Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Quotes of the Day - union leader Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers, born January 27, 1850, was a cigar maker. He is best known as the founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), where he was president from 1886-94 and then again from 1895 until his death on December 13, 1924.

His take on labor unions, their purpose and their actions, is a bit different from today's and so I thought it might be interesting to share some of his quotes, especially in light of the many issues facing unions - and all of us - today.

While I don't agree with everything he said and stood for, there is wisdom and insight in much of what he said and stood for, especially in his support of America during World War I and his opposition to socialism as a unsound economic solution to the ills Americans were experiencing at the time. He opposed immigration without Americanization, something many labor leaders of today fail to address.

And he opposed loyalty to a particular party. Wonder what he'd think of today's labor movement?

The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit.

I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty – the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible. . . . I want to say to you, men and women of the American labor movement, do not reject the cornerstone upon which labor’s structure has been builded – but base your all upon voluntary principles and illumine your every problem by consecrated devotion to that highest of all purposes – human well being in the fullest, widest, deepest sense.

There may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union of labor. This is his right no matter how morally wrong he may be. It is his legal right and no one can dare question his exercise of that legal right.

We want a minimum wage established, but we want it established by the solidarity of the working men themselves through the economic forces of their trade unions, rather than by any legal enactment. . . . We must not, we cannot, depend upon legislative enactments to set wage standards. When once we encourage such a system, it is equivalent to admitting our incompetency for self-government and our inability to seek better conditions.

The workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are held to be not only impractical but a menace to their rights, welfare and their liberty.

Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation.

I have no word of censure for a man because of his views on political, social or economic questions, but I contend that trade unions are the natural form of organization for wage earners under existing economic conditions, and I propose (so far as I may be able) to keep them undefiled and free from alliance with any political party . . . . Factions who wish to dally with hobbies and fine spun theories . . . have no place in the ranks of trade unionism.

And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living.

That which we call freedom, that which we call liberty, are not tangible things. They are not handed to any people on a silver platter. They are principles, they are questions of the spirit, and the people must have a consciousness that they not only have the term liberty and freedom, but they must have the power and the right to exercise these great attributes of life.

To strengthen the state, as Frederick Howe says, is to devitalize the individual. . . . I believe in people. I believe in the working people. I believe in their growing intelligence. I believe in their growing and persistent demand for better conditions, for a more rightful situation in the industrial, political, and social affairs of this country and of the world. I have faith that the working people will better their condition far beyond what it is today. The position of the organized labor movement is not based upon misery and poverty, but upon the right of workers to a larger and constantly growing share of the production, and they will work out these problems for themselves.

I do not think American labor is engaged in a class struggle and I do not think American labor believes it is engaged in a class struggle, because in our country we have no such thing and I hope never will have.

We are proud of the country which we claim as our own; we are proud of its history, proud of its heroes and proud of its traditions, and we hope as we struggle for its glorious future. But we maintain that patriotism does not mean the hatred of our neighbor. Nor do we believe that it is a wise policy, as some would advocate, that a foreign war might be a good cure for our domestic evils.

In the exercise of great powers often requisite under military control, the right of free meeting, the right of free speech, and free press is endangered. And when the smoke of battle is gone these rights, taken from the masses of the people under often necessary conditions, are seldom freely given back to the people.

That war transformed me from an ultra-pacifist to one willing to fight and sacrifice with my fellow countrymen in defense of the principle of living our own lives and working out our own destiny; and if there be a mad-man nation still, large or small, which will attempt to repeat that monumental crime I hope that the generations, perhaps yet unborn, of our self-governing civilized nations, may throw themselves with equal vigor in the battle to maintain the fundamental principles of freedom, justice and humanity.

[D]uring the years of [World War I] I was absorbed with the one object that it was labor's war as much as it was the war of any other group of our people; that labor had to make good in helping to win the war and to emerge from the war with freedom and democracy safeguarded and its honored name and high ideals maintained.

I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon 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 that I am entirely at variance with your philosophy. I declare 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.

You are mistaken in asserting that I am embittered against everybody or anything that savors of socialism. What I resent and what I have persistently opposed is any effort that will mislead the wage-earners and delude them with vain hope. There have been so many burdens and so much suffering and so much misery heaped upon those who are called the wage-earners, that I resent with every particle of force within me anything that would perpetuate their suffering or lead them into greater depths. Because I am firmly convinced that socialism is founded upon principles that will not lead out into broader liberty, independence and opportunity, I have done what I could to show men the fallacies of the doctrine of socialism.

There are people in the labor movement who seem to believe that success can only come by entrusting great, yes, absolute power in the hands of an individual or an executive officer. I warn you against a calamity none greater than which can occur to the labor
movement. Autocracy is as dangerous in our movement as in the state. Mistakes may be made by the masses but they learn to do better by reason of their mistakes. The individual, on the contrary, when having absolute power rarely makes mistakes, rather commits crime. The man who would arrogate to himself in the labor movement absolute and autocratic power would be a tyrant under
other circumstances and has no place in the labor movement.

One thing to be considered in discussing immigration is that the greater the number of immigrants the less American the United States becomes. . . . The American Federation of Labor believes that the foreigners now in this country should be assimilated before others are permitted to come except from such countries as Great Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavia.

America must be kept American. Those who would flood the country with hordes of immigrants from southeastern Europe care no more for America then do the Hottentots. Their desires are governed by greed.

The industrial field is littered with more corpses of organizations destroyed by the damning influences of partisan politics than from all other causes combined.

We deny the assertion made by some of our opponents when they say the American Federation of Labor is against political action. We are against the the American labor movement being made a political party machine.

I am very suspicious of the activities of governmental agencies.

We have been asked, or advised, to go for all the laws we can get. Save the workingmen of America from such a proposition! There are numbers of laws we can get, but prudence and defense of the rights and the liberties of the toilers are much more important than the effort to secure all the laws we can get.

Several times the proposition to form a labor party has been considered by the trade union movement, but after careful and thorough consideration it has been invariably decided that we can attain our purposes more quickly and more effectively by continuing our political policy of independent political action partisan to principles rather than to a party.

A law that is really a law, is a result of public thought and conviction and not a power to create thought or conviction. The enforcement of a law follows naturally because the people will it. To enact a law with the hope and for the purpose of educating the people is to proceed by indirection and to waste energy. It is better to begin work for securing ideals by directing activity first for fundamentals. Frequently, when the people concerned become mindful and eager for what will promote their own welfare, they find that they are much more able to secure what will benefit and adapt their methods to changing circumstances than is any law or the administration of that law.

There are a number of people who mistakenly charge me with being a Democrat. I never was a member of the Democratic Party. I was at one time, in my early years, a member of the Republican Party, and cast my first vote for a Republican President--U. S. Grant as soon as I attained my majority. I never did belong to the Democratic Party. In the pursuit of the Nonpartisan policy of labor in which I thoroughly believe, I supported Republican or Democrat or publicist as in the varying parties I believed that they would best serve the people without regard to party.

I love my liberty, and imprisonment would be, to say the least, very disagreeable to me; but there are some things that are even less desirable, among them one's loss of self-respect and the loss of inherent and lawful constitutional rights.

The meaning of America lies in the ideal she represents. That ideal is liberty and opportunity. But beautiful as any ideal may be, it becomes of practical value when it has effectiveness in the daily lives of men and women. Real liberty and opportunity mean a certain mental attitude toward life, certain standards of life and work, and possession of that which secures the enjoyment of opportunities. America the ideal -- the land of the free -- exists only when her people are American in all things.

By nature I am a non-conformist. I believe that restrictions dwarf personality and that largest usefulness comes through greatest personal freedom.

Note: Many of these quotes are from the Samuel Gompers Papers.

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