The Farmers’ and Laborers’ Union of America was among the most significant and influential organizations to emerge from the agrarian movements in the United States during the nineteenth century. The union was founded in 1889 when the National Farmers’ Union and Cooperative Union merged with the Agricultural Wheel to form the National Farmers’ and Laborers’ Union of America. Their first meetings were held in December of that year in St. Louis. The FLUA brought together farmers’ and laborers’ coalitions from both the North and the South. The union asserted the need for unity among farmers, yeoman laborers, and skilled tradesmen, to challenge the authority and power of the corporate monopolies and so-called “combines.” They called for the end of laws that favored capital over labor. They also called for free education for all. Yet, reactively, they also demanded an end to the movement of migrant labor into the United States.
Social suffering arose from the great industrial combines and corporate conglomerates and their close associations with political representatives who manipulated legislation and laws to meet the needs of corporations. The union sought the abolition of national banks and monopolies. The basis for their movement was education and cooperation. As its leaders asserted during their founding convention, the opposition to power of economic and political elites could only be founded upon direct cooperation among direct producers:
The advancement of civilization, the development of the natural resources of our country, the promotion and perpetuation of our free institutions, the stability, power and influence of our republican system of government, the creation and successful operation of all our gigantic enterprises, which gives strength and influence to government, depends largely, if not wholly, upon the intelligent application of the true principles of co-operation. The most, if not every failure of all the various business efforts of our order, is due to a want of a proper understanding and a strict adherence to the business principles of co-operation.
It is the foundation that underlies the whole superstructure of our noble order, and a strict adherence to its principles will lead the membership to a degree of prosperity that shall gladden the hearts of all, and bring joy and contentment around the family circle.
I would recommend that you spare no effort in providing the necessary facilities for the better education of the membership in these great principles (National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union).
Union members believed that land must belong to those who in some way work the soil or who produce goods directly from it. This is a social vision founded on the yeoman, or free laborer, who associates with others in craft rather than mass industrial, production. In the view of FLUA members, those who own and control their own land and homes will give more care to society, and to its upkeep and safeguarding, than will those who are dispossessed or those who are absentee landlords with no direct connection to the land or homes they control. Those civilizations with concentrated land ownership were destined to decline. In some cases these perspectives drifted into nativism and called to end or prohibit foreign ownership of land in the United States.
The union was not opposed to private business or corporate ownership per se. Indeed, members affirmed what in their view were rights to ownership and what they viewed as legitimate profit. What concerned them was the concentration of ownership and power and the illegitimate profit secured in part through government regulations such as those that restricted labor organizing, as in unions and farmers’ associations. Similarly they criticized government grants that allowed corporations to concentrate wealth and tax policies that rewarded larger corporations rather than small business owners, farmers, and workers. Most of all, they opposed the state-capital relationships that facilitated monopolization and the rising power of corporations, as in the railroad companies, to determine how goods and services would be distributed.
The union called for the easing of mortgages and for financial support for agricultural and industrial workers. Part of this involved calls for monetary reforms that would allow a sufficient volume of circulating medium to enable people to carry out transactions on a cash basis, freeing people from the restraints and burdens of credit. A revised monetary policy, which would include free silver, should be set according to the needs of farmers and industrial workers rather than those of speculators and financial capital. The union leaders also advocated against monopoly accumulation of land. Prosperous and vital societies, they argued, were founded upon widespread land ownership involving most of the population. Through monopolization, people lost their farms, homes, and land, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by monopoly firms. For the FLUA, in the United States, monopolization meant that fertile and productive lands that might be used for agriculture or productive labor were controlled by railroads and corporations whose first concern is profit.
Initially the union asserted a nonpartisan character aligned with and supportive of no specific political party. The primary concern was popular education on issues of economy and the mobilization of farmers and laborers to press their specific demands directly. Indeed, one of the problems facing farmers and laborers was viewed as their capture within mechanisms of “machine politicians,” or party politics, which neglected farmers’ and workers’ own interests and rendered them as part of a political mass to be represented.
Attempts to unite with the Knights of Labor and the Colored Farmers’ Alliance in a broad unified movement proved unsuccessful. By 1889 the union had folded itself into the People's Party and fielded national candidates for the elections of 1892. While its economic successes were largely local and short-lived, the FLUA did help to develop social movement experiences and cooperative resources among people in poor rural communities.
See also: African Americans and Populism ; Agricultural Wheel ; Colored Farmers’ Alliance (CFA) ; Cooperative Commonwealth ; Gilded Age ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Knights of Labor ; People's Party ; Producerism
Drew, Frank M. “The Present Farmers’ Movement.” Political Science Quarterly 6 (2): 282–310.
Lester, Connie. Up from the Mudsills of Hell: The Farmers’ Alliance, Populism, and Progressive Agriculture in Tennessee, 1870–1915. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.
National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union. National Farmers’ Alliance and Industrial Union. Proceedings of the Farmers and Laborers Union of America, at St. Louis, Mo., December 3–7, 1889. Washington, DC: The National Economist Print, 1889.
Saloutos, Theodore. Farmers Movements in the South 1865–1933. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.