As the 105th Congress begins its work, it should consider whether unions have betrayed their heritage by becoming too involved in partisan politics.
Last November, the AFL-CIO, under the direction of its president, John Sweeney, spent nearly $40 million lobbying on behalf of candidates who wished to expand the size and scope of government. Although union members split their vote roughly 60-to-40 between Democrats and Republicans, virtually all of the AFL-CIO's effort was aimed at unseating Republicans. This means as many as 40 percent of AFL-CIO members may have been forced to support candidates with whom they disagreed.
This is precisely the kind of abuse that labor pioneer Samuel Gompers -- who was opposed to union involvement in politics -- warned about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Are unions betraying their heritage?
Born in London in 1850, Gompers came to America with his family in 1863. He was instrumental in founding the National Cigar-makers Union and served as its vice president for four years. In 1881, the cigar-makers joined several other unions in creating the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada.
In 1886, the federation was reorganized and renamed the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was elected president and paid a yearly salary of $1,000. He quickly proved himself capable and, with the exception of 1895, was annually re-elected president until his death in 1924. During that period -- as the AFL's membership grew to more than 4 million -- real wages increased, work weeks shortened, and working conditions improved in industry after industry.
Although he supported such legal protections as child-labor laws and general liability laws for employers, Gompers favored union bargaining power over government regulation as a means to advance the cause of workers. As historian Florence Calvert Thorne has written, Gompers thought that "by joining hands with like-minded workers," laborers could increase their "bargaining strength for higher wages which could make more material comforts available." That, coupled with "personal freedom and self-dependence, would help them to be alert and responsible citizens of their community."
From the beginning, Gompers was wary of embroiling the AFL in politics of any kind. He had seen a rival labor organization -- the Knights of Labor -- implode over faulty political alliances and feared the same thing could happen to the AFL. More fundamentally, he 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 to issue after issue.
He argued that "compulsory sickness insurance for workers is based upon the theory that they are unable to look after their own interests," and that the state must assume the authority 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 welfare programs, Gompers believed that "social insurance cannot remove or prevent poverty." Moreover, he maintained 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."
Gompers also worried that welfare would undermine the ethic of self-responsibility. As early as 1915 -- 20 years before the enactment of Social Security -- he stated, "Whether as a result of laziness or incompetency there is a steadily growing disposition to shift responsibility for personal progress to outside agencies. What can be the result of this tendency but the softening of the moral fiber of the people?"
He would have disapproved of the modern regulatory state as well. In an article for the American Federationist, Gompers 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, until finally all industrial life grows rigid with regulation." And when asked in 1916 if he favored a law mandating an eight-hour day, 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 fierce critic of the American Socialist and Communist parties, that seemed be a sufficient response.
Samuel Gompers' lifelong devotion to both the union movement and Jeffersonian political principles improved the lives of millions of working men and women. He rightly deserves to be called the greatest friend labor has ever known.
He would be saddened by the betrayal of his ideals at the end of the 20th century.
Article originally appeared in the Jan./ Feb. issue of Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship