Bartenders', and Waiters' Unions, and of the Carl Sahm Club, met to call a mass meeting for the purpose of protesting against the action of the judiciary.[1] The call for such a mass meeting through the Central Labor Union was agreed upon unanimously by the gathered representatives of labor. A few days later the Central Labor Union endorsed the call and passed a resolution condemning Judge Barrett's sentence. The mass meeting took place at Cooper Union on July 7. John Swinton, Edward King, John McMackin, and S. E. Shevich were the principal speakers. They all insisted on the necessity of organizing labor politically.

On July 11. 1886, the Central Labor Union of New York and Brooklyn met. A resolution was introduced by Ludwig Jablinowski, cigarmaker, and seconded by G. Block, secretary of the Bakers' National Union, proposing that a committee be appointed to devise the ways and means for forming an independent political labor organization. At the same time this committee was to consider how a daily newspaper in the interest of labor could be brought into life. After a lively discussion, in which the radical element took the initiative and strongly supported the proposed resolutions, the committee was appointed. It met often and discussed its task from different viewpoints. The main conclusions were: (1) To invite all labor organizations in New York and its vicinity, without consideration of their creed, beliefs or form of organization, to take part in the independent political action of labor, namely, in the New York city election in the coming fall, and (2) to lay the proposition before all local subordinate labor organizations for its thorough discussion by the individual members. These conclusions of the committee were at once accepted by the Central Labor Union. It was decided to invite all labor and other organizations connected with the labor movement -- Labor Unions, Knights of Labor, Greenbackers, Anti-monopolists, Socialist-Laborers, Land-Reformers, and others -- to discuss the proposition and to send delegates to a labor conference on August 5, 1886, at Clarendon Hall. The discussion in locals was lively and enthusiastic. Delegates were elected and instructed.

The conference was held on the appointed date in Clarendon Hall. Four hundred and two delegates were present, representing one hundred and sixty-five labor organizations with a membership of fifty thousand wage-earners. Among others the Socialist Labor party, as a bona fide labor organization, was represented through its delegates, who, according to the above resolution and invitation, were accepted by the conference. John Devitt, of the Painters' Union, called the assemblage to order, and John Morrison, of the Carpet "Weavers', was elected as temporary chairman, with James P. Archibald, of the Paper Hangers', as temporary secretary.

"When the technique of the organization of the conference was completed, Ludwig Jablinowski of the Cigarnakers' Union, a Socialist, made the motion that an Independent Labor party be formed. The motion was seconded by D. Emrich, George Block, and other Socialists, who among others made the principal speeches. Debate was long and lively. The only opposition was from Typographical Union No. 6, the representatives of which -- McKay, Glackin, and William McCabe -- spoke against the motion. McCabe favored the idea that organized labor should hold the balance of power and throw its might into the scale of either the Republican or the Democratic party. Finally the vote was taken. Three hundred and sixty-two delegates expressed themselves as in favor of independent political action by labor, and only forty expressed themselves as against it.

At the next meeting of the conference on August 19, there were present 508 delegates from 115 trade organizations -- a delegate from every 100 members. A committee of seven on permanent organization was chosen. This committee appointed as permanent chairman John McMackin, of the Painters', and as permanent secretary James P. Archibald, of the Paper Hangers'.[2] The committee went to work, and in the meantime the several leaders addressed the delegates. When the committee on permanent organization returned it reported in favor of a new political organization, to be known as the Independent Labor party of New York and vicinity. The report went on to declare a platform of principles in which the '' free soil'' idea was advocated; a demand was made that the laborers should share in the products of labor. Among other things asked for were a law forbidding the employment of children under fourteen years of age, the enforcement of the eight-hour law, the abolition of the convict labor system, equal pay for both sexes for equal work, the repeal of the conspiracy and tramp laws, a law declaring speculation in food products a criminal act; the abolition of the property qualification for jurors, and the abolition of tenement-house cigarmaking.[3]


The labor leaders were looking for a suitable standard bearer in the movement. The opinion prevailed among them that their candidate for mayor should be a labor man, belonging to no particular faction, honest, with a high reputation and widely known. Such a man appeared to be Henry George. Just how he became interested and entered the political field of labor is not known in detail. The authorship of the first suggestion to invite Henry George to become the Labor candidate for mayor is claimed by a newspaper man, Thomas W. Jackson. In an article in the New York Evening Mail, June 12, 1911, he speaks of attending in the summer of 1886 a gathering of labor unionists and labor reporters at the cooperative hat store in New York of a strikers' factory in Connecticut. At this gathering he suggested Henry George as the Labor candidate for mayor.

On the 20th of August. Mr. George was asked by the secretary of the Committee on Permanent Organization, Mr. Archibald, if he would accept the Labor nomination for mayor. Mr. George consulted his friends, and among others Mr. Louis F. Post, to whom he said that he would not run unless he could get at least 30,000 votes.

At the meeting of the conference on the 26th of August, McMackin presided and Archibald acted as secretary. The latter had received from Henry George a letter in which he said that he would accept the nomination upon the one condition: "That at least 30,000 citizens should, over their signatures, express the wish that I should become a candidate, and pledge themselves in such case to go to the polls and vote for me."[4] This statement was accompanied by his views on the singletax, and by some sharp critical remarks on existing conditions.

The letter was received by the conference with enthusiasm. There was not much discussion. It was decided to circulate copies of the letter and to start a canvass from shop to shop and from house to house gathering signatures to a pledge in accordance with the terms of the letter.

The Committee on Platform made a preliminary report. Some suggestions along the line of labor demands were made by several delegates, and the platform was returned to the Committee for further development. The next meeting of the Conference was held in Clarendon Hall on September 2. Mr. McMackin made a speech in favor of the candidacy of Henry George which was met with enthusiasm by the delegates, but on the candidacy nothing was decided definitely. The proposed assessment of the delegates one dollar each and of the union members 25 cents each, to help along the cause of independent political action, was positively decided.

These were the first steps whereby Henry George came into the labor movement, or, more correctly speaking, into the political phase of this movement. He was welcomed by organized labor for several reasons: His popularity as a powerful writer, especially the influence of his Progress and Poverty; his keen interest in and agitation for the Irish cause and the Irish land reform; his singletax theory based upon the land problem-the problem which had played so important a part in the movement of the masses in America; the fact that he was not affiliated with any current faction; and his good reputation. To think that the main cause was his singletax theory, as such, would be erroneous. The singletax as a general reform scheme was not familiar to and was not even understood by the working people. Then again, it would be superficial to think that Henry George was made a standard bearer of labor mainly because he himself had been a wage-earner and closely connected with the trade union movement. He had been a wage-earner, but at this time he was an employer of labor. His relations to the trade union movement were, in general, indifferent. He saw in the political uprising of labor only an opportunity to bring his singletax theory into practical politics; otherwise he was not interested in the labor movement, and its nature, meaning and extent he did not even fully comprehend. As we have seen, he became the standard bearer of organized labor not because of any active desire of his own, and not so much in consequence of an invitation initiated by the rank and file of organized labor, as in obedience to the call of some representatives of middle class people, mostly in liberal professions and converted to the singletax cause. These were radicals, who sympathized with the labor movement and had always had some influence upon it. Henry George's candidacy was rather an accident than an organic outcome of the labor movement itself.


The members of the Central Labor Union of New York represented the majority of the delegates to the Labor Conference. Almost every important move at the meetings of the Conference, usually held on Thursdays, was previously discussed and decided upon at the Sunday meetings of the Central Labor Union. The above-mentioned political platform of labor, based mainly upon labor demands, was a joint product of the Central Labor Union and of the Conference. But this platform, after the discussion on August 26, came up no more at the Conference meetings. Instead a new platform was substituted. This was written by Henry George,[5] in consultation with the Committee on Platform of the Conference and other leaders in the movement. The singletax was made its main issue.

The next meeting of the Conference, at which this platform was accepted and Henry George nominated, was held September 23, at Clarendon Hall; 175 labor organizations were represented, by 409 delegates. When the meeting was called to order, Frank Farrell, chairman of the Committee on Platform, read the new platform to the conference. It was as follows:

"The delegates of the trade and labor organizations of New York, In conference assembled, make this declaration:

"1. Holding that the corruptions of government and the impoverishment of labor result from neglect of the self-evident truths proclaimed by the founders of this Republic that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, we aim at the abolition of the system which compels men to pay their fellow-creatures for the use of God's gifts to all, and permits monopolizers to deprive labor of natural opportunities for employment, thus filling the land with tramps and paupers, and bringing about an unnatural competition which tends to reduce wages to starvation rates and to make the wealth producer the industrial slave of those who grow rich by his toll.

"2. Holding, moreover, that the advantages arising from social growth and improvement belong to society at large, we aim at the abolition of the system which makes such beneficent inventions as the railroad and telegraph a means for the oppression of the people, and the aggrandizement of an aristocracy of wealth and power. We declare the true purpose of government to be the maintenance of that sacred right of property which gives to everyone opportunity to employ his labor and security that he shall enjoy its fruits; to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, and the unscrupulous from robbing the honest; and to do for the equal benefit of all such things as can be better done by organized society than by individuals; and we aim at the abolition of all laws which give to any class of citizens advantages, either judicial, financial, industrial, or political, that. are not equally shared by all others.

"3. We further declare that the people of New York City should have full control of their own local affairs; that the practice of drawing grand jurors from one class should cease, and the requirements' of a property qualification for trial jurors should be abolished; that the procedure of our courts should be so simplified and reformed that the rich shall have no advantage over the poor; that the officious intermeddlings of the police with peaceful assemblages should be stopped; that4 the laws for the safety and sanitary inspection of buildings should be enforced; that in public work the direct employment of labor should be preferred to the system which gives contractors opportunity to defraud the city while grinding their workmen, and that in public employment equal pay should be accorded to equal work without distinction of sex.

"4. We declare the crowding of so many of our people into narrow tenements at enormous rents, while half the area of the city is yet unbuilt upon to be a scandalous evil, and to remedy this state of things all taxes on buildings and improvements should be abolished, so that no fine shall be put upon the employment of labor in increasing living accommodations, and that taxes should be levied on land irrespective of improvements, so that those who are now holding land vacant shall be compelled either to build on it themselves, or give up the land to those who will.

"5. We declare, furthermore, that the enormous value which the presence of a million and a half of people gives to the land of this city belongs properly to the whole community; that it should not go to the enrichment of individuals and corporations, but should be taken in taxation and applied to the improvement and beautifying of the city, to the promotion of the health, comfort, education, and recreation of its people, needs of a great metropolis. We also declare that existing means of transit should not be left in the hands of corporations which, while gaining enormous profits from the growth of population, oppress their employes and provoke strikes that interrupt travel and imperil the public peace, but should by lawful process be assumed by the city and operated for public benefit.

"6. To clear the way for such reforms as are impossible without it, we favor a Constitutional Convention, and since the ballot is the only method by which in our Republic the redress of political and social grievances is to be sought, we especially call for such changes in our elective methods as shall lessen the need of money in elections, discourage bribery, and prevent intimidation.

"7. And since in the coming most important municipal election independent political action affords the only hope of exposing and breaking up the extortion and speculation by which a standing army of professional politicians corrupt the public whom they plunder, we call on all citizens who desire honest government to Join us in an effort to secure It, and to show for once that the will of the people may prevail even against the money and organization of banded spoilsmen."[6]

After the reading of the platform there was a short discussion and it was accepted by the Conference. Then the nomination of candidates for mayor was taken up. James H. Casserly, of the American Order of National Carpenters and Joiners, proposed Henry George. After prolonged and enthusiastic cheers, Frank Farrell seconded the nomination, making a short appeal to workingmen to stand by Henry George and carry him on to ovictory. Half a dozen delegates spoke in favor of the candidate. The names of James J. Coogan and W. S. Thorn were placed in nomination and seconded.

The vote was as follows: For Henry George, 360; for Coogan 31; and for Thorn, 18.

An Executive Committee was elected to take charge of Henry George's canvass. Before the adjournment, a short letter written by Henry George was read to the conference. The letter was addressed to a delegate, Bogart, and concluded with this statement : "I have not sought any nomination, and if I accept one it will only be for the sake of advancing principles I believe in."[7]


The singletax was made the main issue, and on it rested the whole reform scheme of the existing economic order. The equal natural opportunities to all and the maintenance of the sacred rights of property, except land, were demanded. These points in the platform belonged to Henry George and his followers, as Singletaxers. But there were also in the platform certain labor demands, economic as well as political. These expressed the immediate demands of the labor unions, Knights of Labor and other labor organizations.

The confiscation of land values for the benefit of the general public, as a confiscation of a kind of means of production,[8] and the demand for the public ownership of the means of transportation and communication, besides labor demands, were to the Socialists, who saw at first in the singletax theory a '' partial Socialism."[9]

The Greenbackers did not include any direct clause for currency reform, except the demand for the equal share in "financial advantage" incorporated in the platform, but as the platform was written in a radical spirit and contained several demands which the Greenbackers had always favored, they agreed to it.

It is evident that it was a kind of compromise platform. Property rights were declared sacred, but property rights in land ownership were denied entirely; even against private ownership of public utilities a negative stand was taken. Then again, if the singletax were realized, from the viewpoint of the singletaxers there would be no need for special labor demands; every member of society then would be a laborer, and all natural opportunities would be equally open to all, and, of course, "natural" competition must not be checked. What end, then, did the labor demands in the platform serve? Possibly, they served for the consummation of the compromise between the two conceptions of labor, the one which meant that everyone was a laborer except landowners as such, the singletax conception of labor, and the other meaning the class of wage-earners who own neither land nor capital -- the labor union and Socialist conception of labor.

At any rate, if the parties allied in the movement were not fully satisfied with the platform, they were satisfied enough to stand shoulder to shoulder and to make a rousing and enthusiastic political campaign; after all, actual, real needs are more powerful in moving the masses than are principles, philosophical doctrines, and leaders, although these also are necessary for success. In the present case, the movement was in its nature purely a labor movement in the proper sense of this term, and immediate labor demands, economic and political, constituted the mainspring of the movement.

It is of some interest to note that the original Clarendon Hall Platform, read at the meeting of the conference on September 23, contained at the end the following clause: '' We hold farther that the emancipation of labor will be accomplished by the workingmen themselves."[10] It is conceivable how the Singletaxers and Socialists (also labor unionists) could agree on this clause, differing only in regard to the concept of labor. But this clause was very soon dropped, it is not known under what circumstances.


On October 1, in Checkering Hall, was held a mass meeting of the radical representatives of the middle-class people to support Henry George's candidacy. The gathering was quite an inspiring event, 2300 people being present. At the end of the meeting a resolution was adopted, indorsing the candidacy of Henry George.


Henry George formally accepted the nomination by organized labor at the meeting of the conference on October 5, 1886, at Cooper Union. All the seats, the stage, and the aisles were occupied; even the streets near the hall were crowded. In full view of the audience were placed the rolls containing the 34,000 signatures of voters for Henry George's candidacy for mayor. The chairman of the Executive Committee, John McMackin, called the meeting to order. The chairman of the Chickering Hall meeting, Rev. John W. Kramer, in a short speech assured organized labor of the support of those whom he represented in its efforts for good government and industrial emancipation by political methods. Then McMackin made a short speech, in which he tendered the nomination by organized labor to Henry George.

Then Mr. George spoke. He said, in part:

"When my nomination for Mayor of New York was first talked of, I regarded it as a nomination which was not to be thought about. I did not desire to be mayor of New York. …I saw what practical politics meant; I saw that under the conditions as they were, a man who would make a political career must cringe and fawn and intrigue and flatter, and I resolved that I would not so degrade my manhood . . . but when the secretary of this nominating convention came to me and said, "You are the only man upon whom we can unite . . . I could not refuse. …I asked for some tangible evidence. …That evidence you have given me. All I asked and more . . ."

Henry George in his address described in picturesque language the political corruption in New York, adding:

"Look over our vast city, and what do we see? On one side a very few men richer by far than it is good for them to be, and on the other side a great mass of men and women struggling and worrying and wearying to get a most pitiful living."

The cause of such misery Mr. George explained as being found in private ownership of and speculation in land, stating that the remedy for such evil was the singletax. He continued:

"Here is the heart of the labor question, and until we address ourselves to that, the labor question never can be solved. …We are beginning a movement for the abolition of industrial slavery. …Let us, therefore stand together . . ."[11]

After the main address Henry George made short speeches to the crowds on the streets.

To the Executive Committee for the direction of the political campaign by organized labor was added the committee elected at the Chickering Hall meeting.

Thus the independent political action by organized labor was launched; the necessary organization effected, the platform accepted, a suitable candidate for the mayoralty found, and the campaign began.


  1. The Leader, August 6, 1887, p. 2.
  2. New York Times, Aug. 20, 1886, p. 3.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Appendix I.
  5. The Public, No. 3, 1911, p. 1128.
  6. The George-Hewttt Campaign, pp. 12-15.
  7. New York Sun, Sept. 24, 1886, p. 1.
  8. In this sense the singletax was accepted by the Socialists, at first.
  9. Lawrence Gronlund. Insufficiency of Henry George's Theory, New York, 1887, p. 8.
  10. New Yorker Volkszeitung, Sept. 24, 1886, p. 1.
  11. Ibid., pp. 19-29.