Democrats and Labor: A Beautiful Friendship

It's been one hundred years since the Democrats and the unions allied to help the common man.

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DENVER—The cash-strapped convention here got an eleventh hour bailout from the American Federation of Teachers and AFSCME, the national public employees union.

The news reinforced Republican talking points (that the Democrats are tools of parasitic government workers, you know) but also served as a reminder of historic events from 100 years ago.

It was at a Democratic convention, in Denver in 1908, that the American Federation of Labor broke with precedent and endorsed a presidential candidate: William Jennings Bryan.

It was no easy decision for Sam Gompers' boys. For much of the late 19th century, organized labor in America was divided between "radicals" who believed that the rights of working folk could best be achieved via political action on a national or international scale, and those who believed that labor should change society through trade unionism, one jobsite and factory at a time. Gompers was on the conservative side.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, had no great history with organized labor. It was a Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, who ordered federal troops into the streets of Chicago in 1894 to break up the historic Pullman strike by American railway workers, led by Eugene Debs.

And Republican president Teddy Roosevelt, as far as labor was concerned, was a vast improvement over his GOP predecessors. TR offered a more balanced approach to industrial issues. When interceding to settle the 1902 coal strike, he was the first president to recognize the role that organized labor played in the American economy.

But Roosevelt was leaving office in 1908, to be replaced by the more conservative William Howard Taft. And Bryan the great champion of "the common man," was back as the Democratic nominee, (for the third time).

The AFL endorsed Bryan. Bryan lost. But four years later, with Bryan's help, Woodrow Wilson captured the White House—the first Democrat since Cleveland—and pushed a progressive agenda through Congress.

And that, as Captain Renault would say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.