Labor's Problem: Real Wages
men, John Mitchell not least among them, gave their lives
for the cause of labor in the last half of the nineteenth
century. Out of the
misery in America’s coal mines, the oppression in New
England’s textile mills, the degradation of the man paid by
the hour rose the beginnings of the strongest labor movement in
the history of thee world.
The man who, more than any other, organized the American
labor movement, gave it a structure and philosophy and shaped
its expanding years, was Samuel Gompers of the American
Federation of Labor.
Samuel Gompers was born in 1850 and
died in 1924. In
his memoirs, he described some of the changes that came to
Within my span of life have come
inventions that have been revolutionizing in effect.
Electricity both for lighting and power, the
telephone, the wireless, the submarine cable, the radio,
the transcontinental railroad, acroplane, electric
street cars, internal combustion engine, cold storage,
are a few of the changes that I have seen come.
Methods of work, methods and agencies of
communications, and facilities for travel have brought
society so close together that merging of economic
interests and activities has been an inevitable results.
In the rapidly-changing world of the early
twentieth century, Samuel Gompers was to hold fast to a
philosophy more closely attuned to the agrarian society of
Jeffersonian days. His
rugged individualism, his dislike and distrust of government,
his suspicion of concentrated power in “big union” as well
as in trusts or in government distinguish him sharply from
contemporary leaders of labor.
But although his philosophy is at present more or less
ignored, his imprint on the American labor movement is
Samuel Gompers was born an Englishman,
in Spitalfields, the East of London, in 1850.
was of Dutch-Jewish stock, but although his parents were
religious, religion had little place in Samuel Gompers’ own
Like the Carnegies in Scotland, the Gompers
family was close to the hardships caused by the coming of the
machine age. Riots
against machinery were as common in Spitalfields as they were in
Dunfermline, and Samuel was brought up amid scenes of misery and
himself believed that the experiences with the silk weavers of
his childhood profoundly influenced his whole life.
As he wrote in his Seventy Years of Life and Labor:
One of my most vivid early
recollections is the great trouble that came to the silk
weavers when machinery was invented to replace their
skill and take their jobs.
No thought was given to those men whose trade was
gone. Misery and suspense filled the neighborhood with a depressing
air of dread. The
narrow street echoed with the tramp of men walking the
street in groups with no work to do.
Burned in my mind was the
undescribable effect of the cry of these men, “God
I’ve no work to do.
Lord strike me dead—my wife, my kids want bread
and I’ve no work to do.”
Child that I was, that cry taught me the
world-wide feeling that ever bound the oppressed
together in a struggle against those who hold control
over their lives and opportunities of those who work for
That feeling became a subconscious
guiding impulse that in later years developed into the
dominating influence in shaping my life.
Solomon Gompers, Sam’s father, was a
cigarmaker by trade, and spent long weary hours working at home
for very low pay. Samuel
himself had to go to work “when I was ten years and three
months,” although “the teacher told father that it was wrong
to rob me of an education, particularly as I showed ability.”
Solomon apprenticed his young son to a shoemaker, to
teach him a more remunerative calling, but the boy soon returned
to his father’s trade. Samuel
describes the change in these words:
After I had been at work for eight
weeks the boss gave me three pence (six cents) a week as
there was something about the noise of the shop that
repelled me and I was glad when one Sunday morning soon
after, my father put the “choice” to me of
continuing in the shoemaking trade or becoming an
apprentice in cigar-making.
I chose the latter with the remark—evidently
inspired by my father’s activity in the Cigarmakers’
Society—that I would prefer to learn cigarmaking
because there was a society among the cigarmakers but
none among the shoemakers.
The Cigarmakers’ Society was instrumental
in helping the Gompers family move to the New World.
Because so many of its members was unemployed and
suffering, the Society had set up an emigration fund—“that
is, instead of paying the members unemployment benefits, a sum
of money was granted to help passage from England to the United
States.” The sum,
according to Gompers, was only between five and ten pounds, but
it meant freedom and a new life for many.
Gompers himself pointed out the practicality of the
emigration fund: “…
which benefited both the emigrants and those who remained by
decreasing the number seeking work in their trade.”
Much of Samuel’s impression of America was
gained by listening to talk and to songs in the cigar factory,
where “To the West,” a popular song of the day, was sung
with fervor. “Away,
far away, let us hope for the best, And build up a home in the
land of the West.” Gompers
reports that Andrew Carnegie later told him the senior Carnegie
was inspired to emigrate to America by the same song.
The Gompers family left England on June
10, 1863, and arrived at Castle Garden, lower Manhattan,
seven weeks later. The
new life at first seemed very little different from the life of
the family in England. Solomon
Gompers was soon making cigars at home, with his son helping
him. Samuel’s transition to Americanism was very gradual.
He describes it at some length:
Then, as now, the East Side [of New
York] was the home of the latest immigrants who settled
in the colonies making the Irish, the German, the
English, and Dutch, and the Ghetto districts. The thousands from Eastern Europe had not then begun their
first I did not feel much curiosity about the new
country nor did I sense the new life in which I had
The work in father’s shop seemed no
different from the work I had done for three years in
London but gradually experience and outside contacts
made me feel the freedom of opportunity and the bigness
of the ideal on which American conditions and
institutions were founded.
Unwittingly, I was reborn to become
spiritually a child and citizen of the United States and
after I reached my majority I secured the privilege and
obligation of citizenship on October 4, 1872.
No one reading the lives of Samuel Gompers
and Andrew Carnegie can fail to notice the similarities of
their childhood and early experiences.
Both were born abroad, sons of skilled workers, schooled
in the hardships wrought by the introduction of machinery.
Both were deprived of schooling and apprenticed in
childhood, and both came to America with penniless families.
What led one to drive for personal success while the
other adopted the aims of the working class is not immediately
Perhaps Samuel Gompers remained a workingman
party because of his early American experiences in New York’s
ghettos, while Andrew Carnegie was more quickly Americanized in
the smaller city of Pittsburgh.
Perhaps by 1863 opportunity was more limited for the
young Gompers. But
this latter explanation has little to recommend it.
It is more likely that Gompers had tied himself to the
labor cause so zealously in his childhood that he had no desire
to break away from it. An
incident he related in his memoirs illustrates this point.
Gompers was extremely class conscious and refused to
associate with his employers.
When my father was made foreman of
the Eagle Cigar Company …” he wrote, “while I was
working there, although my home was but a block and a
half away from where he with my mother and the younger
children were living, in all the ten months of my
father’s foremanship, I never entered his house. While always courteous to my employers and their
representatives, I never permitted any relationship that
might be misconstrued by my fellow workers.
Despite the opportunities for fortune-making
in the United States before the end of the century, Gompers was
to cast his lot forever with his fellow workers.
Improvement in his or in their condition he viewed not in
terms of a rise out of the ranks of labor, but as a part of a
general improvement of working conditions for workingmen, in
pay, in hours, in environment.
There is no evidence that he ever sought, or found,
independent personal improvement for himself.
Indeed, in later years, when he was offered more than one
opportunity to go into the cigar business as a “capitalist,”
his refusals were categoric.
This strong sense of belonging to the working
class, coupled with an honest belief that laborer and capitalist
were separated by an unbridgeable gulf, differentiates Gompers
not only from Carnegie, but from his fellow labor leader, John
wished every man a
capitalist and died worth a quarter of a million dollars).
Indeed, we learn from his memories that Gompers made it a
rule never to eat or drink with mixed groups of employers and
employees, lest he forget his place as a labor representative.
Samuel Gompers was a sincere labor man.
He was also what we might call today a “joiner,” and
in his early years he devoted himself to the fraternal or lodge
enough, he was a union man, and his union was affiliated with
the old National Union of Cigarmakers (organized in 1864).
This organization later became the Cigarmakers
International Union of America.
Gompers called attention in his memoirs to the
differences between the unions of the 1860’s and those of the
There was a vast difference between
those early unions and the unions of today.
Then there was no law or order.
A union was a more or less definite group of
people employed in the same trade who might help each
other out in special difficulties with the employer.
There was no sustained effort to
secure fair wages through collective bargaining.
The employer fixed wages until he shoved them
down to a point where human endurance revolted.
Often the revolt was started by an individual
whose personal grievance was sore, who rose and
am going on strike.
All who remain at work are scabs.”
Usually the workers went out with him. . . .
That was the way it was done in the
early days. We
had no conception of constructive business tactics
beginning with presentation of demands and negotiations
to reach an agreement.
It was in his early union days that Gompers
first learned the futility of resisting progress in the
guise of machinery. With
the crowd he knew voting for a strike against the introduction
of molds and methods destroying individual skill in cigarmaking,
Gompers joined to support the strike
The organization lost that fight as molds and
bunchbreaking machines enabled immigrant workers to become
rapidly adept in producing cheaper grades of cigars.
Bohemian cigarmakers began to come in appreciable
Bohemian cigarmaking was a government monopoly and practically
all the work was done by women.
This class of workers made the elimination or even the
control of mold usage impossible.
A prolonged strike against molds … ended disastrously.
As Gompers told the story, “From that time
I began to realize the futility of opposing progress.
Before he became personally active in the
American union movement, Gompers became familiar with the
writings of his contemporary, Karl Marx, and with the principles
of German trade-unionism imported by some of his German
colleagues at the cigar shops.
He watched with interest the activity of the radical
International Workingmen’s Association (organized in London,
1864), “whose presiding genius was Karl Marx.”
“The organization,” wrote Gompers, “was
trade-union in inception. It
had subsidiary organizations in the various European countries
and was controlled by a General Council.
It sought to build up trade-unions and held that national
trade-union movements must act collectively for proper
regulation of immigration so that the workingmen of one country
could not be used against the workingmen of other countries.”
This opposition to immigration was to be reflected in
Gompers’ later life.
Gompers followed Marx at least as far as
his interpretation of history as an economic struggle between
unalterably opposed classes.
As Gompers wrote, “his [Marx’s] influence
contributed to emphasize the necessity for organization of
wage-earners in trade unions and the development of economic
power prior to efforts to establish labor government
through political methods.”
This principle—of developing economic power
and ignoring political methods—was a cardinal one in Gompers’
union philosophy. Some
of Gompers’ later opposition to socialism undoubtedly stemmed
from his sympathy with Karl Marx.
Later on his memoirs, he writes further of Marx:
His writings were a terrific indictment of
society, couched in the terms in general usage in that chaotic
period of the labor movement.
Terms as Marx used them often had a very different
meaning from what became fixed in later years.
To understand Marx one must read him with an
understanding of the struggle from the ’fifties to the
Marx did not beguile himself into thinking
the ballot was all powerful. And neither did Gompers.
Marx criticized the Socialists and upheld
the principles of trade-unionism, terming the trade-unions
“the great modern necessity.”
According to Gompers, Marx “grasped the principle that
the trade-union was the immediate and practical agency which
could bring wage earners a better life.
Whatever modifications Marx may have taught in his
philosophical writings, as a practical policy he urged the
formation of trade unions and the use of them to deal with the
problems of the labor movement.”
The Cigarmakers’ Union was destined to be
the model for most craft unions in the later-organized American
Federation of Labor, in 1875, Gompers, with Adolph Strasser,
Ferdinand Laurell, and other colleagues, began to organize a
local covering New York City.
This local was later known as No. 144; Gompers was its
first president and represented it in the A.F.L. until his
death in 1924. The
organization of the local was hard work and time-consuming.
It reflected the difficulties of labor organization in
Gompers described the work with pride:
We went about the business of
promoting our local with a feeling of high consecration
to principles of human freedom and democracy.
We drafted a constitution which stated:
“We recognize the solidarity of a whole working
class to work harmoniously against their common
We pledge ourselves to support the unemployed
because hunger will force the best workman to work for
low wages. United
we are a power to be respected; divided we are the
slaves of capitalists.
Our notion of democracy required that
we furnish every member of the union with a copy of the
constitution. We did not have money to have copied printed so we got an
old-fashioned multigraph, which was a tin box filled
with gelatin substance.
We then made a copy of the constitution in
longhand using gold ink which, when the page was placed
on the gelatin, turned purple.
The impression thus made produced a limited
number of copies and then grew blurred.
Then the gelatin pad had to be cleaned and
was a long tedious process to get sufficient copies for
the whole union. Many
a Sunday afternoon we gave to the work, going home tired
and very blue with ink, but with the glorious
satisfaction that thus far we had lived democracy
It soon became obvious to Gompers and his
lieutenants that unionism must be strengthened in order to
survive. By 1876, the
membership of the Cigarmakers’ Union in New York had declined
to 500, and the situation in the International was no
A reorganized Cigarmakers International Union
held to a policy of high dues; “cheap unionism” was seen to
be ineffective. Sick and death benefits were set up; the union furnished
funds to journeymen traveling looking for work; it defended
purpose was declared to be “elevating the material, moral and
intellectual welfare of the craft.”
Included in the new Constitution (1881) was the basis of
a political platform as well, with the union pledged to work to
… first, the prohibition of child
labor under fourteen years of age; the establishment of
a normal day’s labor to consist of not more than eight
hours per day for all classes; the abolition of the
truck system; tenement house cigar manufacture and the
system of letting out by contract the convict labor in
prisons and reformatory institutions; the legalization
of trades-unions and the establishment of bureaus of
While Gompers and others were working to
build up their reorganized local, they were also involved in a
bitter quarrel with the national organization of the Knights of
Labor. A dual union
was set up in the Cigarmakers and members of each scabbed on the
other. By 1886, it was evident that there could be no compromise
between the stubborn Gompers and the equally adamant leaders of
the Knights, and the trade-unionists met to set up a new
The American Federation of Labor was
thus created out of the remains of the Federation of Organized
Trades and Labor Unions (a skeletal organization set up in
Most of the quotations cited above from
Gompers’ memoirs illustrate the pride he took in his craft and
in the intellectual side of his work. Although he had no use for academicians and refused to allow
them to influence union policies, he was a great believer in
reading and discussion and in the importance of democratic
information in the labor movement.
Consequently, Gompers was primarily interested in
organization of the skilled worker—men like himself, who could
reason and who would listen to reason.
The Knights of Labor was a far more
catholic entity gathering to itself the unskilled and the
uneducated, and it lacked the aristocratic consciousness felt so
strongly by the craft unions.
Partly for this reason, some of the trades
organizations in the early 1880’s had begun to organize a
federation of trades. The Cigarmakers, the Printers, the Iron and Steel Workers,
the Carpenters, the Granite Cutters, and other craftsmen joined
the early Federation which then became the American
Federation of Labor in 1886.
Hindsight is better than foresight.
One of Gompers’ biographers points to Gompers’
succession from a national labor movement as one of his biggest
mistakes, because it initiated a long period of inter-union
friction not yet resolved.
Had Gompers then recognized the future importance of the
unskilled workers’ organizations, he might have hesitated
before breaking from the Knights.
But this is unlikely.
No one knew better than Gompers the importance of labor
solidarity, and his writings testify that he was aware of the
need to organize the unskilled industrial workers.
Yet it seemed to him that these new
immigrants, with their low standard of living and their language
difficulties, could not lead the American labor movement.
That job, he believed, was the work of the craftsmen, and
they had to be organized strongly before going further.
In addition, personal rivalries and feuds occasioned the
break with the Knights; temperamentally, Gompers was unsuited
for conciliation or compromise with his union rivals.
Now Gompers threw himself heart and soul into
the strengthening of the Federation.
As the editor of the Trade Union Advocate, he
fought bitterly against his enemies—the capitalists, the
Knights of Labor, and the Socialists.
The initial number of the Union Advocate (June,
1887) states his class-conscious Marxism:
Life is at best a hard struggle with
contending forces. The
life of the toiler is made doubly so by the avarice of the
arrogant and tyrannical employing classes.
Greedy and overbearing as they are, trying at nearly all
times to get their pound of flesh out of the workers.
It is necessary to form organizations of the toilers to
prevent these tendencies more strongly developing, as wealth is
concentrating itself into fewer hands to prevent engulfing and
drowning us in an abyss of hopelessness and despair.
The Socialist Labor Party was organized in
1877 and promptly set about to take over the Knights and the
Federation. At no
time in his life did Gompers ever fall into what he termed the
“Socialist error.” The
concept of the “Socialist State” was abhorrent to his
personal philosophy. At the Boston Convention of the Federation in 1903, he
commented on socialist-introduced resolutions:
|I want to tell you, Socialists, that I
have studied your philosophy; read your works on
economics, and not the meanest of them; studied your
standard works, both in English and German—have not
only read, but studied them. I have heard your orators
and watched the work of your movement the world over.
I have kept close watch upon your doctrines for
thirty years, have been closely associated with many of
you and know how you think and what you propose.
I know, too, what you have up your sleeve, and I
want to say to you that I am entirely at variance with
your philosophy. I declare it to you, I am not only at variance with your
doctrines, but with your philosophy.
Economically you are unsound; socially, you are
wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility.
Equally vehement was Gompers’ outspoken opposition
to what he called the industrial unionism sponsored by the Industrial
Workers of the World. The industrial union idea, appealing to the unskilled masses,
had little appeal for the Federation and sounded too socialistic
for Gompers. His
statement opposing industrial unionism illustrates his
individualism, his tendency to favor skilled labor, and his
notions of democracy:
Industrial Unionism, so called
… is a theory which, if carried back to its logical
(or better still, illogical) conclusion, is harking back
to the primitive battlefield.
The advocates of this form of organization, at
least a great many of them, assume that the
organizations of labor can be successfully combined into
one gigantic union, and the power of that union so
concentrated that it would, or could, be moved at an
instant’s notice, as an automation.
Were it possible to reach a
condition of this character—the concentration of power
necessary to carry out the objects desired—the
democracy which now exists in our unions would, as
already shown, give way to autocracy.
Power would be at the top, and not at the
foundation, as now exemplified by the local unions.
The success of the American
Federation of Labor is based chiefly on the very absence
of that power which industrial union advocates desire to
must not be forgotten that organizations of labor are
composed of living, breathing men and women and not of
These men and women have opinions
upon all questions; they also have natural rights, which
they will protect as seems best to them, and above all,
if I interpret aright the human trend of events they
will vehemently protest against any method which would
pervert existing power of democracy.
Gompers’ prediction of autocracy in
giant industrial unions was an accurate one.
But unfortunately, perhaps, for the “living, breathing
men and women,” there has been little vehement protest in the
ranks of labor against the concentration of union power at the
top. This lack may
be due in part to the enormous power of the unskilled and poorly
educated in present union ranks, and in part to the unfortunate
split between the craft and the industrial unions which lessened
The Socialists and industrial unionists
were two of Grompers’ foremost radical enemies, but his
rostrum of foes did not stop there.
His distrust of the theoretical philosophy of the
Socialists he matched with an equal distrust of academicians in
general. The Future of Trade Unionism and Capitalism in A Democracy,
written by Charles William Eliot, (1910) occasioned sharp
criticism from the trade-union leader.
Eliot had refused to surrender the concepts of personal
liberty and other abstract rights of man, and attacked the
closed-shop, the “uniform wage,” the boycott, and the
enforcement of union rules and regulations.
His cure-all was to be profit-sharing—an idea
diametrically opposed to Gompers’ philosophy of the continuing
The fatal shortcoming of this
imaginary trade unionism is that it omits to take
account of society as it exists and especially the
commercial conditions under which labor is “brought
and sold.” The
theory is a misfit.
It might suit in some millennial paradise, where
all members of society were stall-fed, meek-eyed and
dehorned—and in no fear of the butcher [the employer].
But the practical questions of trade unionism
arise now, right here, in a hard and selfish world,
where the masses of the wage-earners are at all times
menaced by the butcher
Gompers had a concept of liberty as high as
Eliot’s, but individual liberty he held unimportant if
economic well-being was denied.
In a speech before the Civic Federation in 1905, Gompers
clarified his position:
Freedom is bread. Bread
is freedom,” I am in entire accord with Heine.
He did not mean simply the piece of bread such as this in
my hand, that one may eat, but all that the term implies.
Liberty can be neither exercised nor enjoyed by those who
are in poverty. Material
improvement is necessary to the exercise and enjoyment of
Despite the furious assaults on socialism and
intellectualism continued by Gompers throughout his life, his
basic economic philosophy was by no means negative.
First of all, as we noted above, his prime interest was
with the skilled labor groups and the improvement of their
Perhaps because he was somewhat less familiar
with the horrible conditions of life among the unskilled than
John Mitchell, for example, he was somewhat more concerned than
Mitchell in developing a labor philosophy. Both men concerned themselves primarily with shortening the
hours and raising the wages of the men they represented. Both were practical unionists ready to press for immediate
financial advantages for their men.
But in the course of his lifetime, Gompers
developed a fairly coherent philosophy of trade-unionism
which underlies his practical policies.
One of his earliest precepts was the
importance of the shorter working day, and this concept
he never surrendered. As
he told the story, the meaning of the eight-hour day was
first brought home to him as a boy in New York, when he heard
the eight-o’clock whistle at a shipyard signal the beginning
of an eight-hour day for the shipyard workers, hours after most
other workers were hard at work.
From the summer of 1885 on, organize
campaigns for eight-hour days in all industry were pressed by
the trade unions. Actually,
the unions called for an eight-hour law to apply to government
employees, but “eight hours in private industry we undertook
to establish by direct negotiation.”
This was typical of Gompers.
Describing the campaign, he wrote that “our
work pressed home upon all the concept that the shorter workday
is the initial step in better conditions for wage earners.”
Gompers also maintained with justice that the eight-hour
day would mean increased industrial efficiency.
Another prime tenet of Gompers’ philosophy
was his unswerving support of labor’s right to strike.
While some may assert that the strike
is a relic of barbarism, I answer that the strike is the
most highly civilized method which the workers, the
wealth producers, have yet devised to protest against
the wrong and injustice. …
The strike compels more attention and
study into economic and social wrongs than all the
essays that have been written. …
It establishes better relations between
contending parties … reconciles laborers and
capitalists more effectually and speeds the machinery
for production to a greater extent; gives impetus to
progress and increase power. …
I trust the day will never come when
the workers, the wealth producers of our country and our
time will surrender their right to strike. …
The right to strike was one of the bases of
Gompers’ unfailing support of “voluntarism” in economic
life. This basic
principle stood behind his life-long distrust of politics and
of government in general.
In Seventy Years, (Volume II), he explained his advocacy of strikes in
terms of voluntarism
Several times the plain question has
been put to me by members of the Senate Committee of
Judiciary: “Mr. Gompers,
what can we do to allay the causes of strikes that bring
discomfort and financial suffering to al alike?”
I have had to answer, “Nothing.”
My answer has been interpreted as advocating a
policy of drift.
Quite the contrary to my real
in my mind is to tell the politicians to keep their
hands off and thus to preserve voluntary institutions
and opportunity for individual and group initiative
and leave the way open to deal with problems as the
experience and facts of industry shall indicate. . . .
But it is difficult for lawyers to
understand that the most important human justice comes
through agencies other than the political.
Economic justice will come through
the organization of economic agencies, the increasing
adjustment of economic relationships in accord with
principles evolved by experience, the formulation of
material scientific standards and the development of the
principles and coordinating functions of management,
based upon understanding of human welfare.
Upon this principle of voluntarism, and his
general distrust of legislation, Gompers broke with the
Socialists in general and with the British Labor Party in
organization of labor into a political party, the assumption by
a labor party of governmental responsibility, and above all the
concept of a welfare state were decidedly repugnant to this
Gompers’ distrust of government
intervention may have been partially responsible for his dislike
of antitrust legislation. As
he wrote later:
|When Senator Sherman proposed to forbid
by law the development of industrial combinations, I
felt that his theory was fundamentally wrong.
The greater efficiency that follows unification
of control and management benefits society through
Sustained progress of industry prohibition, and
non-social tendencies can best be curbed by intelligent
Gompers foresaw that the antitrust
legislation would become a powerful weapon against labor, and
indeed, this was afterwards proved to be the case.
One of the few problems which Gompers sought
to have regulated through federal legislation was the
immigration problem, which he saw “in its fundamental
aspect” as “a labor problem.”
Although “the labor movement approached the problem of
immigration reluctantly” the Federation early began to press
for immigration restrictions to prevent the important of cheap
labor from Europe as well as from Mexico and the Far East. This policy may have conflicted in some measure with Gompers’
idealism but it fitted perfectly with his practical opportunism:
“More, now, for the American worker.”
In the course of his long and fruitful life,
Gompers inevitably framed a philosophy about the laws of
supply and demand and the business cycle.
Naturally, he opposed the viewpoint that
labor was a “commodity” and declared with feeling that
“you cannot weigh a human soul on the same scales with which
you weigh a piece of pork.”
He lost no time in pointing out the “utter
fallacy” of the immutable law of supply and demand,
believing that “the laws had no connection with nature or
economic forces, nor were they laws but merely theories which
sought to justify existing practices.”
Gompers made a careful study of business
depressions and unemployment, which he saw as “an
unnecessary blot upon American institutions.”
In 1897, he wrote an article for FORUM discussing the
so-called evil of overproduction:
|One of the greatest causes of this
stagnation [the depression]—if not the greatest
cause—was undoubtedly the fact that the productive
ability of the workers progressed at a greater ratio
than their ability—or rather their opportunity—to
In other words, there exists in our economic system
the evil sometimes called “overproduction” but which
might be more correctly termed “under-consumption.”
For, were the consumptive power of the workers to
keep better pace with their productive ability, the
anomalies of a people going ahungered with
ever-recurring industrial, commercial and financial
panics, crises and stagnation—in the midst of
plenty—would be unknown.
His experience induced Gompers to advocate
“a sustained policy of wage-increases in order that
consumption levels should be maintained commensurate with
the increases in production levels, and that credit control
should be based upon production needs rather than upon
During the post-war period (World War I),
Gompers was part of the Committee on Manufactures set up to
consider how industry could be organized to achieve employment
stability. He introduced three resolutions:
“first, uniform system of cost accounting so there
might be available comparable bases of production information;
second, that all parties … join in the practical work of
eliminating causes of high production costs in industry; and
third, the compilation of unemployment statistics by government
proposals, according to Gompers, were opposed by the “employer
members of my committee as a unit.”
Nonetheless, Gompers believed he held the key
to solving the depression problem.
It is important to understand that Gompers never
envisaged or invited government intervention in his program,
which he believed could be most democratically worked out on the
voluntary level between employers—probably in trusts—and
employers in strong trade unions.
To the end of his life Gompers maintained
this attitude, despite the growing tendency of radicals and
conservatives alike to appeal to a strong government to protect
them and to advance their interests.
This was one side of his democratic, individualistic
nature; the other side his dislike of concentration of power in
great industrial unions. But
Gompers was fighting against the times.
In his time, and in his own stubborn way, he
did a great deal to raise the living standards of the American
workingman, particularly the skilled workingman. He built the American Federation of Labor to a position of
unparalleled strength in the United States.
But whether Gompers was “right” or “wrong” in an
abstract sense, his theories became anachronisms in an era
symbolized by the growing power of the federal government.
Rowland Hill Harvey, in his life of Gompers,
sums up the man in the following words:
“With a glorious ingenuousness he roared out an
eighteenth-century gospel of liberty.
Yet nothing could be finer than his sturdy insistence
upon voluntarism in an age when that principle is fast becoming
a dream. … Here
Gompers becomes magnificent—a kind of reincarnated Jefferson
in a world gone Hamiltonian.”
Gompers’ “voluntarism” was only another
expression of the philosophy of “laissez-faire.”
To the labor leader, “voluntarism” meant that the
government should keep hands off labor-management relations,
that unions and capitalists should be allowed to compromise
their differences “voluntarily.”
This phase of Gompers’ philosophy has been
discarded by the Hamiltonians of the union world who succeeded
him. But Gompers’
concern for the skilled laborer and his disinterest in the
unskilled masses is still reflected in the American Federation
of Labor and its policies.
Actually, Gompers’ first interest was in the value of
skilled work and all his actual labor experience and union
experience furthered this interest.
Coupled with Gompers’ interest in the
welfare of the craftsman was his deep-seated distrust of
machinery. Even as
a child, Gompers became convinced that the machine could and in
many cases would replaced skilled hand labor.
In the cigar factory, Gompers learned first-hand how
futile the struggle against machine improvements could be.
But the featherbedding practices which grew up to prevent
the replacement of labor by the machine are still utilized by
the A.F.L. unions in an attempt to restrict the damaging effects
of machinery on craftsmanship.
For Gompers, skill had value, and he thought
skilled labor should bring a fair, i.e., high, price on the
labor market. This
theory could only be supported if the number of skilled laborers
looking for work more or less paralleled the demand for such
During Gompers’ early lifetime in England,
the problem of a surplus labor supply was solved partly by
financing emigration. Later,
when Gompers was a man of great influence in the American labor
movement, he applied the corollary of the same doctrine, working
to restrict or eliminate labor competition from immigration.
The elaborate apprentice system built up by
the A.F.L. is, of course, still another way of restricting the
labor supply. And
the heavy tax on A.F.L. membership (initiation fees and dues)
often acts as a further restriction.
All these methods of restricting the labor
market and in some measure restricting production as well
reflect the belief that overproduction of goods causes a
surplus on the labor market and therefore lowers the wage level.
In actual fact, many of Gompers’ own
principles and all the practices mentioned above reflect this
theory. Yet Gompers
himself believed that the basic economic problem of capitalism
was not overproduction but underconsumption.
Unfortunately, this theory was far more complex and seems
on the face of it impractical to the operating unionist.
After 1900, the skilled craftsman began to
recognize another danger to his livelihood, the
machine-sponsored unskilled worker.
The pressure of the great masses of unskilled laborers
for their own “place in the sun” made the restrictive
practices of the skilled workers seem even more essential.
The inevitable struggle between the craft unions and the
new, industrial unions even in Gompers’ lifetime was rising
toward its climax.
Current History, March, 1950
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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The
Permanence of Racism
grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black
former Harvard law professor who made
headlines recently for his one-man protest
against the school's hiring policies,
hammers home his controversial theme that
white racism is a permanent, indestructible
component of our society. Bell's fantasies
are often dire and apocalyptic: a new
Atlantis rises from the ocean depths,
sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white
resistance to affirmative action softens
following an explosion that kills Harvard's
president and all of the school's black
professors; intergalactic space invaders
promise the U.S. President that they will
clean up the environment and deliver tons of
gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens
take all African Americans back to their
planet. Other pieces deal with black-white
romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job
Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine
And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back
in some of these ominous allegories, which
speak from the depths of anger and despair.
Bell now teaches at New York University Law
* * *
Representing the Race
The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer
By Kenneth W. Mack
Representing the Race tells the story of an enduring paradox of American race relations, through the prism of a collective biography of African American lawyers who worked in the era of segregation. . . . Mack reorients what we thought we knew about famous figures such as Thurgood Marshall, who rose to prominence by convincing local blacks and prominent whites that he was—as nearly as possible—one of them. But he also introduces a little-known cast of characters to the American racial narrative. These include Loren Miller, the biracial Los Angeles lawyer who, after learning in college that he was black, became a Marxist critic of his fellow black attorneys and ultimately a leading civil rights advocate; and Pauli Murray, a black woman who seemed neither black nor white, neither man nor woman, who helped invent sex discrimination as a category of law. The stories of these lawyers pose the unsettling question: what, ultimately, does it mean to “represent” a minority group in the give-and-take of American law and politics? /
For Love of Liberty
* * * *
Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered
the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It
By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today.
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.
* * * *
Michelle Alexander: US Prisons, The New Jim Crow
Judge Mathis Weighs in on the execution of Troy Davis
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
mass incarceration of people of color through the War on
Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child
born today is less likely to be raised by both parents
than a black child born during slavery. The absence of
black fathers from families across America is not simply
a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time
watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black
men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away
for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed
by whites. Most people seem to
imagine that the drug war—which has swept millions of
poor people of color behind bars—has been aimed at
rooting out drug kingpins or violent drug offenders.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This war has
been focused overwhelmingly on low-level drug offenses,
like marijuana possession—the very crimes that happen
with equal frequency in middle class white communities.
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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8 July 2012