The Single Tax and the Labor Movement
CHAPTER 5, PART 2
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. 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'. 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.
HENRY GEORGE STEPS IN
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." This statement was accompanied by his views on
the singletax, and by some sharp critical remarks on existing
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
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
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 SINGLETAX MADE THE ISSUE
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, 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
"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
"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
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."
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE PLATFORM
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, 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."
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." 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.
CHICKERING HALL MEETING OF THE OUTSIDE SUPPORTERS
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.
THE ACCEPTANCE OF THE NOMINATION
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
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
We are beginning a movement for the abolition of
Let us, therefore stand together . . ."
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.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- The Leader, August 6,
1887, p. 2.
- New York Times, Aug.
20, 1886, p. 3.
- Appendix I.
- The Public, No. 3,
1911, p. 1128.
- The George-Hewttt Campaign,
- New York Sun, Sept.
24, 1886, p. 1.
- In this sense the singletax
was accepted by the Socialists, at first.
- Lawrence Gronlund. Insufficiency
of Henry George's Theory, New York, 1887, p. 8.
- New Yorker Volkszeitung,
Sept. 24, 1886, p. 1.
- Ibid., pp. 19-29.