If Only Samuel Gompers Were Alive Today

October 28, 1996 • Commentary
By Aaron Steelman

This election year the AFL-CIO, under the direction of its president John Sweeney, will spend more than $35 million lobbying on behalf of candidates who wish to expand the size and scope of government. It is the most ambitious political program that the AFL-CIO has ever undertaken. And it is also one that is at odds with the vision that Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor from 1886 to 1924, had for the labor movement.

Gompers — rated the greatest labor leader in American history by the presidents of the nation’s leading unions — believed that government activism was harmful to the working man. In 1915 he wrote, “Doing for people what they can and ought to do for themselves is a dangerous experiment. In the last analysis the welfare of the workers depends upon their own private initiative.” He applied that belief consistently to issue after issue.

Gompers opposed the creation of state health and unemployment insurance programs, welfare initiatives and minimum wage and eight‐​hour‐​day legislation. That is a far cry from the sentiments of Sweeney, who wishes to see government’s role increased in virtually every area.

During the budget debate last year he boasted that the AFL-CIO had “generated over 500,000 telephone calls to members of Congress carrying our core message,” which included a call for “no cuts in Medicare.” He might have believed that was the right thing to do, but it is unlikely that Gompers would have. In 1916 Gompers stated that “compulsory sickness insurance for workers is based upon the theory that they are unable to look after their own interests and the state must interpose its authority and wisdom and assume the relation of parent or guardian. There is something in the very suggestion of this relationship and this policy that is repugnant to free‐​born citizens.”

As for unemployment insurance, Gompers argued that “when the government undertakes the payment of money to those who are unemployed, it places in the power of the government the lives and the work and the freedom of the workers.” State unemployment insurance programs, Gompers concluded, “are not advocated for the good of the workers. They are advocated by persons who know nothing of the hopes and aspirations of labor which desires opportunities for work, not for compulsory unemployment insurance.”

Gompers similarly opposed the creation of welfare programs — programs that, in a 1995 statement entitled “The Attack on Working Americans,” the AFL-CIO Executive Council argued “have proved their worth in protecting the most vulnerable Americans against hunger and starvation.” Gompers believed that “social insurance cannot remove or prevent poverty.” Moreover, he argued that welfare is “undemocratic” because it tends “to fix the citizens of the country into two classes, and a long established system would tend to make these classes rigid.”

In addition to lobbying for increased funding for social programs, the AFL-CIO is currently pushing for greater economic and social regulation. On Sweeney’s wish list are stricter health and safety laws, air quality standards and waste disposal regulations. Gompers undoubtedly would have questioned the wisdom of those desires.

To him, most state regulation was not only futile but also counterproductive. In a 1923 address he stated, “The continuing clamor for extension of state regulatory powers under the guise of reform and deliverance from evil can but lead into greater confusion and more hopeless entanglements.” He struck a similar note in an article for the American Federationist, where he argued that “regulation of industrial relations is not a policy to be entered upon lightly — establishment of regulation for one type of relation necessitates regulating of another and then another, until finally all industrial life grows rigid with regulations.”

And when asked in 1916 if he favored an eight‐​hour‐​day law he remarked, “Do you know where the eight‐​hour law in California originated? It was started by the Socialist Party of California.” For Gompers, a lifelong critic of the American Socialist and Communist Parties, that seemed to be a more than sufficient response.

Sweeney and other AFL-CIO leaders may believe that big government is the solution to all of America’s ills. But Samuel Gompers, whose tireless efforts established labor as a permanent force in this country, certainly did not.

About the Author
Aaron Steelman