Last night I watched the Panorama programme on BBC TV, which examined the views of several Trump voters a year after the election. What struck me was the extent to which Trump was able to garner the votes of America's (mostly white) dispossessed - a lot in the Rust Belt.

In Britain, and in other European countries, their voices would have found expression through the Labour Party, trades unions, working-men's clubs etc. It was also the movement which produced a publicly funded National Health Service, perhaps the Labour Party's greatest monument.

What happened in America's big cities between say 1890 and 1950 that no democratic socialist movement gained nationwide traction, and that the industrial working class, in the northern cities, came to depend on the Democratic party, which had totally different origins among southern white farmers, and which contained a strong segregationist instinct?

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    You're actually asking for a rather extensive history of the US here. This may be a bit too broad. But, FYI, the US has a rather large labor movement early/mid 1900s and said movement was tied to the democratic party: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_history_of_the_United_States Also of possible interest: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user1530
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 17:11
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    There absolutely was a trade-union and labor movement in the U.S. from 1890 to 1950, including about 34% of private sector workers in the late 1940s. And, while the term "democratic socialist" was not a popular one, New Deal Democrats were in substance Democratic Socialists. The divergence from Europe is mostly due to the post-1970 decline of the private sector labor movement in the U.S. and not to the lack of one in the first place in the U.S.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 3:30
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    @ohwilleke Britain's Trade Unions have also declined since the 70s (though the political structure remains) - largely due to a major switch from manufacturing to service. But perhaps importantly America's "new deal socialism" did not get going until the 1930s. The Labour Party in Britain had been founded in 1900. Added to that the effect of the two wars, food rationing, the need for post-war reconstruction etc. created a stronger egalitarian climate, leading to the founding of the NHS in 1947. Post-war recovery was much easier in the US, which I believe held 45% of world GDP in 1945.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 9:08
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    Turns out someone wrote a book explaining exactly this thing. Does anyone have a copy? press.princeton.edu/titles/8668.html Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 0:15
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    @indigochild Looks interesting.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 23:45

5 Answers 5


There was a big labor movement in the United States, they accomplished quite a bit for workers rights. Unions managed to get worker safety, leave, and no longer get payed in company scrip. These accomplishments happened roughly in the time frame you ask about. The biggest win for workers was probably the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which crated minimum wage, overtime pay, the 40hr work week, banned scrip, and restricted child labor.

Unions lost traction in the U.S. post WWII. The economic boom following WWII that helped rebuild Europe there was enough demand that unions weren't as necessary to make a good living even as general labor. This was also the cold war era in which everything even remotely communist/socialist was heavily demonized largely due to the domino theory. Unions post 1950 also merged and started gaining monopoly status which led to rent seeking against corporations rather than seeking mutually beneficial arrangements, unions in the U.S. are significantly more hostile to management/companies they work for than many of their European counterparts.

Finally unions in the U.S. links to organized crime that are somewhat problematic in becoming a legitimate political party, without being part of a larger part of a larger party. When combined with the two party system in the U.S. the only option for unions was to join an existing party.

  • Yeah but when was "scrip" active in the US? In the UK it was banned (for some industries) in 1831, (the Truck Act) and overall in the 1880s. So unless America was far behind, I'm not sure this is relevant to the period (1890s to 1950s) of the question. Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 18:10
  • @BrianDrummond updated answer, US didn't ban scrip until 1938.
    – Ryathal
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 13:15

Union busting was more efficient in the US than in Europe. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_union_busting_in_the_United_States for more information. The red scare also helped destroy the US unions.

After the Russian revolution such heavy handed tactics could not be used in Europe out of the fear of igniting a revolution. The USA did not have that pressure.

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    I've +1 but I really think you should develop your answer providing further sources and context. I also have a hunch that US union membership is not below world average (probably quite the opposite). The premise of the question might be wrong.
    – armatita
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 10:35

The difference is basically psychological. The European countries have long-established class distinctions between "working class" and "upper class". The US basically doesn't. (This is simplified, of course: I'm not in the mood to write a text.)

There really aren't any such permanent class distinctions in the US. This goes back to the sort of people who'd choose to immigrate to a new land, expressed in the Declaration of Independence's "We hold... that all men are created equal..." In general, every American regarded himself as equal to anyone else: if he was not wealthy at the moment, he believed that could be changed through his own efforts.

This attitude was even more prevalent in the 1890-1950 era than it is today, having been somewhat eroded by various socialist & labor union activities. So, unless working in some industry where conditions were egregiously bad, the typical American would be reluctant to seek collectivist relief, because he expected that he would be bearing the cost in his future prosperous state.

You can see this today, where despite the ongoing efforts of unions, areas other than e.g. factory work, where people are essentially interchageable parts, tend to be reluctant to unionize. Essentially, skilled workers believe they can do better for themselves as individuals than shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all box. (I experienced this myself, as a construction worker. The union imposed a set amount of work per day: Finish that early, and you had to just sit around until quitting time.)

As for the segregation factor, that also goes back to "created equal", The segregations simply did not believe that black people (or women, FTM) were created equal, so in their view, it was perfectly reasonable to enact laws to restrict them from acting as though they were equal.

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    Do you really believe that European countries have "permanent class distinctions" between "working class and upper class"? But to address the issue, Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation alleges that the unions in the Mid-West meat-packing industry, in the inter-war years, were broken up by unscrupulous employers who hired hit-men from the Mob to intimidate the leaders. I cannot believe that millions of working people, doing everyday jobs, were duped into imagining themselves as future capitalists. That may be the sentimental story, but I suspect the truth lies elsewhere.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 23:23
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    @WS2, wouldn't you agree that European countries have very distinct classes? Not necessarily two, but social mobility isn't a strong part of European societies.
    – janh
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 9:20
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    @GTonyJacobs Yes. I think there is undoubtedly something in this, though it is not nearly as true today as it once was. It is also true, however, of millions of working people in Britain, who vote Conservative. The idea is well documented in Robert Tressell's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1911)
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 9:22
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    @janh Most European countries have much more social mobility than the United States. According to this source, only the UK and Italy have less mobility than the United States. All other countries in Europe have a higher class mobility. You might have gotten that false impression because you only looked at the UK. But the UK is not very representative for the rest of Europe in many regards.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 10:15
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    @WS2 "I cannot believe that millions of working people, doing everyday jobs, were duped into imagining themselves as future capitalists." Uh that pretty much is the American dream. If not becoming a capitalist, at least being able to improve one's lot in life with good decisions and hard work. And yes, from my understanding of Europe, unless you know the right people by being in the right social groups, you won't get traction to move up. Corruption also seems to be much more of an issue in Europe (pay to play).
    – Andy
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 2:59

The existing answers show that there was organized labor during that time period. However, they don't really answer the final question: why did organized labor become associated with the Democratic Party, rather than a new socialist-type party?

New Deal Coalition

The core reason that there is no labor or socialist party in the U.S. is because the Democrats picked up the pro-labor platform as part of the New Deal. This, combined with the U.S. electoral system's two-party structure, means that there was both no reason and no way for a third party to gain that kind of traction.

One of the foundational arrangements of politics since the 1930s (and up until at least the 1970s) was the New Deal. The New Deal was a package of policies that was fundamentally unlike anything that came before it in the U.S. It included broad public works programs (building dams, swimming pools, public buildings, roads, etc. across the country), labor reform, market regulations, and more.

The New Deal rested on the support of a coalition of interests including: organized labor, farmers, blue collar workers, white southerners, minorities, and more.

The New Deal was organized by the Democratic Party to appeal to their new coalition. The United States electoral system provides an incentive for only two parties to exist (see this question). Therefore, there was no need for a new labor party (because the Democrats had already picked up that program) and because there was no meaningful way for such a movement to grow (because the U.S. electoral system only supports two large parties).

  • This seems a very good answer. However, the New Deal, was not introduced until the 1930s. The Labour Party in Britain was founded in 1900. It is that 30 year gap which I find interesting. Where were American socialists adhering during that period?
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 23:07
  • @WS2 I agree that I didn't really address the short term, but only the longer-term macroscopic view. I'll see if I can dig up something more authoritative on that. Commented Jan 31, 2018 at 0:16

If one could specify an answer to this question, it would be constructive to make some observations and a reader could make their own conclusions. I recently read that this sort of exercise is an example of "choice architecture" where the points presented predispose specific conclusions. So in an effort to be explicit, I think the answer is disunity.

The first observation is the ALCU


which many consider to be the premier civil rights organization in the US. When one looks at the the policy list in the article, it should be noted that worker's rights are absent. One may reasonably argue that freedom of speech is an important aspect of worker's rights but one can also that freedom of speech doesn't really apply in a work place.

The next issue is a bit harder to document but not so hard that some digging will support my point. Labor Unions in the US have a history of opposition to inclusive civil rights. It has been argued that blacks have been historically recruited in the south to break strikes in what is now called the rust belt. The major Unions have only recently embraced immigrant Hispanics as prospective members. Some of the fastest growing unions today are made up of Hispanics service workers, mainly in janitorial work.

Police Unions are common in the US but given, the police are responsible for public order, they have been used in ways to suppress unions. The relationship between the police and minority communities can not in general be said to be good. The police, having a responsibility for public order have often been at odds with civil rights. Strikes do cause disorder and strikes are the primary instruments of unions to cause change.

Teachers Unions are strong in the US and they in general support civil rights, but are viewed as being part of the problem in education in the US.

A historical disconnect between civil rights and the new economy.


Many Tech workers, particularly those in the Baby Boom generation will cite the Moon landings as a motivation to pursue a STEM education, while Rev Abernathy categorized the Space program as immoral. It might be noted that outside of academia, there is only one significant union of engineers in the US at Boeing.


STEM related professional societies exist to promote their profession and typically think of themselves as international institutions, so issues like H1B tech visas involve choosing one sub group over another. While Unions have adapted to some aspects of the new service economy that success hasn't included the majority of knowledge workers.

while some might say that professional organizations are unions by another name, workers rights are peripheral and sometimes at odds with workers rights.

Fundamentally, there is no common solidarity with a common ideology centered on workers rights. Unions are perceived and largely act as a special interest. What many call "progressive" only partially includes organized labor. The connection to Civil Rights is not strong.

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    The "civil liberties" of "American Civil Liberties Union" refers to freedom with respect to government power. The ACLU's focus in on the government, not relations between private entities such as unions and corporations. Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 18:40
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    If your point is that "civil rights" and "workers rights" are not related, I would say that your opinion is consistent with my essential point about the absence of broad progressive coalitions. I didn't say that the ACLU should change its charter. I pointed out that it doesn't have common cause with the labor movement. Labor Unions don't strike for atheists, it goes both ways. As an aside, the federal government regulates the workplace and often interposes itself between private entities.
    – user17932
    Commented Feb 1, 2018 at 20:41

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