ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 “God I’ve no work to do.  Lord strike me dead—

my wife, my kids want bread and I’ve no work to do.” 



Labor’s Problem: Real Wages

Samuel Gompers

By Carroll Thompson


Many 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 industrialized America:

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 unmistakable.

Samuel Gompers was born an Englishman, in Spitalfields, the East of London, in 1850.  His  family was of Dutch-Jewish stock, but although his parents were religious, religion had little place in Samuel Gompers’ own life.

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 unemployment.  He 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 wages.  

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 wages.  But 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 immigration.  At first I did not feel much curiosity about the new country nor did I sense the new life in which I had come.  

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 evident.  

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 Mitchell.  (He 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 movement.  Naturally 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 1900’s:

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 declared:  “I 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 numbers.  In 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 ’seventies.  

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 general.

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 enemy—the capitalists.  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 remade.  It 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 better.  

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 secure:

… 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 labor statistics.

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 organization.  

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 1881).

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 introduce.  It must not be forgotten that organizations of labor are composed of living, breathing men and women and not of wooden figures.  

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 their solidarity.

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 class struggle.

Gompers wrote:

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.  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 liberty.

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 living conditions.  

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 thought.  Foremost 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 particular.  The 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 rugged individualist.

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 increased production.  Sustained progress of industry prohibition, and non-social tendencies can best be curbed by intelligent regulation.

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 consume.  

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 speculative gain.”


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 agencies.”  These 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 labor.

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.

Source: Current History, March, 1950

*   *   *   *   *


Bill Moyers Interviews Douglass A. Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name:

 The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008)

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine 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 discrimination.

Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell’s 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 School.—Publishers Weekly

*   *   *   *   *


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 

By Michelle Alexander

The 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 World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

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 Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






update 8 July 2012




Home Blacks and Labor in Print  

Related files: Samuel Gompers    John Mitchell    John L. Lewis

  Walter Reuther

The Negro and Industrial Unionism  Labor Fights All Injustice