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VOLUME 11:  INTRODUCTION

         November 11, 1918, marked a great day of hope and celebration. The war was over, the soldiers were coming home, and democracy reigned "supreme," as the New Republic boasted. The price of victory had been tragically high, and the prospect of postwar reconstruction seemed daunting. But the exhilarating promise that a new world was in the making, one in which labor would play a leading role, as Samuel Gompers had predicted a few months earlier, did not seem at all improbable now.1

         After all, wage earners had proven their worth on the battlefields and in the factories. And the AFL's wartime cooperation with the Wilson administration--and the labor boards, collective-bargaining agreements, and productivity that resulted--had demonstrated the practical value of industrial democracy to the nation as a whole. Even Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels took it for granted that there would be no going back to prewar conditions, once peace was declared. "There will be a more equitable division between capital and labor," he had promised on Labor Day, a promise that union leaders and rank-and-file workers took seriously.2 Recognized as partners in industry during the war, both skilled and unskilled workers had come to expect the right to a voice on the job and the right to American standards, which included the eight-hour day, union wage scales, safe working conditions, and collectively bargained agreements. Now that victory was at hand, a victory their hard work had helped to gain, they fully intended to enjoy those rights.3

         It was not at all clear, though, once the crisis had passed, that industrialists and government officials shared those intentions. In fact, before the armistice was even a week old, supporters of the old order, or "Bourbons," as Gompers called them, showed that they were eager to resume business as usual: While the president of the AFL was helping to organize the Pan-American Federation of Labor and develop a postwar program to improve worldwide living and working standards, the president of the National Founders' Association was calling for a sharp decrease in wages and an end to the eight-hour-day so American manufacturers could meet foreign competition, recommendations that Gompers deemed "the old quack medicine which the old school of political economists always prescribed."4

          "The time has come . . . when the working people are coming into their own. They have new rights and new advantages," Gompers said, staking out labor's postwar ground in no uncertain terms. "All may just as well understand now . . . that the advantages which the workers of America and the allied countries have gained, and which we hope even to extend to the peoples of the conquered countries, are not going to be taken away from us, and we will resist the attempt to the uttermost."5 Developing this position in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations, a group of prominent financiers and international lawyers, Gompers maintained that attempts to restore prewar conditions would prove costly. "No government can be stable unless it is based upon social justice to its people," he insisted. And that being the case, the nation could do far worse than to support the AFL's postwar program for organization, collective-bargaining rights, and living wage standards. "We believe in progress, we believe that all the fruits and the results of the genius of past ages and of today do not belong to any particular class, that they belong . . . to every man who gives service to society and who aids civilization. If you stand like a stone wall against that concept, as a united body against that presentation of thought and ideas," he warned, "no one knows with what you may have to contend later."6

         As the representative of more than three million organized workers--AFL membership would top four million by 1920--Gompers was confident that his message carried weight. But it was not a message his wartime allies in industry and government wanted to hear. Grappling with the economic consequences of demobilization and eager to get government out of industrial affairs, they made it clear that market conditions, not union rules or war service, would govern wage rates and conditions in the postwar world, and they fully expected Gompers to keep his troops in line.7 These one-time allies may have honored the AFL president's service to the nation with an appointment to represent the United States on the Commission on International Labor Legislation in Paris in 1919, but now that the war was over, organized labor had lost its patriotic glow. As plans were made to dismantle government labor agencies, high union wages were blamed for postwar inflation and a sluggish economy. The shift in attitude was not lost on the Cleveland Citizen, the socialist weekly edited by Max Hayes. "A little while ago the big plute papers of New York City could not sing praises loud enough for President Gompers," the paper pointed out. "Hence the New York Times . . . denounces Gompers as a labor dictator and compares him to ex-Kaiser Bill, while the New York World . . . warns us that to talk back to wage sandbaggers will lose the sympathy of the public."8

         The shift was not lost on rank-and-file workers either. As employers blatantly disregarded decisions of the National War Labor Board (which was not officially terminated until the summer of 1919) and real wages lagged behind postwar prices (the cost of living would rise more than 105 percent over prewar levels by 1920), dissatisfaction mounted.9 "There is a very widespread feeling that something is radically wrong with our democracy," an AFL organizer reported. "The very fact that the profiteer gets away with his loot, while the worker is treated with intolerance when he demands a little increase in wages, and the right to live instead of exist, has antagonized the worker to the extent, I doubt, if ever they will be content again."10 An aggressive surge of postwar strikes coupled with calls to organize a national labor party and to restructure the AFL into a militant, industrial organization backed up this assessment. Impatient with Gompers' voluntary strategies and energized by the Bolsheviks' bold seizure of power in Russia, more radical workers were demanding a showdown: A record four million workers in the United States and Canada would join more than three thousand strikes in 1919.11

         In Seattle a general strike shut down the city for five days in February after shipyard workers were denied a long expected raise. Across the border in Winnipeg, where the One Big Union movement was taking off, workers staged a six-week-long general strike to preserve collective bargaining and union recognition, a strike that ended in a violent confrontation that spring. Textile workers struck in Lawrence, Paterson, and Passaic, N.J. Telephone workers tied up service in five New England states as well as in St. Louis, Cleveland, and Jacksonville, Fla. Steelworkers shut down their industry, and miners in the soft-coal fields were threatening to do the same thing.12 This bold show of power proved illusory, though, as the strike-wave only fueled the antiunion fire. All over the country newspapers were linking strikers to Bolshevism and revolution. And they had a field day publicizing steel organizer William Z. Foster's radical past, proof positive that the AFL was going "red" as far as the public could see.13

         Frightened by a series of bomb scares that spring, and tired of the turbulence and inconvenience, the public ostensibly agreed with President Wilson's warning that "strikes undertaken at this critical time" would only "make matters worse, not better."14 Likewise, employers were heartened when Boston's police commissioner stood his ground and hired a brand new police force rather than negotiate with striking officers, and Judge Elbert Gary of U.S. Steel bluntly refused to meet a union committee or even answer a letter from Gompers.15 When the Wilson administration called an industrial conference that fall to address these and other conflicts, it soon became clear that managerial control now trumped industrial democracy: Employer delegates refused to endorse labor's right to organize and bargain collectively, and Gompers and the labor delegation bolted.16 Within a few weeks the government confirmed its postwar priorities when it used the wartime Lever Act, which prohibited "conspiracies" of two or more persons from restricting the distribution of food or fuel, to break the miners' peacetime strike and broke faith with Gompers and organized labor in the process. Outraged that the Wilson administration had cast its lot with big business and was "trying to drive workers into slavery," the AFL leader found himself battling both congressional attempts to outlaw strikes and industrial schemes to replace AFL unions with company-dominated shop committees and company-financed welfare schemes, a pattern that would continue over the next several years.17

         This volume of the Samuel Gompers Papers follows Gompers' and the AFL's efforts to defend collective bargaining and promote the Federation's vision of industrial democracy and social justice in an increasingly hostile postwar world. It begins with Gompers at the peak of his popularity, when political leaders and foreign dignitaries alike cheered his devotion to the cause.18 In 1919 publishers were vying for the rights to his autobiography, movie producers hoped to bring his story to the silver screen,19 and even a devoted Daughter of the American Revolution proclaimed that "this truly great man" deserved a Distinguished Service Medal.20 No wonder Gompers had high hopes for the AFL's role in the postwar world and for the vital contribution labor would make to economic prosperity and social progress. By 1921 these hopes were dashed as AFL unions battled the rise of the open-shop "American Plan," and Gompers the labor leader found himself far less celebrated than Gompers the wartime statesman.

         This sharp reversal was demonstrated that spring, when the AFL president lashed out against "industrial autocracy" and the use of the labor injunction, and the New York Times dismissed him as a ranting "soap-box radical."21 A few months later, when Gompers praised organized labor's contributions to the allied victory at a ceremony that fall, General John J. Pershing took pleasure in publicly rebuking the "old foreign reprobate." "It seems to be about time for some one to rise up and say that America shall be governed and ruled by American citizens," the general noted, "and not by organizations which have their own selfish purposes to serve."22

         These were difficult years, both personally and professionally for Gompers. He was still mourning the loss of his daughter Sadie when he set sail for Europe in January 1919. And just days before he returned in April, his wife Sophie suffered a stroke that left her incapacitated until her death in 1920. Riding in a taxicab a few weeks later, Gompers was seriously injured in a crash that left him in considerable pain and may well have hastened the partial blindness that would soon afflict him and that he would spend the rest of his life disguising with the help of his traveling secretary, and now constant companion, Guy Oyster. "Your Socialists have always called me blind," he reportedly complained to Lucy Robins, a radical active in the Tom Mooney defense campaign. "What a field day they would have if they knew the truth!"23 That fall he also lost his ninety-two-year-old father Solomon and his longtime associate John Mitchell, just as the steel strike was beginning to heat up, making 1919 "a most eventful year of sadness," as he put it.24

         At the same time his credibility as a leader was being challenged from all sides. After steelworkers spurned his advice to postpone their strike, industry and government leaders wondered who was in charge. And after Gompers failed to broker an agreement with the government to resolve the miners' strike, and then opposed the formation of an independent labor party, many union members wondered whether he had outlived his usefulness to the movement. The fact that Gompers had clearly lost access to the Wilson administration, even before the president suffered a serious stroke in the fall of 1919, further compounded his problems. Efforts to arrange an international labor conference to meet in Paris at the same time as the peace conference, for instance, had gotten no support from either Wilson or the State Department.25

         These setbacks and personal losses took a toll on Gompers, who celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1920. Although he claimed to feel as energetic as he did at age forty, those who knew him well recognized signs of depression in his later years.26 Whatever his personal struggles, though, Gompers was determined to play an active role in public affairs. Outraged that reactionary politicians seemed bent on curtailing personal and civil liberties--including the right to strike, to freely criticize government, or even to enjoy a glass of beer--Gompers became an evangelist for freedom. He took every opportunity to criticize "unenlightened"27 legislation, like the Sterling-Graham sedition bill that threatened free speech and assembly,28 the Kansas Industrial Court Act and Esch-Cummins railroad law that imposed compulsory arbitration, 29 and proposals for unemployment insurance that, he feared, would give too much power to government.30 "There has never been a time when the government has entered into personal relations between employer and employe," Gompers firmly believed, "but what it has muddled the whole situation."31 At the same time he did his best to reverse what he regarded as dangerous repressive policies like the incarceration of such political prisoners as Eugene Debs 32 and the imposition of prohibition, which he frankly blamed for the rise of American Bolshevism.33

         On the international front, Gompers fought hard to insure that the charter drafted by the Commission on International Labor Legislation (which included the eight-hour day as a basic labor right) remained part of the Treaty of Versailles, and he helped organize the International Labor Organization, a permanent board affiliated with the League of Nations that promised to bring together representatives of governments, employers, and workers to promote social justice and humane living and working conditions. (Because the United States failed to ratify the peace treaty, however, it did not join the ILO until 1934.) He also traveled to Amsterdam, in the summer of 1919, to help reorganize the International Federation of Trade Unions, but he was forced to withdraw AFL support over the IFTU's demand for the socialization of industry and its refusal to accede to the AFL's insistence upon national autonomy. "It is our purpose to be helpful to the workers of every country in their purpose to better the lives and work of the toilers," the AFL Executive Council noted. "But in so doing we must decline to be a part of a movement which undertakes the destruction of the American labor movement or the overthrow of the democratic government of the Republic of the United States."34 Despite European assurances that the IFTU was not a revolutionary organization, the Executive Council refused to affiliate: Many Council members did not share Gompers' interest in international relations, and they saw no good reason to compromise now, given the nation's aversion to anything "red."35

         On the domestic front Gompers urged AFL unions, farmers' organizations, and the railroad brotherhoods to join forces in a nonpartisan campaign to defeat their political enemies: He urged wage earners to overcome their differences, steer clear of revolutionary philosophies, and unite on a definite program for change. But as the election of President Warren Harding proved in 1920, they still had a long way to go. According to Gompers, the new Republican president's plan to return to "normalcy" promised "oppressive laws, restrictive measures wherever the hand of government reaches, [and] an open door to those who live only by exploitation," and he was not alone in his criticism. 36

         "There has been a growing antagonism among the employers, to our movement," a local leader commiserated, "and the sweeping victory that the forces of reaction won in the late election is going to lend encouragement." 37 With the economy in recession and unemployment rising from 2 percent in 1919 to more than 12 percent in 1921,38 the immediate future looked bleak: As long as "large employers" expected wage earners alone to bear the brunt of postwar deflation and refused to sanction labor organization and collective-bargaining rights, the country could look forward to continued protests and conflict, Gompers predicted.39 But if the AFL president saw a direct connection between organized labor, industrial stability, and economic growth, organized employers, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Erectors' Association, and the National Founders' Association, had a radically different point of view. Fed up with what the Iron Age called "the overbearing manner of trade unionists," 40 they now promoted the open shop as the American path to prosperity since it promised "equal opportunity for all and special privileges for none."41 Working through the NAM's Open Shop Department, supporters now concentrated on molding public opinion, making sure that even high school debating teams were well supplied with "facts" and encouraging employers to patronize only union-free "American" businesses.42

         At the same time, well-publicized (and sensational) charges of union corruption and reports that blamed union work rules and sympathetic strikes for sky-high rents and escalating construction costs also helped bolster the open-shop cause. "'Big Wages and Little Labor' is the slogan of your labor unions," a banker's wife complained to Gompers, outraged that union carpenters apparently earned higher hourly rates than her husband did. 43 The combination of bad publicity, employer hostility, and rising unemployment undermined the AFL's campaign to preserve wartime wages and conditions: Although AFL membership had been rising steadily since 1915--and shot up almost 50 percent between 1918 and 1920 alone--by 1921 the Federation had lost almost 200,000 members, many of whom were first organized during the war. 44 No longer able to count on government support, unions were all but shut out of mass-production industries, including electrical manufacturing, steel, rubber, and auto. 45

         Judicial and legislative defeats intensified these losses. The appointment of William Howard Taft as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1921 symbolized the resurgence of what Gompers called "the injunction menace."46 The court had already undermined the Clayton Anti-Trust Act's power to restrict the use of the labor injunction in its 1917 decision in the Hitchman case, and in 1921 it upheld the use of injunctions against secondary boycotts in the Duplex decision and had thus, in Gompers' view, "joined forces with the anti-union shop movement."47 In a statement that enraged Gompers, a New York City judge summed up the judicial spirit of the times when he said that the courts "must stand at all times as the representatives of capital, of captains of industry."48 Gompers was equally livid when U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty threatened to go to the courts if railroad workers voted to strike in 1921 rather than accept the decisions of the newly established Railroad Labor Board. The fact that the board was the product of the 1920 Transportation Act, which Gompers and the AFL had vehemently opposed, did not help matters. "It was pointed out by labor when this law was enacted . . . that it opened the door to the use of the injunction in railroad disputes," he told the press. "Introduction of Government machinery means introduction of the element of force and compulsion, which is half the difficulty at present." Making it clear that "'the cards had been stacked' against the workers" (since railroad supporters outnumbered labor men on the Board), he indicated that the fight was far from over. "If the railroads . . . with all their watered stock, follow the line of present intent to force living standards downward, they'll strike a snag," he predicted.49

         Whether Gompers would be the one to see the battle through, however, remained to be seen. On the one hand, Gompers was determined to broaden the AFL's influence and membership. Under his leadership, for instance, the AFL helped organize the Pan-American Federation of Labor to improve relations with Latin American unions; appointed salaried organizers to work with black and Mexican workers; chartered the Building Service Employees' International Union, an organization of low-skilled, low-waged workers; and made a strong effort to organize textile workers in the South. In particular, Gompers and the AFL worked hard to organize black railroad workers, including freight handlers, yardmen, trackmen, and clerks, despite the refusal of many international unions to admit black members--or even respond to Gompers' numerous reports of unfair treatment. 50

         On the other hand, though, there was no denying that the AFL had been pushed back to the sidelines in the 1920s, a disappointing reversal that motivated activists to seek alternatives within, and beyond, its trade union mold. Gompers' refusal to sanction an independent labor party, his decided opposition to left-wing unionism, and his strong aversion to government-run railroads or national health and welfare plans, marked him as hopelessly conservative, his critics charged, and out of touch with the needs of a new generation of workers. The most radical joined the Communist party or supported William Z. Foster's newly organized Trade Union Educational League, which encouraged left-wing unionists to "bore from within" and reform AFL unions from the bottom up. 51

         Others backed John L. Lewis, the United Mine Workers of America's dynamic young president, in his campaign to defeat Gompers at the 1921 AFL convention. President of the Federation's largest affiliate, Lewis offered the delegates a real opportunity for change: He was on better terms with the Republican administration than Gompers was; favored compulsory employer-financed unemployment insurance, federal old age pensions, and nationalization of the mines and railroads; and openly sought the support of left-wing unionists. 52 The fact that he was thirty years younger than Gompers, in good health, and physically able to take on labor's toughest opponents made him a very viable candidate at this critical period in AFL history.

         Although Lewis did not announce his candidacy officially until June 20, a week after the convention had opened, behind the scenes the campaigns were heating up. 53 According to some reports, there was a strong possibility that the "Indianapolis crowd" (including the Carpenters, Miners, and Printers) would join forces with railroad workers, the metal trades, and socialists and labor party supporters to carry the vote for Lewis. 54 Indeed, according to Daniel Tobin (who supported Gompers in the race), four of the AFL's largest affiliates "had separate and busy headquarters set up," and those four unions (the Machinists, Miners, Carpenters, and Pressmen) "were something that you could not just laugh off." 55

          Newspapers added to the excitement, hinting on one day that delegates would use the Irish independence issue "as [a] Lever to Oust Gompers;"56 on another, that Lewis had no intention of running and was only trying to scare Gompers into action; 57 and on another that Gompers would withdraw from the contest, rather than face competition 58--none of which turned out to be true. "The Hearst newspapers and press services seem to find it impossible to report with any appreciable degree of accuracy the work of this convention," Gompers remarked. "This can only be because the Hearst interests are for some reason, which they do not care to state, determined to disrupt the American Federation of Labor and to destroy its chosen leaders," a charge that was linked to rumors that Hearst had contributed $100,000 to fund the opposition campaign.59 The Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post added to the intrigue, reporting "rumors of election trades and deals" and a purported challenge to AFL vice-president Frank Duffy to retaliate for the Carpenters' support of Lewis. However, as the News admitted, few of these rumors "could be pinned down to reliable verification," and no one stepped up to challenge Duffy. 60

         After a week of attacks and counterattacks by both sides--but not by the candidates, who kept public relations cordial--the votes were finally counted. Only the Carpenters; Machinists; Mine, Mill, and Smeltermen; and Tailors delivered bloc votes for Lewis; the Miners, Printers, and Pressmen, as well as the socialists, all split their votes, and Gompers won the election by a comfortable margin: 25,022 votes to 12,324 for Lewis. 61 No one knew for sure whether the outcome reflected Gompers' superior political organization, the delegates' faith in his trade union methods, or the rumors regarding Hearst's role in the contest. 62 But the fact remained that Gompers was still labor's designated spokesman, a position that he had spent his life earning, as far as his supporters were concerned. "He took a rope of sand," Cigar Makers' president George Perkins noted, "and made of it the strongest and best economic movement in the world."63

         Gratified by the outcome, the first real victory he had enjoyed since the end of the war, Gompers had no illusions about the struggle ahead. "Our movement is united and is prepared to be aggressive in defense of the rights of the toilers. It will not be swerved from its course," he pledged. 64 Well aware that the times were "serious," he was equally confident that he was up to the task. "My life has not been free from misrepresentation nor has my desire to aid the wage earners been lacking condemnation," he later acknowledged. "But through it all I have had the satisfaction that I was doing my duty to the men and women of labor, and in that work I was also doing something for all the people. . . . Nothing will be left undone by me that will tend to bring hope and happiness into the lives of the wage earners," he promised, for "there was never a time when I felt more equal to the battles that will have to be fought."65

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