The Single Tax and the Labor Movement


Peter Alexander Speek

[A Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, No. 878, 1917, pp. 109-120]


In the local organizations of the new party the organizing process and educational work went on. Almost every district organization had its debating club, and rooms provided with books and papers, while picnics and excursions gave the members and their families opportunity for pleasure.

Henry George was quite optimistic about the future of the party. He stated that while the other parties were decaying, the United Labor party had the advantage

"of having a clear principle and a definite idea. The land question, which is another name for the labor question, has gotten so far into discussion that it will go forward now by its own momentum, gathering like a snowball."[1]

What the conditions were, how the work was done, and what developments took place in the assembly districts, may be seen in the reports of the Standard and the Leader for the months of July and August, 1887. In the eighth, tenth and fourteenth assembly district organizations, an open split between the Singletaxers and the Socialists actually occurred as a result of the ruling of McMackin.

In the eighth district, Hugo Vogt was chairman. At a meeting on August 5, a delegate to the County General Committee moved that the chair of the district organization be declared vacant, as Hugo Vogt, its occupant, was a member of the Socialist Labor party. Hugo Vogt explained that the ruling of Mc-Mackin

"was directed not only against the members of the Socialist Labor party, but against Socialists in general, for the purpose of getting rid of them, as many voters seemed to have a prejudice against Socialism, and in order to gain those votes it was proposed to drive the Socialists from the party."[2]

The motion to depose Hugo Vogt was voted down by a vote of forty-seven to five. The delegates to the County General and Executive Committees were instructed, "each and all, as a unit, to demand the reconsideration of the decision against the Socialists as unjust and calculated to destroy the party.''[3]

When the Executive Committee of the eighth assembly district met on August 12 to transact some routine business, it found in the rooms of the organization a number of members who had been invited by postal cards to attend a ''special meeting" of the organization.[4] Chairman Hugo Vogt declared that Lavener, financial secretary of the organization, who had signed the invitation cards, had no right to call a special meeting. Lavener answered that Hugo Vogt and many others were no more members of the United Labor party, as they belonged to the Socialist Labor party. Vogt was then asked by a member to make a ruling on the right of the members of the Socialist Labor party to participate in the proceedings of the organization. The chairman ruled that they had such right. "William P. Rogers appealed from the decision of the chair, but the chair was sustained by a large majority. Lavener then called upon all members, non-Socialists, to follow him to another hall. He attempted to take the records of the organization, but was prevented from doing so. The struggle for the records was followed by disorder in the room. Lavener summoned help from the nearest police station, but before the police arrived, order was restored. Lavener was again refused the records. Then Bogert with his followers, twenty-six members, retired. They assembled in another place and elected a new set of officers and delegates to the coming state convention.

Thus were elected two sets of delegates: the one consisting of the Socialists and elected by a regular meeting of the assembly district organization, before the ruling of McMackin; the other consisting of the Singletaxers and elected by a "bolting" section of the organization, after the ruling of McMackin.

The organization of the tenth assembly district was rapidly extending. August M. Mayer was chairman. At a meeting on July 27, was read the resolution of the County Executive Committee declaring that membership in the Socialist Labor party did not disqualify a citizen for membership in the United Labor party. Chairman Mayer said that he would consult the County General Committee on the question, and pending a decision of that body he would retire from the chair.

On August 6 a special meeting was called by Chairman Mayer. He asked all members of the Socialist Labor party to leave the hall. Nobody moved, but loud protests were heard from every side of the hall. A member made a motion to elect another chairman, which August Mayer ignored. Another member then asked whether or not all transactions in which any member of the Socialist Labor party had taken part were unconstitutional, and therefore null and void, adding that if this were so, the constitution of the party was null and void also, as members of the Socialist Labor party had assisted in drawing it up and other members of that party had voted for it. August Mayer answered that McMackin had only decided against the illegality of the business transacted by the tenth assembly district organization at their last two meetings. Herzberg, Walter, Lange, and Shevich asked for the floor, but they were declared out of order by the chairman. Reinhard Meyer thereupon demanded that the vice-chairman should preside. Then the chairman, August Mayer, declared that if the Socialists did not leave the hall within five minutes, he and his friends would leave instead. When the five minutes were over August Mayer and his followers, eighteen in number, left the hall. Vice-Chairman Goldsmith took the chair. The places of the officers who had just left the hall were declared vacant; among them were three delegates to the County General Committee.

The vote declaring August Mayor's office vacant was unanimous, fifty-eight members voting in the affirmative. Thereupon new officers of the organization were elected. The resolution of the eighth assembly district organization protesting against McMackin's ruling was indorsed unanimously.

Meanwhile August Mayer and his friends met in Brecht's bowling alleys and, in their turn, declared vacant the seats of the officers, elected by what they termed the ''Socialist Organization," including the delegates to the central organizations of the party and the delegates to the state convention. New officers and delegates to the state convention were elected.

Thus appeared in the tenth assembly district, as in the eighth, two sets of delegates. Delegates to the state convention were elected in the fourteenth assembly district. At a meeting on August 8, a communication was received from the eighth assembly district, consisting of resolutions denouncing the County General Committee. Chairman Murray ruled that the resolutions should not be read. George Block appealed from the decision of the chair. The chair was sustained by a vote of forty-two to twenty-three, and the Socialists left the room.

The next business of this meeting was the election of delegates to the state convention, as the delegates of the county general committee, before elected, were Socialists, and could not, according to the decision, be members of the party. The election of new delegates was made a special order for a meeting on August ll.[5]

The bolting Socialist faction assembled in another hall, declared that they represented the fourteenth assembly district organization of the party, and elected Francis Schaider chairman and G. H. Koenig secretary. George Block stated that there was

"apparently a movement on foot to reduce the United Labor party to a middle class tax reform party. …George begins to find fault with the word "labor," and is apparently using the labor organization of this state to further his pet scheme. I should not be a bit surprised to see George and his party one of these days in cooperation with the Democratic party. The object of the Socialists is not to force any Socialist ideas on the United Labor party. What they want is to guard the working people against being defrauded and misled by any scheme entirely foreign to their interests. George fears the Socialists on that account, and for that reason he was anxious to have them excommunicated."[6]

The meeting decided that the election of new delegates to the convention was illegal, as the delegates had actually and regularly been elected by the assembly district before the ruling of McMackin. At the meeting on August 11, in the presence of a number of sympathizers with the Socialists, there occurred a lively discussion on the split caused by the ruling of McMackin.

Phillip Duckfield said that the whole thing was in the interest of Henry George and his land theories. There was no labor question about the whole business.[7]

The second set of delegates to the state convention was then elected.

Thus appeared also in the fourteenth district two sets of delegates; the one consisting of the Socialists, elected regularly before the ruling of McMackin, the other elected also regularly, but after the ruling. McCabe moved that the delegates be instructed to adhere to the Clarendon Hall platform. Murphy presented a resolution that the delegates be ordered to vote for a constitution for the United Labor party that would enable Socialists to join the party. Dealing proposed to instruct the delegates to fight by "tooth and nail" every effort that might be made to change the name of the United Labor party. Shaider said that the delegates should at least adhere, to the retention of the word "labor" in the party's name. All these resolutions and suggestions were adopted by the meeting.[8]

At the last meeting before the state convention, on August 15, the Socialist faction adopted a resolution declaring that their delegates, if rejected by the convention, should withdraw, together with their friends, as a protest against the action of the convention.[9]

In brief, the twenty-four assembly district organizations of the United Labor party in the city of New York differed in their attitude toward the conflict between the Singletaxers and the Socialists as follows: Ten assembly district organizations, 1, 6, 9, 12, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, and 24, protested against the ousting of the Socialists from the United Labor party; seven, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 16 and 23, approved the ousting of the Socialists; four, 11, 13, 15 and 21, did not express their attitude toward the conflict; three, 8, 10 and 14, had an open split between the Singletaxers and the Socialists, resulting in the election of two sets of delegates from each of those districts.[10]

The majority of the assembly district organizations adopted resolutions and instructions emphasizing the labor side of the movement -- the difference in interests between labor and capital -- defending the party's name with the term "labor" in it, and strongly favoring the Clarendon Hall Platform for the reasons that organized labor, having been united on it, had made a very successful political campaign the fall before, and that there were rumors current that Henry George and his followers were planning to leave out the labor demands from the new platform. These rumors had some visible ground in the opposition of the "George men" to the word "labor" in the party's name, and in their desire to get rid of the Socialists in the party. The assembly district organizations strongly emphasized, among other labor demands, the shortening of the working day.

Such was the situation in the assembly district organizations before the state convention.

With reference to the conflict between the Singletaxers and the Socialists, the locals, as shown above, were divided almost into equal groups: the one protesting against the ruling of McMackin and the other, slightly smaller, approving it. However, the division does not indicate that the former were in favor of Socialism and the latter in favor of the Singletax theory. Only a small number of those protesting were Socialists, consciously opposing the singletax; while the greater part of them protested solely because they did not want any split in the ranks of organized labor and did not want to lose the assistance of the energetic and active Socialists, many of whom were influential leaders in the trade unions. Among those who approved the decision of McMackin, only a small number were converted Singletaxers. Most of them sided with Henry George because he was a very popular man, under whose leadership organized labor was united and who had conducted the successful political campaign of the previous fall.


Section 10 of the Central Labor Union met on August 9. Delegates were present from the Progressive Musical Union No. 1, the International Millwrights' and Millers' Union, and the German Coopers' Union No. 1. By a two-thirds vote a resolution was adopted in which it was stated that

"this section of the Central Labor Union regards the action of the County General Committee as a deplorable mistake, and it calls upon the organized workingmen of this city to protest against their action, and insist that the United Labor party should remain a labor party and maintain its labor character, as originally intended by the Central Labor Union."[11]

The Central Labor Union itself was in a peculiar position. It was afraid to take sides in this controversy which would result, in a split in its own ranks. At a meeting on August 7, delegate Edward W. Pinkelstone, of the Barbers', opened his speech by referring to the fact that the previous fall the Central Labor Union decided to go into independent politics. The mere mention of the term "politics" resulted in a motion to deprive the delegate of the privileges of the floor. This motion was followed by such disorder that Delegate Finkelstone could no longer continue his speech, and the meeting had to be adjourned.[12]

At the regular weekly meeting of the Central Labor Union on August 14, the Cigarmakers' International Union No. 10 reported that their delegates were instructed to request the Central Labor Union to bring peace and harmony in the United Labor party. Food Produce Section No. 6 sent a resolution condemning the action of the United Labor party in excommunicating the Socialists. The chair ruled the resolution out of order, inasmuch as there was no request attached. An appeal from the decision of the chair was made. The chair was sustained by a vote of sixty-three against fifty-three. Somewhat later the discussion was reopened and this time the chair was sustained by a tie vote.[13]

The great number of the trade unions, including the Central Labor Union itself, did not take sides in the political controversy between the Singletaxers and the Socialists because they did not want "to meddle with politics" and were afraid of a split in their own ranks. The trade unions which did express their attitude were divided in very nearly the same proportion and for the same reasons as the assembly district organizations of the party.

Just how many labor union organizations protested against the decision of McMackin is not known. S. E. Shevich stated, at the Syracuse convention, that there were twelve labor-union organizations, representing 17,000 workingmen, which protested. His opponent, August W. Mayer, denied this,[14] stating that if there were so many protesting unions, there were the building trades unions, representing over 40,000 men, which approved the decision of McMackin.[15]

Considering the fact that the German branches of the building trades voted separately to protest, and that the building trades participated in the making up of the above-mentioned tie vote of the Central Labor Union, it may be safely concluded that the labor unions which definitely expressed their attitude toward the conflict were divided in the proportion before stated.


In the middle of July the Leader published a series of interviews with the various labor leaders on political action, on the United Labor party, on its platform, and on the relations between the Singletaxers and the Socialists.

James B. Quinn, master workman of District Assembly 49, Knights of Labor, advocated unity in the labor movement. In his opinion, the shortening of hours of labor should be the first step toward the solution of the problem of the wage-system. In reference to the singletax issue, he stated that a labor party cannot be built upon one issue alone.[16]

Samuel Gompers, president of the Federation of Trades, said that the labor movement, to succeed politically, must work for tangible results; that the ultimate end of the labor movement was the abolition of the wage-system; that George's theory of land taxation did not promise present reform, nor an ultimate solution; that the mere taxation of land values could not settle the questions between capital and labor; that the aim of capital had been to make the worker a constantly greater producer ; whereas the aim of the labor movement was to make him also a greater consumer; that the most important thing of all was, firstly, the reduction of the hours of labor so that machinery might be in fact what it was in name -- "labor saving;" secondly, prohibition of the employment of children under fourteen years of age; thirdly, restriction and regulation of female labor."[17]

Henry Emrich, secretary of the International Furniture Workers' Union, thought that the Syracuse platform ought to contain (1) nationalization of land; (2) nationalization of instruments of labor; and (3) all practical labor demands, among which the shortening of hours of labor was the "first and foremost demand." He was opposed to converting all taxes into one tax on land values. "Other capital ought also to share the-burden of taxation."[18]

Edward Finkelstone of the Barbers' Protective Union was in favor of the governmental control of monopolies. Among the labor demands he considered the shortening of hours of labor most important because "this, for us, is the question."[19]


The New York section of the Socialist Labor party held a mass meeting on August 7. Henry George, McMackin, and McGlynn were invited to participate in the discussion on the relations between the Socialists and the United Labor party. They declined on the ground that the meeting was called by a political organization other than the United Labor party.

A resolution against the expulsion of the Socialists from the United Labor party was adopted. In support of this resolution the following arguments were set forth: The Socialists had never forced their doctrines upon the party; they had adopted its platform and would stand on it; they wanted a labor party which would be capable of knitting all the elements of organized labor together for the purpose of satisfying their immediate and practical demands as a class in the struggle against capital; the Socialist Labor party was not a political organization in the sense of the clause of the constitution of the United Labor party.[20] It was further stated that the leaders of the United Labor party had feared that the Socialists might stir up discontent by their criticism of Henry George's land theory, and that Henry George desired to make the middle or shop-keeping class the mainstay of his party.[21]

The National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor party sent out an appeal to trade unions in which it stated that Henry George was pushing into the foreground his one-sided land and tax scheme, his special hobby, which "contemptuously throws aside the wage question that brought him to the front."[22]


The Leader strongly refuted the rumors that the Socialists were trying to capture the United Labor party. It wrote in an editorial entitled "Idle Talk":

"All that talk of the 'boodle' papers about the Socialists 'capturing* this and 'sitting down' on that, about the United Labor party being 'tied hand and foot,' and the 'George men' being 'nowhere' -- all because a few men known as Socialists were in some Assembly Districts elected by a majority of voters as delegates to the Syracuse Convention -- is as malicious as it is ludicrous. …It is but natural that in voting for delegates to the Syracuse Convention they should select men holding the same views as they do on social economic Questions. But these men have not the slightest intention of 'capturing' anything or 'sitting down' on anybody."[23]

In another editorial entitled "What is behind it" the Leader blamed the press of the old parties for trying to split the United Labor party by attacking the Socialists, "resisting every effort that has been and still is being made to warp the political movement of Labor into a channel in which the very name and spirit of Labor will be regarded as too 'narrow.' "[24]

The Leader, being opposed to an open split in the United Labor party, proposed the following compromise:

  1. Declaration by the Socialist Labor party, as it has already done in a resolution adopted last Saturday at a meeting of the New York section, that it is not a political party as against a bona fide labor party.
  2. Reconsideration of the McMackin decision.
  3. Investigation of the election of delegates in the districts where election is contested.


After the ruling of McMackin, Henry George and his followers had taken a decided stand against the Socialists in the United Labor party. To quote Henry George:

"The platform to be adopted by the United Labor party convention at Syracuse should firmly and clearly define the position of the party with relation to Socialism. This is rendered necessary by the organized endeavor of the State or German Socialists to impress their peculiar views upon the party -- an endeavor that has become so notorious that any disposition to evade the issue, whether or not the United Labor party indorse these views, would give its enemies a specious pretext to make the charge that it does."[26]

McGlynn had similar views upon the conflict.


Kings (Brooklyn) County organizations of the new party began their actual preparations for the state convention at Syracuse on July 18. Meetings at which the delegates to the County Convention were elected, took place on the evening of that day all over the city of Brooklyn." The County Convention was held on July 21.

Almost all of the assembly district organizations in Brooklyn emphasized in their resolutions the labor side of the movement and demanded the adoption of the Clarendon Hall Platform as the "only platform which contained a sufficient definition of the strained relations between labor and capital,"[28] and on which ''United Labor could stand."[29] The 29th Ward did not consider the Socialist Labor party "to be a political body, but only an organization of propaganda."[30]

The Kings County elected thirty-six delegates and as many alternates-three delegates from each assembly district.

The organizations of the United Labor party in the other counties of the state were not very strong; some existed on paper only. Besides the regular organizations there appeared quite a number of the Land and Labor Clubs. The other counties elected thirty-five delegates and twenty-five alternates all told, to the state convention at Syracuse.

This was the condition of the United Labor party in the state of New York before the state convention at Syracuse on August 17, 1887, the preparations for which resulted in an open split between the Singletaxers and the Socialists. This split, in turn, led to a cleavage in the ranks of the party -- the members of organized labor.


  1. Leader, July 2, 1887, p. 1.
  2. Leader, Aug. 6, 1887, p. 1.
  3. Ibid., and the Standard, Aug. 13, 1887, p. 1.
  4. Standard, Aug. 20, 1887, p. 3.
  5. Standard, Aug. 13, 1887, p. 1.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Leader, Aug. 12, 1887, p. 2.
  8. Leader, Aug. 12, 1887, p. 2.
  9. Leader, Aug. 8, 1887, p. 2.
  10. Appendix IV.
  11. Leader, Aug. 10, 1887, p. 2.
  12. Standard, Aug. 13, 1887, p. 1.
  13. Standard, Aug. 20, 1887, p. 3.
  14. Leader, August 18, 1887, p. 1, col. 1.
  15. Public, Nov. 17, 1911, p. 1176.
  16. Leader, July 25, 1887, p. 1.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Leader, July 25, 1887, p. 2.
  19. Ibid., July 27, 1887, p. 1.
  20. In the preamble of the party it was stated that it was "chiefly a propagandist party." Leader, Aug. 12, 1887, p. 2.
  21. Standard, Aug. 13, 1887, p. 1.
  22. Standard, Aug. 13, 1887, p. 1.
  23. Leader, July 28, 1887, p. 2.
  24. Leader, Aug. 8, 1887, p. 2.
  25. The Leader, Aug. 10, 1887, p. 2.
  26. The Leader, Aug. 4, 1887, p. 1.
  27. The Leader, July 19, 1887, p. 2.
  28. Leader, Aug. 4, 1887, p. 2.
  29. Ibid., Aug. 5, 1887, p. 2.
  30. Ibid., Aug. 10, 1887, p. 2.