Explaining Labor Universalism: Organizational Context and Trade Union Support for Welfare Benefits in the UK and US, 1870-1911

Maya Adereth, London School of Economics

Until the late 19th century, the British and American labour movements shared a tradition of craft unionism which relied on an expansive system of voluntary sickness, death, unemployment, and superannuation benefits. By the early 20th century, the movements had diverged: while the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) relinquished its commitment to voluntarism in favour of state provided health and pension schemes, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) persisted along voluntarist lines, campaigning against social insurance proposals. What accounts for this divergence? I use the countries’ most powerful railway unions as case studies of these shifts. I argue that within the welfare state literature, insufficient attention has been paid to the varieties of perceived interests held by workers and their representative bodies. Within the industrial relations literature, causal explanations for this variety are limited to the world of work, indicating the impetus for organizational change but not the particular organizational models adopted. Emphasizing the largely neglected importance of organizational arenas, I argue that the trajectory of voluntarism as an organizational form is partially responsible for the trade unions’ respective position on state benefits. Early on, trade unions in both countries adopted voluntary benefits because they enabled them to mimic the far more respected and very popular friendly and fraternal benefit societies. Benefits legitimated trade unions before governing elites, and helped them appeal to members who were already familiar with this organizational form. By the end of the century, voluntarism had entered a prolonged crisis in the UK, while it continued to flourish in the US—and trade unions had to respond. By pointing to the importance of organizational environments in shaping trade union orientation towards welfare benefits, this analysis advances the studies of class formation, welfare state development, and the pursuit of wellbeing in the labor movement.

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 Presented in Session 208. Unions and the Fight for Labor Rights