SG desk    
The SG signature Papers

      Partially blind, diabetic, and heedless of his doctors' advice, Samuel Gompers fully expected to work as hard as he always had. "I am seventy-two years of age," he wrote in January 1922, "and have never even thought of . . . retiring." After all, at this critical moment in AFL history, there was too much work to do. The Federation had lost almost nine hundred thousand members since 1920, President Warren Harding had openly challenged labor's right to strike, and union members were dangerously divided over questions of strategy, politics, and work jurisdiction. Confident that his practical knowledge and wide perspective were too valuable to lose now, the AFL president thought his duty was clear: "I could not stop working if I wanted to."1

        Few could match Gompers' commitment to trade unionism or his forty-year record of leadership. But whether his long experience was an asset or a liability was a serious question at the time. For as corporations flourished, union shops declined, and nonunion workers dominated the labor market in the 1920s, many wondered whether labor's Grand Old Man had outlived his usefulness. His voluntary principles seemed hopelessly out of date to radicals energized by the Russian Revolution. His aversion to independent politics and an activist state seemed counterproductive to railroad workers inspired by Farmer-Labor party plans for nationalization and economic reform. And his repeated failure to organize the unorganized and generate classwide solidarity seemed downright incompetent to a militant corps of activists who feared he lacked the vision and the political courage necessary to get the job done. In their estimation, Gompers had nothing to offer a rising generation of industrial workers: He was too anti-intellectual to broaden the scope of the movement, too rigid to change with the times, and too determined to maintain control of the AFL, no matter the costs to the working class as a whole.2

         Hungry for change, many union supporters inside and outside the AFL now looked to William Z. Foster for up-to-date leadership. The embodiment of their vision for change, Foster was a talented organizer whose militant rhetoric and aggressive tactics found widespread support in the labor movement. The forty-one-year-old leader was everything Gompers was not: He embraced Communism and the Red International of Labor Unions or Profintern (RILU), advocated independent working-class political action, and believed that the AFL would have to function as a strong, centralized organization if it hoped to survive and grow.3 Whereas Gompers presumed that the great mass of workers would learn the value of solidarity through direct experience, Foster and his supporters favored a more top-down approach: They established the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) to develop a network of "revolutionary and progressive" unionists, a militant minority that would serve as the "brain and backbone of the organized masses." With amalgamation as its slogan, industrial unionism as its goal, and "boring from within" the established trade unions as its method, the TUEL promised to transform otherwise "timid and muddled" AFL affiliates into "scientifically constructed, class conscious weapons in the revolutionary struggle." "Get off the rocky road of craft unionism," Foster urged his fellow workers, "and enter upon the broad boulevard of departmentalized industrial unionism, the way to social emancipation."4

        At a time when unemployment and political harassment had ostensibly crippled labor's progress, and the growth of reactionary groups like the Ku Klux Klan promised to make things worse, the TUEL's "Amalgamation or Annihilation" campaign put Gompers' leadership to the test: Who could argue with a plan designed to neutralize jurisdictional battles and unite labor's power once and for all? By March 1922, the Chicago Federation of Labor (FOL) had passed a resolution calling for an AFL conference to merge member unions, and within eighteen months, sixteen international unions, seventeen state federations, and numerous central and local labor bodies had joined the campaign.5 "The communists have sprung into great prominence in the trade union movement," Foster boasted to the RILU, and the path to the future seemed clear: Amalgamation was "the burning issue of the hour," and Foster the man with a workable plan. "[H]e is a genius in simplifying," his supporters crowed. "He addresses himself to the heart of the problem at hand, and he points the way to success."6

         But if supporters expected the younger, visionary leader to restructure the Federation, they were soon disappointed. As Gompers had learned over time, there was nothing simple about amalgamation, and anyone familiar with the building trades' ongoing fight to unite their forces knew that amalgamation could not be imposed from above. They also knew that it was not Gompers or the international presidents ("petty despots" in Foster's view) who stood in the way. In the past, rank-and-file workers had vetoed amalgamation plans for a very basic reason: As one labor official put it, they refused to be "traded off to another organization like so much personal property on the say-so of a few men," a situation Gompers had witnessed many times.7 "We could say, 'You must amalgamate,'" he told a convention of cap makers in 1923. "And suppose the organizations would come back to us and say, 'We will do as we darn please.' What are you going to do about it? Get the militia, get the police, and make them amalgamate?" If history was any guide, Foster's plan for unity promised far more than it could deliver. "The Knights of Labor had the most complete idea of amalgamation that it was ever attempted to put into practice," Gompers noted. "It also had the word 'must' and compulsion and dictatorship as the principle of administration," concepts, he believed, that were as counterproductive in the 1920s as they had been in the 1880s. "People are not made of clay that can be molded into any shape by those who wish to change them," he maintained. "It is human to resent compulsion."8

        Ultimately, it was this view of human nature, tempered by his long experience in the labor movement, not amalgamation, industrial unionism, or even his "insane hatred for everything radical," as Foster put it, that separated Gompers from his critics: The AFL president genuinely believed that their top-down methods would not work. Where Foster and his followers envisioned an energetic, centralized leadership reshaping the labor movement along revolutionary lines, Gompers saw an acrimonious future of conflict, dual unionism, and disintegration. "To whom are they making this [amalgamation] appeal," Gompers wanted to know. "To the unorganized? Not by any means, but to the organized workers, thus to bring about if possible rivalry, division, antagonism and dis-organization."9

        Likewise it was Foster's commitment to the Communist party, not his desire for change, or even his challenge to Gompers' leadership, that alarmed the AFL president. Gompers appreciated Foster's passion and abilities--after all, he had trusted him during the war to oversee the all-important steel and packinghouse workers' campaigns. But once Foster allied the TUEL with the Communist movement, the very antithesis of liberty as far as Gompers was concerned, he lost all credibility as a labor leader in Gompers' eyes. "Isn't it a pity," Gompers reportedly asked labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg, "that such an intelligent fellow as Foster should make such an ass of himself?" Foster may have believed that the TUEL was "working in every direction necessary to put life and spirit and power into the trade-union movement," but Gompers perceived just the opposite. "If there be any . . . honest purpose of those who want closer affiliation or even amalgamation," he said, "let them, in the orderly, rational, common sense way, in the unions, talk of it, talk with their fellows. But to organize a clique in each union for its control and mastery, such effort must be exposed to the thinking men and women of the labor movement in America."10

         A seasoned veteran of ideological warfare by the 1920s, Gompers had no intention of surrendering the Federation to Foster's militant minority: He took every opportunity to impugn Foster's motives, publicize his connection to the Workers' (Communist) Party of America, and censure his supporters' apparent hostility "to every guarantee of freedom which American labor holds fundamental."11 At this late stage in his life, he was not afraid to play hardball, either, particularly with radical opponents who underestimated him at every turn. Foster and his followers prided themselves on their superior understanding of power and their organizational prowess, but Gompers and the AFL Executive Council were not as impotent or insignificant as their critics presumed. Flexing their organizational muscle, they cut off a monthly subsidy to the Chicago FOL, Foster's main link to AFL unions. They also threatened to revoke the charters of radically-inclined central labor bodies, including the Seattle Central Labor Council and the Detroit Federation of Labor, moves that eventually brought these councils back in line. Finally, they put their anti-communist campaign to the test at the AFL's 1923 Portland convention, when an overwhelming majority voted to expel a delegate from Montana's Silver Bow Trades and Labor Council who also carried a Workers' party card. "We have been altogether too tolerant . . . to the men who have openly . . . declared that they are boring from within, for the undermining of the principles and policies upon which the American Federation of Labor is founded," Gompers said. "These men may continue if they will, but they must do so on the outside and not on the inside."12

        Although critics would blame Gompers' red-baiting for the radicals' decline, by 1923 Foster had already alienated most of his AFL supporters. Embroiled in Communist party politics behind the scenes, he had helped launch the Federated Farmer-Labor party--which had no farmer or labor support to speak of--and in the process had publicly humiliated, and then denounced John Fitzpatrick, his longtime partner in the Chicago FOL. At the same time, bitter factional battles in such unions as the Miners, Carpenters, and Ladies' Garment Workers added credence to Gompers' conviction that Foster was a disrupter at heart with no loyalty to trade unionists and no interest in their everyday struggles. Whatever Foster had hoped to accomplish when he "subordinated trade union progress to communism," as one sympathetic scholar put it, his campaign to revolutionize the trade union movement actually strengthened Gompers' hand. For the rapid rise and fall of TUEL influence in AFL unions, during the years 1922 and 1923, demonstrated that the vast majority of trade unionists had no interest in revolutionary strategies, that militant rhetoric was no substitute for practical gains, and that Gompers and the trade union movement could not be counted out yet.13 "Differ if you will, upon matters [of] how to make your organization a better fighting machine for the interests of the working people in your industry," Gompers urged AFL members. "Vie with each other to do that, but don't inject anything that is calculated to create bitterness, hostility or division," advice that trade unionists took to heart, at least as far as Foster and the communists were concerned.14

        No one knew better than Gompers the "shortcomings" and "failures" that dogged the labor movement in the 1920s. But it was not the AFL's structure, he believed, that impeded solidarity and engendered jurisdictional strife. Instead, it was the potent combination of "predatory" employers, "class biased" courts, and hostile legislation.15 As long as labor still had to fight for the right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively with employers, workers would never feel secure enough to recognize an injury to one as the concern of all or to shoulder the economic burdens that classwide solidarity required. And as long as even skilled workers in good union towns, like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City, were battling the open shop, their unions would never give up work without a fight. Gompers took no pride in the fact that too many unions closed their doors to new members or refused to risk union funds on organizing campaigns. But at a time of high unemployment and costly defensive strikes, involving miners, railroad shopmen, textile workers, garment workers, and granite cutters, to name a few, he understood only too well why self-preservation came first.16

        That being the case, Gompers and the AFL concentrated on changing the immediate political climate during these years. The Conference Committee of Trade Union Legislative Representatives, which had been meeting regularly since the spring of 1921, now monitored thousands of bills introduced into Congress, searching out provisions that affected labor "directly or indirectly" and then lobbying lawmakers accordingly. The AFL also launched a National Non-Partisan Political Campaign Committee in the spring of 1922, participating in primary elections for the very first time, and urging AFL unions to support independent candidates when neither Republican nor Democratic contestants proved friendly. "No freedom-loving citizen should vote for a candidate who [will] not pledge himself to oppose any form of compulsory labor law," the campaign directed. "No justice-loving citizen should vote for a candidate for any office who will not pledge himself to oppose injunctions and contempt proceedings as a substitute for trial by jury."17

        With the AFL's network of organizers and state and local councils ready to go, the nonpartisan campaign proved effective: Despite a severe lack of funds, it provided voting records, strategic advice, and legislative analysis to thousands of local nonpartisan committees and sent organizers to oversee crucial campaigns in thirteen states, including Minnesota, California, Colorado, and Indiana. Gompers himself delivered addresses in New Orleans, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and frequently met with local committees whenever he traveled on AFL business. "We gave every effort within our power," the Executive Council reported in 1923, and the work had paid off: Twenty-three "friendly" U.S. senators, one hundred seventy "friendly" congressmen, and a number of "friendly" governors were elected, while some deadly "enemies" were soundly defeated.18 "Labor has no complaint to make against the Sixty-Eighth Congress," the AFL reported in 1924. "Not one measure opposed by labor was enacted into law in the first session of Congress."19 Better yet, one long-standing if controversial political goal, the restriction of immigration (which, Gompers contended, was the key to improving American wage standards), was also achieved that year.

        This political victory, alongside labor's militant strike record in 1922, persuaded Gompers that the time was right to make industrial democracy a national priority. Ready to counteract critics who claimed the AFL lacked vision, he now urged the Executive Council to organize a ten-member "Commission of Progress and Co-operation" to meet with industry representatives on a regular basis to develop mutually beneficial industrial policies. By bringing together "the essential productive human elements in industry"--labor, management, engineers, and scientists--Gompers believed the commission would help resolve industrial conflicts, eliminate labor and managerial waste, and make the public more aware of the real culprits behind strikes and lockouts: Corporate troublemakers who "seek to operate industry merely in the interests of speculation and profit" and unfair conditions "that make for unrest and for faulty relations in industry." "There must be opportunity for progressive evolution within industry, won by ourselves by our economic power, or else we must deal with revolution," Gompers warned. And it was up to the AFL, he said, to "take an initial step so that voluntarily there shall develop an idea that men and women . . . shall come together and try to devise the ways and means by which agreement can be reached, so that the rights of the men and women engaged in all phases of our industrial and professional life shall be the determining factor, rather than the politicians who know nothing of our problems."20 Although the Council ultimately rejected the commission as too expensive and too risky, it did endorse Gompers' basic idea of government-free industrial democracy as "Industry's Manifest Duty."21

        Around the same time, Gompers was also trying to launch a campaign to organize the unorganized--specifically unorganized women who had previously depended on protective legislation to safeguard their interests. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared Washington, D.C.'s, minimum wage laws for women and girls unconstitutional, potentially threatening the livelihood of more than one million women in twelve states. "Of course there was the child labor decisions and other decisions that were incomprehensive," Gompers noted, "but when the Supreme Court decided that the purchase of labor of women was like going into a butcher shop and buying pigs feet it could not be any worse."22 Working with Mary Anderson of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor and members of the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL), Gompers also queried British union leaders on their successful campaigns and surveyed AFL affiliates to learn what role, if any, women played in their industries and their unions. With the groundwork completed by early 1924, and a Women in Industry committee appointed, Gompers also called a series of meetings and conferences to devise political and economic strategies. "There is a woeful waste of power and opportunity in failing to organize the women in industry," he admitted, a problem he chalked up to the fact that male unionists basically ignored their obligations, leaving organizing work to the NWTUL. And that had to change, he insisted, because some 3.5 million working women needed representation. "If each organization acts on its own as done in the past," he said, "we don't get to the heart and soul of it."23

        It was one thing to launch an organizing campaign, but quite another to get established unions to open their doors to female members. For instance, the Flint Glass Workers politely declined to participate since "we do not have any women in our industry whom our members would be agreeable to admitting." The Barbers were equally uninterested, a position Gompers understood but no longer accepted. "Years ago the labor movement objected to the entrance of women in industry," he wrote to James Shanessy, president of the Barbers' union. "They held, and I was one of them who believed that the proper function of woman was the home and that the man was the natural bread-winner. In the early days I too opposed the acceptance of women to membership in our organization and hoped with other[s] to prevent or at least to check the advent of women in industry." But he gave up when he realized that women were there to stay, and that every worker benefitted when they were organized. "I . . . advocated the acceptance of the situation as we found it and to admit women to membership in our organization," and now he urged Shanessy to do the same. His argument broke no new ground--in fact, Gompers encouraged the Barbers to compromise and admit women under the condition that they would not work when they were in an "advanced stage of pregnancy" or during their "periodical condition." But the fact that he personally appealed to Shanessy to support women barbers had good effect: The union voted to accept women members at its 1924 convention.24

        Perhaps if Gompers had been able to keep up the fight, the organizing campaign might have flourished. But by the time Gompers contacted Shanessy in July 1924, his age and his infirmities had finally caught up with him. Gompers' health had been declining since February 1923, when a serious bout of influenza landed him in the hospital. Although he was back on the job in six weeks' time, a trip to the Panama Canal at the end of the year left him exhausted. A few weeks later he came down with a cold that developed into bronchitis and in early June 1924, when he could no longer walk without assistance, he was hospitalized in New York City with heart failure and uremia.25

        For the first few weeks only a few trusted colleagues knew about his collapse, so Gompers was able to convalesce quietly. But weak as he was, he managed to follow the Republican convention on the radio and insisted on being kept up to date on pressing AFL matters. Indeed, as soon as he was out of immediate danger, he was anxious to get back to work. "It is easy to say: 'Don't do any work; rest; dismiss work from your mind; relax; play,'" he noted. "But to me that is not rest; that is punishment. And so my physicians decided that work in a reasonably moderate degree shall not be denied me."26 By the end of June he was up and about, presiding over meetings of the National Non-Partisan Campaign Committee and even addressing the Democratic party's resolutions committee. In an hour-long speech he made it clear that labor would look elsewhere if the party refused to support "unequivocally" progressive measures like labor's right to organize. Back in his hospital room, "his old vigor seemed to return," according to Lucy Robins Lang, who was apparently on the scene. "Soon politicians and labor leaders were crowding into his room, to learn what the Old Man thought about the Democratic convention and about the proposal to unite progressives and labor behind La Follette in a third party. The doctors protested," she added, "but Gompers told them that this was better medicine for him than any they could prescribe."27

        Of course, that was hardly true, and even Gompers knew it. He could "live another ten years" if he followed doctors' orders, Frank Morrison believed, but Gompers apparently had other plans: Although he was still under the care of a full-time nurse, he spent the last five months of his life boosting Robert La Follette's presidential campaign and defending the AFL's decision to cast a protest vote in the 1924 election--no easy task, given his long-standing opposition to third-party politics. He continued to work on child labor issues and tried to persuade the Executive Council to support the organizing campaign for women. And he kept his longtime secretary, Rosa Lee Guard, busy with dictation and worried that he was jeopardizing his recovery with too much work. When she scolded him for losing his temper during a heated political debate, however, he made his position clear. "He said he fully realized that he was 'burning' himself up" but then told the story of a drunken Irishman who realized too late he had put his last gold piece in the collection plate instead of saving it for the next round. "'It's for the church,'" the Irishman had said; "'to hell with it.'" Then, referring to the exertion that was jeopardizing his health, Gompers added, "'It is for the cause, the cause which is . . . burning me up. To hell with it.'" For better or for worse, he was determined to give whatever he had left to the labor movement.28

        Historians would later assess these years as the most conservative and least productive period of Gompers' life, when the AFL president allegedly lost his militant spirit, begged employers to "give unions a break," and "left his people well-nigh bankrupt."29 But this final volume of The Samuel Gompers Papers tells a different story. It begins with the AFL's spirited fight against the open shop and the labor injunction, documents Gompers' continuing battle to expose the abuses of an unregulated economy, and demonstrates that the longtime AFL leader never lost his nerve or his will to fight.

        As long as he was physically able, during these years, he traveled wherever he was needed--he regularly visited New England, New York, and the Midwest, for instance, to meet with strikers, resolve jurisdictional conflicts, and address mass meetings. He did not hesitate to challenge the authority of government agencies, like the Railroad Labor Board, or to demand the impeachment of Attorney General Harry Daugherty after he helped cripple the railroad shopmen's strike. And if he was willing to cooperate with corporate leaders like Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, he had not joined the opponents' camp. For instance, when an AFL investigator blamed "absentee capitalism" for dismal conditions in the Virgin Islands, Gompers concurred. "I believe also that the industrial interests of the United States should be freed from much of this capitalism here but how are we to accomplish it? I think we are gradually doing it in the way of creating greater power in the industries and in agriculture. To my mind that is the only answer to the development and progress of the universe."30

        During these years Gompers also worked on a proposed constitutional amendment to deprive the U.S. Supreme Court "of autocratic power" (and allow "unconstitutional" laws to stand if they were passed again in Congress by a two-thirds majority). He supported the Workers' Education Bureau, which developed "study classes" in economics and industrial problems that enrolled 30,000 union members in 1924 and mass education lectures and debates that involved some 300,000 union members that year. He kept in touch with European trade unionists, continued to work with Mexican and Puerto Rican leaders to build up the Pan-American Federation of Labor, and found time to work on his autobiography, which went to press in 1923.31 Gompers also did his best to keep up with the times, during these years, meeting with Herbert Hoover and others on the issue of hydroelectric power, consulting with social scientists on the value of IQ tests, investigating the possibility of installing a radio broadcast station at AFL headquarters, and even meeting with the leaders of the Young Workers' League, to see what they were all about.32

        Yet for all his interests and activities, and for all the friends and longtime supporters who bolstered his efforts, these final years of Gompers' life were personally difficult. Almost every week brought news of the passing or the illness of another close friend or associate. And by 1924 his home life and second marriage were also apparently unhappy--in fact, just one day before Gompers set off on his final trip to the AFL convention in El Paso in 1924, he changed his will to ensure that his wife, Gertrude, would only inherit what she was strictly entitled to by law. That was not much, as it turned out: Gompers did not believe in life insurance and left property worth about $30,000 when he died, hardly the riches his critics imagined. But the estate was beside the point, for the revised will also suggested that he was initiating a divorce, although neither his sons, nor anyone else, could shed light on the matter. According to Lucy Robins Lang, who claimed to be Gompers' confidant, Gertrude had closed his home to friends and colleagues, and even refused to admit Miss Guard, who often brought work to Gompers at home. As Lang put it, Gompers' first wife, Sophia, had made his home "a fit place for a fighting general who sought temporary repose, but now a man who was old and nearly blind, and whose days were numbered, could not find peace there."33

        In the end, his true home was the labor movement. And it was with his union brothers and sisters that Gompers spent his final days and enjoyed his final triumphs. Too weak to deliver his opening address to the AFL convention that November, he called upon William Green to do the honors. But it was his voice--and his long experience--that came through loud and clear. Taking the delegates back with him to Pittsburgh in 1881, he recalled the heady days when "a group of labor men with little experience in a national labor movement" set out to build one anyway. "We had to find our problems and devise ways of meeting them," Gompers explained, a practical and frustrating process that had taught him the lessons he was now determined to pass on. "So long as we have held fast to voluntary principles and have been actuated and inspired by the spirit of service," he said, "we have sustained our forward progress. . . . Where we have blundered into trying to force a policy or a decision, even though wise and right, we have impeded, if not interrupted, the realization of our own aims." Building consensus took time and patience, but Gompers knew no better way to hold a diverse work force together--and neither did anyone else at the time. And so he left his friends and family with this charge: "No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible."34

        A few weeks later he traveled to Mexico City to attend the inauguration of President Plutarco Elías Calles, an honor he was determined to enjoy, no matter the consequences. Feted for his years of hard work on behalf of the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican labor movement, he also presided over the convention of the Pan-American Federation of Labor, an organization he had worked hard to build. The effort proved too much, however, and Gompers was rushed back to Texas by train.

        When he died in San Antonio, on December 13, the AFL leader was mourned as a national hero. Thousands of citizens from all walks of life formed an honor guard when the train carrying his coffin back to Washington, D.C., passed through their cities. The U.S. Senate memorialized him as an "industrial pioneer." The New York Times published his deathbed message to the labor movement. And at his funeral in New York City, Governor Al Smith served as an honorary pallbearer, a mark of just how far Gompers had come from his immigrant days on the Lower East Side. But it was one of his own "boys," Jere Sullivan, secretary-treasurer of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' union, who captured the spirit that had helped make Gompers the voice of labor in his day. "If ever there was a Square Shooter in this old world," Sullivan wrote, "that man was Samuel Gompers, our late Chief."35