If Only Samuel Gompers Were Alive Today


Thiselection year the AFL-CIO, under the direction of its presidentJohn Sweeney, will spend more than $35 million lobbying on behalfof candidates who wish to expand the size and scope ofgovernment. It is the most ambitious political program that theAFL‐​CIO has ever undertaken. And it is also one that is at odds with thevision that Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federationof Labor from 1886 to 1924, had for the labor movement.

Gompers — rated the greatestlabor leader in American history by the presidents of thenation’s leading unions — believed that government activism washarmful to the working man. In 1915 he wrote, “Doing forpeople what they can and ought to do for themselves is adangerous experiment. In the last analysis the welfare of theworkers depends upon their own private initiative.” Heapplied that belief consistently to issue after issue.

Gompers opposed the creation ofstate health and unemployment insurance programs, welfareinitiatives and minimum wage and eight‐​hour‐​day legislation. Thatis a far cry from the sentiments of Sweeney, who wishes to seegovernment’s role increased in virtually every area.

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

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

Gompers similarly opposed thecreation of welfare programs — programs that, in a 1995statement entitled “The Attack on Working Americans,“the AFL-CIO Executive Council argued “have proved theirworth in protecting the most vulnerable Americans against hungerand starvation.” Gompers believed that “social insurancecannot remove or prevent poverty.” Moreover, he argued thatwelfare is “undemocratic” because it tends “to fixthe citizens of the country into two classes, and a longestablished system would tend to make these classes rigid.”

In addition to lobbying forincreased funding for social programs, the AFL-CIO is currentlypushing for greater economic and social regulation. On Sweeney’swish list are stricter health and safety laws, air qualitystandards and waste disposal regulations. Gompers undoubtedlywould have questioned the wisdom of those desires.

To him, most state regulation wasnot only futile but also counterproductive. In a 1923 address hestated, “The continuing clamor for extension of stateregulatory powers under the guise of reform and deliverance fromevil can but lead into greater confusion and more hopelessentanglements.” He struck a similar note in an article forthe American Federationist, where he argued that“regulation of industrial relations is not a policy to beentered upon lightly — establishment of regulation for one typeof relation necessitates regulating of another and then another,until finally all industrial life grows rigid withregulations.”

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

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

Aaron Steelman

Aaron Steelman is a staff writer at the Cato Institute, which is located across from the Samuel Gompers Park in Washington, D.C.