"The trade unions of America reached their highest development during the year 1913," Samuel Gompers announced in his annual report to the International Federation of Trade Unions. With two million members and the means to promote organizing and legislative campaigns, the American Federation of Labor was on the rise, exerting real influence, as Gompers put it, "in every sphere where human activity and human betterment can be obtained." Trade unionists were speaking out in government councils, educational forums, and federal courts, and their practical vision of industrial democracy was gaining support. Progressive politicians, reformers, and even some employers now echoed the AFL's call for unionization and trade agreements. Its influence was beginning to shape federal policy, too: William B. Wilson, a former union miner, served as the nation's first secretary of labor, and three AFL-approved trade unionists, Austin B. Garretson, John B. Lennon, and James O'Connell, represented labor on the newly organized U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations. Publicly acknowledging the value of the AFL's leadership--and its support--in industrial and labor affairs, President Woodrow Wilson not only met with the Executive Council during his administration but in the summer of 1916 delivered the main address at dedication ceremonies for the AFL's new headquarters.1
"It was not always thus," Gompers frankly admitted. "There was a time . . . when the doors of 'decent homes' were often shut in the faces of the men who dared think and dream and act and hope for the organization of the working people." As proud as he was of this "marvelous change," though, and the opportunities it offered, he was by no means satisfied. Respectability and acceptance were means, not ends, and as long as federal, state, and local judges continued to interfere with workers' rights to free speech, free press, and free assembly, the AFL would press on. The object was to attain "complete social justice," Gompers insisted, and that depended on economic strength and aggressive unionism, not political connections and persuasive testimony. "We, the workers, have never succeeded in obtaining any redress . . . by assuming a submissive attitude," the AFL Executive Council maintained in 1915. "We who have participated in the struggles of the labor movement during the last third of a century, know that only to the strong, well disciplined, well financed organization has success accrued."2
Charting the AFL's ongoing fight for social and economic power, this volume of the Samuel Gompers Papers covers the period from September 1913 through January 1917--a volatile time marked by economic uncertainty and industrial conflict, revolutionary upheavals in Mexico, and cataclysmic war in Europe. For the AFL it was an era of significant growth and legislative triumphs: The Federation launched a wide-ranging campaign to organize women workers, expanded the Labor Forward Movement to organize the unorganized, tested new methods of reaching unskilled workers, and welcomed the American Federation of Teachers into the fold. During these years it also supported organizing efforts in Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico and began the process of forming a Pan-American labor federation.3 At the same time the AFL mounted an intensive legislative campaign that led to passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914, which declared that "the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce," and in 1915 the Seamen's Act, which "for the first time in the history of the world," as Gompers put it, "made the sailor a free man."4 Other federal legislation included a child labor law, a workers' compensation law for federal employees, and an eight-hour law for railroad workers.
But AFL affiliates also suffered dramatic defeats during this period that not only checked the Federation's growth but aggravated tensions within the labor movement. In the course of the 1913-14 Calumet strike in northern Michigan, for instance, more than a thousand metal miners were arrested--and Western Federation of Miners president Charles Moyer was shot and run out of town--before the strike was lost. During the equally unsuccessful 1913-14 miners' strike in Colorado, strikers and their families at Ludlow were savagely attacked for refusing to return to work on their employers' terms.
Unfavorable judicial decisions compounded the impact of these losses. The U.S. Supreme Court continued to uphold the legality of antiunion "yellow dog" contracts, for example, and federal and state courts began to chip away at the Clayton Act's provisions limiting the use of injunctions.5 While these defeats never altered Gompers' belief that the Clayton Act was a great victory, they led his opponents to condemn Federation leaders as "wormeaten fossilized booze fighters" and triggered a vigorous debate on alternative strategies such as industrial unionism, centralized strike funds, eight-hour legislation for non-government workers, and minimum wage laws for men as well as women.6
Gompers' leadership was tested during these years, especially as intellectuals, social reformers, and some employees of the Commission on Industrial Relations (and its privately funded successor, the Committee on Industrial Relations) championed new organizations, such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, or supported calls for government regulation of labor standards.7 Frequently sparring with opponents such as Victor Berger, Adolph Germer, Morris Hillquit, Duncan McDonald, and Ellen Gates Starr, Gompers honed a theory of trade union self-help and solidarity that, he contended, was central to achieving working-class liberty on working-class terms. In the case of the Amalgamated, for instance, he believed that it was more valuable for disaffected unionists to fight for their beliefs on the convention floor than to drop out and form rival unions. In the case of government regulations, he urged wage earners to take responsibility for themselves: "Our movement has not asked and will not ask at the hands of government anything which the workers can and should do for themselves," Gompers reminded readers of the American Federationist in 1915. "The movement of labor is founded upon the principle that that which we do for ourselves, individually and collectively, is done best."8 In Gompers' opinion, government protection only fostered a dangerous spirit of paternalism and dependence. On the other hand, the process of identifying interests and then fighting for rights promoted an "invaluable spirit of independence and self-responsibility . . . that really makes for progress and betterment."9 "This is the spirit that has made the American labor movement the most aggressive labor organization in the world," Gompers wrote. "Unless the working people are organized to express their desires and needs, and organized to express their will, any other method tends to weaken initiative."10
Gompers and the AFL never underestimated the critical value of political power and support. But it was one thing to seek legislation protecting labor's right to organize and quite another to cede control of industrial relations to others, sympathetic or not. Gompers was willing to cooperate with outside agencies when it came to investigations and hearings, for instance, but he brooked no interference, "expert" or otherwise, on trade union matters. "Human betterment is not something that can be imposed from the outside or from above," he argued. "Industrial welfare and human development cannot be worked out like mathematical problems or settled by theories or academic demonstrations."11 Consequently when the National Civic Federation sought his support for a congressional investigation of minimum wage legislation, he turned them down flat. "The workers will not delegate to any outsiders control over the labor movement," Gompers told Ralph Easley, "or the right to dictate terms and conditions of employment."12
Gompers' unshakable confidence in trade unionism may have angered his opponents, but it also helped elevate him to a position of trust both within and outside the movement. During these years he emerged as organized labor's national--and in some cases international--spokesman. If he took pride in this hard-won recognition, he also put it to good use: When Mexico's organized workers sought to present a case against American intervention to Woodrow Wilson, for instance, they turned to Gompers for help.13 Throughout this period his considerable influence with--and access to--the Wilson administration also allowed him to raise a variety of important issues. "In my experience with United States Congresses of two score years I have not seen anything like the fine spirit toward labor . . . pervading all the branches of the Wilson administration," he wrote in 1916. It was evidence, he believed, of the administration's recognition "that labor should be made part of the national councils; that its patriotism should be conceded, and that its knowledge of its own needs should give it paramount voice in legislation directly and peculiarly affecting its own rights."14
The years of constant work and travel were beginning to catch up with Gompers, who was sixty-seven years old and a great grandfather by 1917. Still, his schedule was as busy as ever: In 1914 he completed an exhausting speaking tour of Puerto Rico, and in 1915 he not only learned how to drive but took on the responsibility of overseeing construction of the AFL's new headquarters building in downtown Washington, D.C. After war broke out in Europe in 1914, Gompers devoted more time to correspondence with international labor leaders, learning first hand about the impact of war on wage earners and their families and advocating a world labor congress in conjunction with the peace conference at the war's end.
By January 1917 , though, it had grown increasingly difficult to predict when the end of the war might come, as the threat of American involvement in the conflict became ever more real. Gompers took this turn of events quite seriously. He had lost a nephew in 1915 during military maneuvers in Haiti, and he was well aware that his grandsons were old enough to serve should the United States join the fight. Yet as he watched the internationalism of the working class give way to the intense nationalisms of the countries engaged in the war, and as he became suspicious of foreign influences that were allegedly encouraging labor conflict in some American cities, he lost his pacifist faith.15 "I am not warlike--I am opposed to war," he told his good friend James Duncan in 1915, "but I believe it is the duty of the American people, the American democracy, to make it clear to the world that we shall, under all circumstances, be able to defend the republic in whose perpetuity we have pinned our faith and our hopes."16
In 1916 Gompers had an opportunity to put these words into action when he accepted an appointment to the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense, the government agency established to organize the nation's preparedness program. Proud of this opportunity to demonstrate what he--and the AFL--could do on the nation's behalf, he promised to be mindful of his responsibility, as he put it, "to give a spirit and a purpose to plans for national preparedness that shall make human welfare the paramount consideration."17 This, after all, was Gompers' greatest goal as a trade unionist: "If we can understand the general concept of human justice and human freedom; if we can instill in the minds of all that the best and highest concepts and idealisms of freedom make for the utmost fraternity and unity of the peoples of our common country and of the whole civilized world," he maintained, "we shall have done something in the interest of labor, of the masses of humanity and for the perpetuation of our republic and the ideals and ideas . . . to which it aspires."18