Dorothy Sue Cobble's “Up for Debate” retrospective on the early American Federation of Labor heralds a new era of scholarship connecting labor history to larger judgments about American institutionalism — be it business, politics, the law, or ideology. Cobble reclaims both the complexity of AFL structure and its oppositional stance to market fundamentalism from what she claims (à la E. P. Thompson) from the condescension of history: ultimately, she wants to reconsider the federation as “part of a progressive political tradition on which future generations of reformers can build.” The range of responses from four distinguished commentators suggest just how “radical” (to use a term contested throughout the exchange) Cobble's revisionist turn is. Melvyn Dubofsky, for example, who had once accepted the conventional “business unionism” dismissal of the AFL, now ventures halfway in Cobble's direction: the early AFL, he allows, may well have been more pluralist and politically contentious than previously recognized; however, there was a “darker” side of intolerance and missed opportunities that grew worse through the 1920s. Andrew Wender Cohen not only reaffirms Cobble's central claims regarding the de facto mixed-skill nature of the AFL, but goes further to emphasize its city-based struggles for workers' control. Altogether, the federation, he suggests, was at once a defining historical force in the period and of “vital” benefit to working people. Donna Haverty-Stacke prefers to interrogate further the very framing of the AFL across time. Just how and why labels like “pure and simple” and “conservative trade unionism” were created and “how they functioned” offer an agenda, she suggests, for further research. Within this forum, Julie Greene is the least inclined to accept Cobble's main premises. Although she welcomes renewed attention to the AFL's more innovative aspects, she insists that the federation be judged in relation to actually existing contemporary alternatives. In such light — particularly with attention to an incessant AFL attack on the Labor Left and support for US imperialism — the claim for AFL “radicalism,” in her view, appears far-fetched. Cobble responds with a gracious but full-throated defense of her core arguments.
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Dorothy Sue Cobble; Pure and Simple Radicalism: Putting the Progressive Era AFL in Its Time. Labor 1 December 2013; 10 (4): 61–87. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/15476715-2348700
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