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VOLUME 10: INTRODUCTION

          Samuel Gompers never favored war, but when it came he knew which side he was on. As an American, he was on his country's side--there was no other choice, he believed, once war was imminent. And as a trade unionist, he was on the American Federation of Labor's side--wartime demands put a premium on all-out production, opening new opportunities for the labor movement. "This war is a people's war," Gompers proclaimed. "The final outcome will be determined in the factories, the mills, the shops, the mines, the farms, the industries, and the transportation agencies of the various countries." Victory abroad would require industrial peace at home, he knew, but it would also require some fundamental changes in industrial relations. As the AFL Executive Council put it in the spring of 1917, economic justice was the cornerstone of national defense. "War has never put a stop to the necessity for struggle to establish and maintain industrial rights," the Council noted. "Wage-earners in war times must . . . keep one eye on the exploiters at home and the other upon the enemy threatening the national government."1

          This volume of the Samuel Gompers Papers focuses on the AFL's struggle to serve the nation and the labor movement during a critical period in American history, when this country's official policy of neutrality gave way to the forces of war. Beginning with Gompers' last minute effort to persuade German workers to help prevent war with the United States, it follows the labor movement's internal debate over the meaning of American participation and the Executive Council's pragmatic--and in some cases reluctant--pledge of support, offered just weeks before war was declared. Consensus did not come easily, since opposition to entering the war was widespread at the time. Leaders of the needle trades unions, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and the Pennsylvania State Federation of Labor, for instance, all opposed American involvement. Once the United States joined the Allied forces in April, however, debate grew less fierce, particularly after the Socialist Party of America denounced participation in the war. As the Socialist party lost credibility with most of the labor movement, Gompers was able to solidify AFL support for the war effort, a crucial step in his campaign to "render constructive service that will not only have its influence in war situations," as he told the Executive Council, "but will also affect the standing of wage-earners in time of peace."2

          This volume also charts the evolution of a new relation between organized labor and the federal government that began with Gompers' controversial promise to forgo labor's fight for the "closed" union shop and gave rise to a series of labor-adjustment boards that supported the eight-hour day, equal pay for equal work, and labor's right to organize and bargain collectively with employers. Thus for the first time in American history, organized labor was recognized as a vital partner in the war effort, a radical change in national policy that President Woodrow Wilson acknowledged when he addressed the AFL's convention in the fall of 1917. Praising Gompers for "his patriotic courage, his large vision, and his statesmanlike sense of what has to be done," Wilson frankly admitted that, "While we are fighting for freedom, we must see . . . that labor is free . . . that the conditions of labor are not rendered more onerous by the war . . . [and] that the instrumentalities by which the conditions of labor are improved are not blocked or checked." 3

          This potent combination of wartime demand and government support revitalized the labor movement nationwide. Jobs were plentiful, expectations high, and labor turnover was widespread, conditions that nurtured the rising popular demand for industrial democracy. As war-related production increased between 1916 and 1917, workers called a record number of strikes--in fact more than 2,000 strikes erupted during the first six months of the war, usually over issues of work rules and union recognition. By 1918 more than 2.7 million workers claimed membership in the AFL--an increase of 31.5 percent since 1916, and 86 percent since the rise of the open shop movement in 1903. 4 With new affiliates as varied as the National Federation of Federal Employes and the International Union of Timber Workers, the AFL also launched wartime organizing campaigns among steel, packing house, electrical manufacturing, and railroad shop workers, and met with representatives of the black community to spur organization among shipyard workers and others. At the same time, the Federation kept up its ongoing campaign to organize women workers who were rapidly entering iron and steel, glass, leather, and chemical factories. During the war women were producing bombs, operating drills, reading blueprints, and driving cranes, as well as sewing tents and uniforms, changing the face of industry--although not necessarily the minds of male coworkers--almost overnight. 5

          For Gompers, these years were the high point of his career. Long recognized as a talented administrator, negotiator, organizer, and public speaker within the labor movement, he now joined the ranks of national policy makers, serving as a member of the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense (CND) and chairman of its Committee on Labor. As the official liaison between the federal government and organized workers, Gompers was directly involved in matters of economic mobilization, particularly manpower mobilization, and he played a central role in the development of wartime labor policies, with an eye to increasing production, reducing industrial conflict, and advancing labor's wage and hour standards. Trading ideas, and in some cases vehement criticisms, with CND colleagues, including financier Bernard Baruch, railroad president Daniel Willard, and head of the American College of Surgeons Franklin Martin (who initially considered Gompers to be an "`agitator,' anarchist . . . and all-round bad man"), Gompers zealously argued labor's case for the eight-hour day, safe working conditions, union wage standards, and collective agreements. He also championed federal legislation to protect the families of servicemen and improve living conditions in wartime "boomtowns," and lobbied for labor representation on district draft boards, the Railroad Wage Commission, the War Industries Board, and the Committee on Taxation of War Profits, among many others. "We are not going to give up our liberty. We are not going to give up our rights," he told the CND. "What matters it to the men of labor, if, in the struggle for the freedom and democracy of the United States . . . chains in the guise of slavery are fastened upon them?" 6

          Gompers relished the public attention and access to governmental power that came with his committee chairmanship. But he was fully aware that his appointment to the Advisory Commission was a means, not an end, for organized labor. From the very beginning the AFL leader was on the defensive, fighting state efforts to conscript skilled labor, waive hard-won protective legislation, and resurrect child labor, all under the guise of wartime necessity. At the same time, Gompers used his position with the CND to educate his new colleagues, for as Dr. Martin acknowledged, "he had to convince those of us associated with him that the conditions among the working people of the country were as desperate as they afterwards proved to be." 7 By most accounts, he acquitted himself well. "From every side the word comes to me of a new appreciation, not only of Mr. Gompers, himself," Secretary of Commerce William Redfield noted in the summer of 1917, "but of the great cause of which he is the able leader." His fellow commissioners agreed. "He always talked to the point, he always interested, he always finally convinced," Dr. Martin noted. "His influence grew from the first day of our meeting until the war was over." Even his erstwhile nemesis, Daniel Willard, had to concede that Gompers was doing a good job. "If anyone had told me that my personal antagonism toward Samuel Gompers would change within 1 week to ardent admiration and real affection," he confessed, "I would have pronounced that individual a fit candidate for an insane asylum." 8

          In the process of proving his competence and reliability, though, Gompers never abandoned his trade union goals. On the contrary, he stood his ground, whether he stood alone or not, on a number of controversial issues, from protecting prevailing union standards to opposing wartime prohibition for soldiers. 9 And according to Ralph Easley, his longtime associate on the National Civic Federation--and an early proponent and organizer of the CND--Gompers sought no outside advice when it came to matters like "mediation, restrictions, output, [and] standards." In fact, he was making "better headway from the standpoint of labor than if we had all been in it," Easley reported, "because we certainly would not have agreed with all the propositions that the A.F. of L. people have put up to the Government." 10 During this period Gompers also worked behind the scenes to win a new trial for Tom Mooney, a labor radical and alleged bomb-thrower, and publicly endorsed the idea of taxing corporate war profits out of existence. In fact, his blunt assessment of capital's failure to match labor's wartime contributions drew increasing support--and requests for help--from a broad range of wage earners. Enraged citizens called on him to fight sky-high food and housing costs. German-American workers, unjustly maligned as enemy agents, looked to Gompers to help them regain their jobs. Unorganized workers of all kinds--black, female, and immigrant--called on him for advice and assistance.

          Consequently, Gompers was working harder than ever before--no mean feat for a man who was already known to schedule meetings on the train, so as not to waste travel time. Although he could rely on an extremely competent staff, led by Frank Morrison and R. Lee Guard in the AFL office, and James Sullivan and Gertrude Beeks Easley at the Committee on Labor of the CND, the AFL president was always in demand. Mothers begged him to save their sons from the battlefield, and friends and acquaintances pestered him for jobs, draft deferments, or help getting placed in the military. The United Garment Workers kept him busy with their fight against the Amalgamated Clothing Workers over the right to sew military uniforms. The Carpenters regularly challenged his authority to make agreements with the government or interfere with their right to strike. And the rise of the People's Council of America for Democracy and Peace--which called for immediate peace negotiations and drew support from foreign-born workers and socialist union leaders--led Gompers to participate in founding the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy (AALD), a government-funded organization of trade unionists and prowar socialists determined to "Americanize" the immigrant workforce and insure their wartime support. 11

          At the same time, Gompers was trying to resolve serious fights that threatened fragile ties between government and labor. In Bisbee, Arizona, striking copper miners were loaded on cattle cars and "deported" to New Mexico; in Northwest timber camps recurring IWW strikes induced an army officer to launch his own union--the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen; and in shipyards along the Pacific Coast, government mediation boards repeatedly failed to satisfy striking workers. The AFL leader was also expected to take a leading role in wartime organizing campaigns. As Edward Nockels put it--when he wanted Gompers' help to "clinch" the packinghouse workers' campaign in Chicago--"All we need is Sam." 12

          By any measure, these were momentous years. In Russia the Bolsheviks were rising to power, and all over Europe new socialist labor alliances were beginning to take shape. In the United States, black Americans were starting the great migration from farms to cities that would eventually remake American society, and young women--especially young working women--were claiming a measure of personal freedom that would make them "new women" in public. At the same time, though, a reaction against too much change on the labor front was also beginning to take hold. The arrest and conviction of militant IWW and antiwar leaders, including Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs, heralded the first--and at the time, almost unnoticed--steps of a Red Scare that would take an enormous toll on the labor movement in the years to come. These and other critical issues were on Gompers' mind during the war, and he was kept up to date by a wide range of correspondents, including William Appleton and Arthur Henderson in England, organizers John Fitzpatrick and Emmett Flood in Chicago, C. O. Young in Seattle, and Ernest Bohm in New York, former members of the Socialist party John Spargo and Chester Wright, who worked with him on the AALD, and a host of government officials and reformers of every stripe.

          For Gompers, these years were profoundly significant on a personal level too. In 1917, the AFL president celebrated fifty years of service to the labor movement and fifty years of marriage to Sophia Julian Gompers--the former sixteen-year-old cigar stripper from Brooklyn who had eloped with him the day after his seventeenth birthday. The following year, Gompers proudly traveled to Europe, at the urging of the Wilson administration, attending the British Trade Union Congress in Derby and the Inter-Allied Labour and Socialist Conference in London. He then traveled to Belgium, France, and Italy, where he saw the destructive power of war at first hand. Doing his best to promote President Wilson's Fourteen Points wherever he was asked to speak, Gompers publicly debated pacifists and European "Bolsheviki," as he put it, and tried "like the mischief . . . [to put] some stiffening into the backbone of the people . . . [to make them] stand behind their countries at least until after the war was won." 13

          In the midst of carrying out this duty for his country, however, Gompers received shattering news from home. Sadie, his youngest child and cherished "pet," had died unexpectedly, a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. This was not the first time he had lost a close family member while he was away from home, and it was not the first time he had buried a child--both his mother and his daughter Rose had died while he was traveling on behalf of the AFL, and his son Abraham had died in 1903 from tuberculosis. But Sadie still lived at home, where she had made family life "happy, mirthful, and musical" for her parents, and her death was a blow from which they never truly recovered. Without her, "there was no music," Gompers wrote a few years later, adding that his wife, Sophia, "never came back to herself after our Sadie's death." 14

          A "welcome home" meeting had been scheduled for Chicago to honor Gompers' service, but acting AFL president John Alpine took it for granted that it would be canceled or at least postponed so that Gompers might have time to grieve. It would be "inhuman," he thought, to expect from Gompers "what everyone else seems to expect, that it will be a relief to his feelings" to go on with things as planned. But perhaps because it was the only way he knew how to survive, Gompers did exactly that. Following the same advice he had given to so many others during the war, he "stiffened his backbone" and made his way to Chicago and then Laredo, Texas, giving speeches, conducting meetings, and demonstrating the strength of character and self-discipline that, for better or worse, had shaped his longtime leadership of the AFL. 15

         Firm in his belief that the war had been a crusade for "justice, freedom and democracy," Gompers reminded the cheering crowd in Chicago that labor's fight was not over yet. "The principles of democracy do not flash in the air, they are not fanciful, they are not theoretical. . . . Democracy must be practiced and acted every day of our lives to be true," he explained. "As a result of this war there must come new relations not only between nation and nation but between man and man. . . . We want . . . the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not to be mere generalities but the rules of every-day life." This was the vision that had propelled him during these years, the idea that the destruction of war would give way to "new ideals and conditions based upon broader and truer concepts of human rights." And now that the war had triumphantly ended, as he wrote to President Wilson on the day the armistice was signed, Gompers was confident that a "new era in the life of the peoples and nations of the world" was about to begin, one in which he and the AFL were determined to play a role. 16

 

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