Harmonious Insurrections: “Labor Progressivism” and Working-Class Power in Washington State, 1886–1919

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Exceptionalism has long defined our understanding of the rise of progressive politics in the early twentieth-century United States. While industrialized European nations blazed the path of social democracy, in the United States, it is argued, “progressivism” merely legitimized middle-class cultural hegemony, social engineering, and the subversion of working-class power. In this era, however, social reform was a distinctly state-led phenomenon, only rarely taken up by the federal Congress. As such, by analyzing labor protest at the level of the state—in this case, Washington—a different interpretation emerges. American “progressivism” was neither exceptionally repressive nor of little interest to labor. In fact, espousing a language of progress, the common good, and the duty of the state to promote “social harmony,” Washington workers actively drew on “progressive” ideas in their struggles to tame the excesses of industrial capitalism. This ideology of “labor progressivism” became the foundation for unprecedented working-class power.