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VOLUME 8:  INTRODUCTION

         With almost forty years' experience as a labor leader by 1909, Samuel Gompers knew the limits of trade unionism as well as anyone. Persistent jurisdictional battles consumed his time and tied up union resources; racial and ethnic discrimination stymied organizing campaigns; and even strong, aggressive unions, like the International Association of Machinists, proved no match for corporations determined to maintain the open shop. 1 But his long experience had also taught him the value of practical achievements. Shorter hours, higher wages, safer and more sanitary workplaces, and a voice in establishing working conditions were the hallmarks of trade unionism in the Progressive era, and these hard-won, incremental gains had significantly improved working-class lives. They were not all he hoped to accomplish, for Gompers never underestimated the challenges and inequities still to be faced. But they were, he firmly believed, essential victories in a bitter class struggle that was far from over. Confident that he and the AFL were on the right industrial track, Gompers championed the straightforward slogan that guided trade unionists in the first two decades of the twentieth century: "Grit your teeth and organize."2

       This volume of the Samuel Gompers Papers focuses on the years from 1909 to 1913, and the events, individuals, and political developments that made this a critical period in working-class history. Framed by industrial tragedies -- the 1909 Cherry Hill mine disaster and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire -- and political triumphs -- the creation of the U.S. Department of Labor in 1913 and William B. Wilson's appointment as first secretary of labor -- these were years marked by recurrent industrial violence and by judicial proceedings aimed at trade unionists. But these were also years of intense organizing and hard-fought strikes in steel works, shipyards, textile mills, garment factories, and on railroad and street railway lines. During this period the AFL launched its evangelical organizing campaign, the Labor Forward movement, experimented with a new organizing tool, the Weekly News Letter, and welcomed the Western Federation of Miners back into the fold. 

        These years also witnessed the rise of new labor organizers who would go on to play significant roles within and outside the AFL: John L. Lewis, who would become one of the most powerful labor leaders of the twentieth century; William Z. Foster, who began his career with the IWW before moving to the AFL and eventually the Communist party; and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was still in her teens when she began organizing for the IWW. The number of new immigrant and female workers was also on the rise, and they staged dramatic strikes like the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union's 1909 "Uprising of the Twenty Thousand" in New York City and the IWW's 1912 "Bread and Roses" textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Overall, these efforts paid off, for this was a period of continued growth for organized labor. AFL membership, which had hovered around a million and a half since 1903, increased steadily in 1911 and 1912 and was close to two million by 1913. At the same time the IWW, which had all but fallen apart after its founding in 1905, was beginning to achieve the stability it needed to challenge the AFL's structure and policy.3

       For Gompers, these were demanding, stressful years that taxed his health but ultimately strengthened his resolve. He faced possible imprisonment throughout this period for contempt of court in the Buck's Stove and Range case. In October 1911, in an incident that received widespread publicity, he was accused of desecrating the American flag.  And, shortly thereafter, he confronted one of his greatest ordeals as a labor leader when James McNamara and his brother John, arrested for the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, confessed their involvement in the "dynamite conspiracy"-- James pleading guilty to the Times bombing and John to complicity in dynamiting the Llewellyn Iron Works.

       Before the McNamaras' confessions, Gompers had played a leading role in their defense, mobilizing the labor movement to fight what he sincerely believed to be unjust indictments and challenging the extradition of John McNamara to Los Angeles. "We do not claim immunity for a labor leader charged with an offense," he told the newspapers, "but we do claim that because he is a labor leader is no reason why he should be denied that justice which is granted to any other American citizen. Do you think for a minute they would have kidnapped a Vanderbilt, a Rockefeller, an Astor or a Gould?" 4 The McNamaras' confessions seriously threatened Gompers' reputation and led the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate -- and later dismiss -- charges that he and other AFL leaders had participated in the dynamite plot. "The past year has been a very heavy one," he told his friend Alton Parker. "No one can fully know what the last month of 1911 and the first half of 1912"-- before he was exonerated -- "meant to me." But Gompers "worked hard despite it all," as he put it, and emerged from this humiliating crisis with his reputation for reliability and candor intact. 5

       By this time in his long career, Gompers was a crucial player in the AFL's efforts to establish collective bargaining as the basis of industrial democracy -- a term that was beginning to draw public attention by 1913. Trade unionists valued him as a capable administrator, an energetic organizer, and a man who could be trusted to protect their interests in trade negotiations and legislative councils. Industrialists, academics, and policy makers who worked with him on arbitration boards, reform committees, or through the National Civic Federation (NCF) learned early that he was not easily intimidated by wealth or position and would speak his mind when the situation required it. His remarkable ability to get things done, his obvious strength of character, and his reputation as a man of his word opened doors for Gompers that were otherwise closed to organized labor. Through his determination to take advantage of any and all opportunities to speak on labor's behalf -- at federal and state legislative hearings, in the courtroom, or through organizations like the NCF -- he conveyed labor's side of the industrial story to a broad range of audiences.   A persistent lobbyist and a practical political campaigner,6 Gompers believed that working people could and should help shape national policy on a variety of issues, from workmen's compensation and liability law to scientific management, vocational education, and immigration and foreign policy. When the federal government finally established the Department of Labor in 1913 and appointed a trade unionist to head it, Gompers claimed a great victory for organized labor.

       Still, his achievements brought their own frustrations, because the very strategies and behavior that earned Gompers a seat at government and industrial tables made him suspect in the eyes of more radical -- and, in his opinion, less experienced -- workers. Denouncing Gompers' vision as "narrow" and "conservative" and trade unionism as too rigid to respond to a rapidly changing industrial world, his challengers criticized the AFL's structure, political policies, and willingness to bargain with capital. For instance, socialists vehemently attacked the NCF as a symbol of class collaboration and trade union corruption. Waging a bitter campaign to prohibit union members from joining the organization, they forced John Mitchell to resign his position in 1911 and challenged Gompers and other NCF members to do the same. The fight was ultimately lost, but labor radicals did not quietly admit defeat. On the contrary, socialists and trade unionists forcefully debated the pros and cons of trade agreements, industrial organization, referendum elections, and party politics at AFL and international union conventions, in union journals, at state and central labor council meetings, and in their correspondence with Gompers.

       For that matter, even AFL supporters contested one another's views. As the documents in this volume confirm, there were often strong disagreements on matters of jurisdiction, politics, strike policies, and organizing strategies among members of the AFL Executive Council, within AFL departments, and among international unions. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, an amalgamated "craft-industrial" union of building trades, linemen, and shop workers, was tom by internal struggle throughout this period.7

       No one worked harder than Gompers to keep the AFL focused on its objectives during the Progressive era: improving the material conditions of working-class life and, in the process, defending and advancing labor's right to organize. As the Federation's most prominent spokesman, strategist, conciliator, and "Chief," he was constantly on the road and in the public eye. Even with a loyal and capable staff to pick up much of the routine work, including Frank Morrison and Rosa Lee Guard in the AFL's Washington, D.C., office and AFL organizers scattered throughout the country, Gompers remained remarkably busy and energetic during the period covered by this volume. "It has been my lot in life to work hard," he told Parker; "rest and recuperation, as the world understands, come not to me."8 But Gompers was aging, and the stress and strain of his job were beginning to show: in 1912, at the age of sixty-two, he developed pneumonia after presiding at the AFL's Rochester convention, and in 1913 he was seriously ill with mastoiditis and eventually required surgery, an operation made more dangerous by his diabetic condition.

       "I am not disheartened," he wrote the AFL Executive Council on the eve of his operation. "I have no fears whatever may betide me." Satisfied that his years of hard work and struggle had value, Gompers had no regrets about the path he had followed so far in life. "The consciousness of having availed myself of whatever opportunities were given me to be of some service, some help to my fellows, is of the greatest gratification and consolation," he wrote. "I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that the trade union movement is of paramount importance for the defense, the protection, the advancement and achievement of the rights and interests of the working people, and if this should be the last word I shall ever express upon this all pervading and momentous question, I could but reiterate it and commend it with whatever emphasis at my command to the toilers of our country and of our time."9

 

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