- The Practical Utopians: American Workers and the Cooperative Movement in the Gilded Age
Today's "food for people, not for profit" grocery co-ops may be one of the few vestiges of the cooperative movement that its post-Civil War practitioners would recognize today. But Steve Leiken makes his treatment of this nascent movement of cooperatives incredibly easy to read and follow.
U.S. cooperatives then were based on the "Rochdale" cooperative movement in England that sold goods to members at market prices but returned profits to members in proportion to their purchases (sounds like the cash-back feature of the Discover credit card). But in the time period studied by Leiken, 1865-90, they flourished and then failed.
In an "increasingly mechanized economy," Leiken writes, workers were less their own bosses and more on the receiving end of "wage slavery." The phrase didn't have the left connotation of today. With memories of Southern slavery and the paroxysms of the Civil War still fresh in their minds, workers found the "slavery" analogy bitter indeed. Cooperation was an approach to give workers some pre-Marxian measure of control over the means of production.
Leiken details cooperative attempts by shoemakers in Massachusetts, [End Page 92] barrel makers in Minnesota, and the Knights of Labor, who witnessed coal miners in the most desperate of straits. "Hounded by the blacklist, dependent upon company housing, and forced to shop at company stores, miners experienced a particularly intense variety of industrial inequality," Leiken notes. John Samuel, a member of the Knights of Labor's Cooperative Board, once suggested as a part of plan of action, "Cultivate patience, harmony & good feeling & all will come our right."
But the Knights were to abandon the cooperative movement as the group went into decline. One Knights cooperative in Missouri "hoped to establish … a self-sufficient community, replete with agricultural and industrial facilities," Leiken writes. But their "isolated utopia grew less and less utopian. The colony collapsed after three hard years in a tumult of internal bickering." In another Knights cooperative, "cooperators allowed businesses to degenerate into corporations. Workers, they often suggested, were selfish, interested in quick profits and unable to choose the best men to lead them. Cooperative stores failed once they succumbed to the ruination of the workingman, credit."
For the shoemakers, "cooperators transformed their workplaces into miniature republics. Yet they attempted, as well, to reassert their power and dominance as male workers and to create a cooperative hierarchy." Shoe workers in Stoneham, Mass., even struck against themselves. The Minneapolis coopers, despite aid from miller Charles Pillsbury, lost out to the mechanization of their craft.
The Practical Utopians, despite its detailing an esoteric sliver of labor history, would be right at home in a labor history or economics curriculum, if only as an adjunct text.