Samuel Gompers, The American Labor Movement: Its Makeup, Achievements and Aspirations (1914)

In this excerpt from Congressional testimony given in 1914 by Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Gompers expresses his view that AFL unions have no revolutionary or utopian objective — they merely want to get the best possible deal they can from the capitalist system, in terms of hours, wages, and working conditions. Gompers also explains that the unions hope to limit the intrusive powers of government.

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Section 2

Section 3

Section 4

Section 5

Section 6

Section 1

The American Federation of Labor was formed in 1881 in Pittsburgh. I was elected its first vice-president. With the exception of three terms I have been President of the A. F. of L. since that time.

The Federation covers practically the whole field of industry. There are no limitations as to membership. The only requirement, so far as the A. F. of L. is concerned, is that the organization desiring affiliation shall be composed of wage-earners.

The A. F. of L., as its name implies, is a federation, and not, as it is often mistakenly called, an organization. It is a federation of organizations, each of which has its own government, determined by its own needs and requirements, the result of the experiences of the members of the organization. This right to self-government was recognized in the beginning and has been reaffirmed and adhered to as consistently as possible. The Federation has no powers except those which are authorized and conceded by the organizations which compose it. These powers are enumerated in its written constitution and the definite direction of conventions.

Section 2

The affiliated organizations are held together by moral obligation, a spirit of camaraderie, a spirit of group patriotism, a spirit of mutual assistance.

There are no coercive methods used by the A. F. of L. to prevent the withdrawal or secession of any affiliated organization. The Western Federation of Miners, for instance, withdrew from the A. F. of L. about 1896. There were many efforts and many suggestions made to induce individual unions belonging to the Western Federation of Miners to join the A. F. of L. as local unions. Not only were these efforts discouraged but the proposal was repudiated.

Similarly, no coercion is used in regard to national organizations which are not affiliated to the A. F. of L. We feel that it is the duty of every wage-worker to belong to the union of his trade or calling; that it is the duty of the local union of a trade of calling to belong to the national or international union of that trade or calling; and that it is equally the moral duty of every national or international organization of bona fide workingmen to belong to the A. F. of L. But coercive methods are never employed....

Section 3

The general object of the Federation is to better the conditions of the workers in all fields of human activity. Economic betterment in all directions comes first. The Federation has from time to time formulated definite programs for such improvements, but it has always concerned itself with first questions first. The conventions have passed resolutions recommending concrete ameliorative measures.

The A. F. of L. has expressed itself in favor of shortening the workday in keeping with the increased productiveness of machinery. The demand and the movement for a shorter workday had been going on for nearly fifteen or twenty years prior to the organization of the A. F. of L., but it has had a more concrete form and expression since the A. F. of L. was organized in 1881.

The A. F. of L. declared that concerted effort should be made by the working people of the United States to secure the eight-hour workday. On May 1, 1886, the Federation offered its services to be helpful to the organizations in the establishment of the eight-hour workday by conferences between workmen and employers, by correspondence, by publications, agitation and education. Upon the recommendation of the A. F. of L. two piece-work trades enforced the eight-hour workday on May 1, 1886, and have maintained it from that day until this. As a result of the declaration of the A. F. of L. impetus was given to the movement to reduce the hours of labor in many trades and callings from eighteen and sixteen hour days to ten and nine.

The A. F. of L. is in favor of a shorter workday, and a progressive decrease of working hours in keeping with the development of machinery and the use of productive forces. The Federation has recognized the need for greater opportunities and more time for rest, leisure and cultivation among the workers. It favors a rest of not less than a day and a half in each week. We insist upon one entire day of rest in each week. I may say that it was my great pleasure to have been president of the New York State Federation of Labor when the Legislature of the State of New York enacted the first law in the United States making Saturday afternoon a legal holiday.

The Federation favors securing more effective inspection of workshops, factories, and mines, and has worked for the accomplishment of that purpose.

The Federation does not favor the employment of children under 16 years of age and has endeavored to forbid such employment.

It favors forbidding interstate transportation of the products of convict labor and the products of all uninspected factories and mines.

The A. F. of L. favors direct employment of workers by the United States government, state governments, and municipal governments without intervention of contractors, and has accomplished this to a large degree.

The A. F. of L. is not in favor of fixing, by legal enactment, certain minimum wages. The attempts of the government to establish wages at which workmen may work, according to the teachings of history, will result in a long era of industrial slavery.

Section 4

If the legislature should once fix a minimum wage it would have the opportunity to use the machinery of the state to enforce work at that rate whether the workers desired to render services or not. I am very suspicious of the activities of governmental agencies. I apprehend that once the state is allowed to fix a minimum rate, the state would also take the right to compel men or women to work at that rate. I have some apprehension that if the legislature were allowed to establish a maximum workday it might also compel workmen to work up to the maximum allowed. I ought to say, however, that I am in favor of the legal enactment fixing the maximum hours of labor for all workmen in direct government employment and for those who work for contractors substituted for governmental authority.

The A. F. of L. is in favor of fixing the maximum number of hours of work for children, minors, and women. It does not favor a legal limitation of the workday for adult men workers. The unions have very largely established the shorter workday by their own initiative, power and influence; they have done it for themselves. The A. F. of L. is opposed to limiting, by legal statutory authority, the hours of work for men in private industries. The A. F. of L. has apprehensions as to the wisdom of placing in the hands of the government additional powers which may be used to the detriment of the working people. It particularly opposes this policy when the things can be done by the workmen themselves.

It is in favor of a uniform shorter workday and would encourage and help affiliated organizations to secure it by collective bargaining and other methods employed by labor unions. For instance, the International Typographical Union undertook such a move. It gave employers more than a year’s notice that after a certain day they would not work longer than eight hours a day. Almost immediately a large number of employers acceded to the request, others refused. The men struck. Covering a period of more than a year, employees and individual firms came to agreements providing for the eight-hour day and its enforcement, until finally the eight-hour day has been accomplished, not only for the printers but generally for all those employed in the printing trades.

Section 5

The A.F. of L. favors a system of non-contributing old-age pensions for workers who have reached a certain age to be established by legal enactment and maintained by governmental machinery. The Federation favors a general system of state insurance against sickness, disability, and accidents. It has not endorsed state insurance of unemployment. In regard to the problem of unemployment the Federation proposes to shorten the workday of the employees that they may share with the unemployed the work that is to be performed, and thereby tend constantly toward the elimination of unemployment. The American workman refuses to regard unemployment as a permanent evil attending the industrial and economic forces of our country. The American workmen propose to share work with those who are unemployed and thereby to help to find work for the unemployed.

The A. F. of L. encourages and stimulates the workmen in their efforts to secure a constantly increasing share in the products of labor, an increasing share in the consumption and use of things produced, thereby giving employment to the unemployed, the only effective way by which that can be done.

Section 6

The workers of the United States do not receive the full product of their labor. It is impossible for any one to say definitely what proportion the workers receive in payment for their labor, but due to the organized labor movement they have received and are receiving a larger share of the product of their labor than ever before in the history of modern industry. One of the functions of organized labor is to increase the share of the workers in the product of their labor. Organized labor makes constantly increasing demands upon society for rewards for the services which the workers give to society and without which civilized life would be impossible. The process of increasing the share is not always gradual, but it is continual. The organized labor movement has generally succeeded in forcing an increase in the proportion the workers receive of the general product.

The working people — and I prefer to say working people and to speak of them as really human beings — are prompted by the same desires, the same hopes of a better life as are all other people. They are not willing to wait for a better life until after they have shuffled off this mortal coil but they want improvements here and now. They want to make conditions better for their children so that they may be prepared to meet other and new problems of their time. The working people are pressing forward, making their demands and presenting their claims with whatever power they can exercise in a natural, normal manner to secure a larger and constantly increasing share of what they produce. They are working toward the highest and the best ideals of social justice.

The intelligent, common-sense workingmen prefer to deal with the problems of today, with which they must contend if they want to make advancements, rather than to deal with a picture and a dream which have never had, and, I am sure, will never have, any reality in the affairs of humanity, and which threaten, if they could be introduced, the most pernicious system for circumscribing effort and activity that has ever been invented.

The workers will never stop in any effort, nor will they stop at any point in an effort to secure greater improvements in conditions or for a better life in all its phases. Where these efforts may lead, what that better life may be, I do not care to predict. I decline to permit my mind or my activities to be labeled or limited by any particular ism because of adherence to a theory or a dream. The A. F. of L. is neither governed in its activities by a so-called “Social Philosophy,” nor does it work “blindly from day to day.” Its work is well planned to be continually of the greatest benefit to the working people to protect and promote their rights and interest in every field of human activity.

The A. F. of L. is guided by the history of the past. It draws lessons from history in order to interpret conditions which confront working people so that it may work along the lines of least resistance to accomplish the best results in improving the conditions of the working men, women, and children, today, tomorrow, and tomorrow’s morrow, making each day a better day that the one which went before. That is the guiding principle, philosophy, and aim of the labor movement.

In improving conditions from day to day the organized labor movement has no “fixed program” for human progress. If you start out with a program everything must conform to it. With theorists; if facts do not conform to their theories, then so much the worse for the facts. Their declarations of theories and actions refuse to be hampered by facts. We do not set any particular standard, but work for the best possible conditions immediately obtainable for the workers. When they are obtained then we strive for better.

From: Gompers, Samuel L. The American Labor Movement, its makeup, achievements and aspiration. Washington, D.C.: The American Federation of Labor, 1914.