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HE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR represents the first labor
movement of any country to organize on fundamental principles whose
power for obtaining results has proved effective and enduring. Although a voluntary association of wage earners of many callings and of many minds, it has united them into a solidarity of purpose that has astounded the people of the civilized world. Its more than 3,000,000 members are a force to be considered in all affairs for the weal of the nation. Its propaganda has been for all that is best in life. Its accomplishments have benefitted all the people, for the trade union movement is as wide and deep as human life.
Organized thirty-eight years ago by an insignificant number of eager, enthusiastic and hopeful men, it has grown to be a most powerful medium to bring forth all that is good in life. It abhors, detests, loathes all shams and pretenders. It unceasingly encourages with all its power and influence individuals and organizations that seek greater opportunity for a higher standard of life. The object for which it is aggressively and courageously striving is the continued economic advancement of Labor, to insure to each individual the right of self-development, independence and freedom of initiative. It is a human vehicle for the advancement of humanity.
Its greatest enemies are those who would take away the liberties of the Çeople, the right to a voice in the affairs of men and the right to battle for a higher standard of manhood and womanhood. It hates with a bitter hatred slavery and serfdom. It glories in freedom, not only political but economic. It has maintained, and to preserve that right will fight, that the “laborer is worthy of his hire,” that he has a right to economic progress in life, to support his family in comfort, to educate his children, to live his life in his own lawful way. In fact that he is a man and has a man's right to all that his energy, talent and union can secure for him.
Only one of the few anxious and hopeful men who attended the first convention has lived as an official to see the tender twig grow into a gigantic redwood tree. This did not come by leaps and bounds. It grew like a city or living language into an active, beneficial and permanent movement that can withstand any force that may seek its destruction. Its enemies are fast disappearing. In fact today there is no other organization in the United States aside from the army and navy that has proved to be as loyal to the core. Its members hold country above all, and they are not only willing to offer, and did offer, the supreme sacrifice, for political democracy, but are just as earnest in their demand for industrial democracy. And this they will have no matter what the cost.
The present wonderful condition of the organization was brought about by trade union activity, not through a partisan political labor party. The promoters of the Federation knew what had occurred to many other labor organizations. They knew that each and every national organization of labor had been injured or wrecked on the treacherous reefs of partisan politics. The National Labor Union had a few years before, in 1872, nominated a candidate for President and then never met again. The Sovereigns of Industry, Junior Sons of '76, Industrial Brotherhood of the United States and many others had all partaken of the poison of partisan politics and ended by calling for the undertaker. A few years later the knights of Labor wanted the A. F. of L. to join with it in supporting the populist candidate for President. The Federation refused to be inoculated with the deadly partisan political virus. The Knights of Labor gradually and silently disappeared, leaving no trace of its brief history, and now lies in an unmarked grave in the .political no man's land, while the American Federation of Labor is moving on to greater victories for human advancement. The first convention of the Federation therefore declared:
“We believe the gaining of higher wages and a shorter workday to be the preliminary steps toward great and accompanying improvements in the
condition of the working people."
That is the foundation stone of the American Federation of Labor. There have been people who jeered at this declaration. But they knew not what they did. For after more than a third of a century it still stands on that principle and proves its efficacy by pointing to the marvelous changes and advancement in the condition of the workers. Its influence has encouraged the organization of pearly 1,000,000 more, including the unaffiliated railroad brotherhoods and farm laborers. More than 4,000,000 organized workers are now battling for the uplift of humanity and they represent 20,000,000 men, women and children in our country. This is 20 per cent of the entire population.
It was this great band of patriotic men and women that stood behind the government in the Great War. It was the compelling force that stifled pacifism at the moment it was becoming most dangerous. It had been an organization for international peace. Time and again it had condemned wars and its whole influence was thrown in favor of adjusting all international disputes by arbitration. But the war came. It was a struggle to make the world safe for democracy, and when the President of the United States wanted to know what organized labor would do in the event of war, the official of every organization was called to meet in Washington and unanimously, in conjunction with the Executive Council, declared :
“But despite all our endeavors and hopes, should our country be drawn into the maelstrom of the European conflict we, with these ideals of liberty and justice herein declared as the indispensable basis for national policies, offer our services to our country in every field of activity to defend, safeguard and preserve the republic of the United States of America against its enemies whomsoever they may be, and we call upon our fellow workers and fellow citizens in the holy name of Labor, Justice, Freedom and Humanity
to devotedly and patriotically give like service.”
That pledge was kept, President Wilson and other executive officers of the government declaring that organized labor's aid made victory certain.
The American Federation of Labor has not only left the impress of its crusade for humanity on the people of the United States, but it has become a world force that has appealed to the best in all nations. Its missions to Europe during the war were regarded as most influential in driving into the hearts of the war-ridden people of France, Italy and Great Britain that there were no “quitters” in America. The slogan of these representatives of American Labor was that there could be "no peace without victory.” A peace by agreement would be considered a defeat of the world war for freedom.
When the armistice was signed and the representatives of the various allied nations and the United States met in Paris to draw up peace terms, the French premier selected the president of the American Federation of Labor as a member of the International Labor Legislation Commission. And the commission selected him for its chairman. The present standing of the Federation as a world factor demonstrates the wisdom of its fundamental principles.
The A. F. of L. is the medium through which industrial democracy will be gained. For the men who offered the supreme sacrifice on the battlefield and those who fought in the trenches behind the lines for political liberty never will consent to be governed by industrial autocracy of any degree, form or nature. The Labor movement recognizes the value of freedom and it knows that freedom and rights can be maintained only by those willing to assert their claims and to defend their rights.
Article I of the first constitution was constructed to keep out of the Federation political labor bodies that might try to force themselves into future conventions. It was not until 1890 that a political organization, the Socialist Labor Party, sought to "jimmy" itself into the A. F. of L. It was overwhelmingly defeated, the convention declaring:
"We affirm the trade union movement to be the legitimate channel through which wage-earners of America are seeking present amelioration and future emancipation. Its methods are well defined, its functions specialized, its work clearly mapped out. We further hold the trade unions of America comprising the A. F. of L. are committed against the introduction of matters pertaining to partisan politics, to the religion of men or their birthplace. While declining to admit representatives of the Socialist Labor Party as a political party, this convention declares itself tolerant of all phases of the reform movement and would bar no delegate as an individual
because of his belief, whether radical or conservative."
The trade union movement, through the A. F. of L., from the first followed the principle that the economic, legislative and political activities of Labor should be controlled by it and the affiliated organizations. It is built on principles that have withstood all of the many changes in industry. It has justified the faith of those who founded it and devoted their lives to building it up. It has been the great power that has placed humanity above all else—it has forced humanity upon industry, into legislation, into social concepts and ideals. It has ever made protest against wrong, injustice, waste of human energy and life. It has been the greatest force for the uplift of the workers and all those that are weary and heavy laden. It has permeated their lives and made them freer, better, happier, more worth living.
The trade union movement has become the greatest factor in the lives of the masses of the American people because of its practical idealism. Those who have made the organization what it is have recognized that they were confronted with conditions rather than theories. They have recognized that in counseling those in need of more and better food, clothing, and the necessaries of life, they were dealing with the raw stuff of life, with human beings who live in the present and whose destinies depend upon present aid. Any organization that has in its keeping the welfare of human beings has assumed a tremendous responsibility. The welfare of the hosts of toilers is entrusted to the American trade union movement. Industrial managements sometimes are cruel and heartless in their self-interests; between the American working people and such cruelty and heartlessness there stands but one unfailing defense—the labor movement. This labor movement has laid hold of the hearts of men and women; it is to them a symbol of those things which are the best of life. It is a real living thing which the toilers love and cherish. And the soul of the movement is the hearts and lives of those who have built themselves into it, by sacrifice and toil. In 1910 it was declared :
"Organized labor contends for the improvement of the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character and manhood and an independent spirit among our people, to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of the modern life of man and his fellow-man. It aims to establish a normal workday, take the children from the factory and the workshop and place them in the school, the home and the playground. In a word the unions of labor, recognizing the duty of toil, strive to educate their members, to make their homes more cheerful in every way, to contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living, to avail their members of their rights as citizens and to bear the duties and responsibilities and perform the obligations they owe to our country and our fellow-men. Labor contends that in every effort to achieve its praiseworthy ends. all honorable and lawful means are not only commendable but should receive the sympathetic support of every right-thinking progressive man."
In its legislative work the American labor movement has been more successful than that of any other country. In the early days, however, its demands for remedial legislation were coolly received by both federal and state legislators, In 1888 the convention contended Labor was in a slave-like condition. It declared the "capitalist and speculator held the master hand over Labor, which seemed to have no economic rights employers were bound to respect.” Many sacrifices were made in those days of the pioneer trade union. The officials of national and international unions received meager pittances for their work and the officers of the A. F. of L. served without any compensation. But they were trade unionists through and through whose very souls were given freely to the cause of Labor.
While the growing force of Labor was gradually changing this situation Congress continued slow in acting on bills whose purpose was to benefit humanity. Every year the A. F. of L. sought remedial legislation. The rebuffs were many. Only the persistence of the officers and their determination to succeed made it possible to secure any beneficial laws. This everlasting hammering away at Congress without satisfactory results became so aggravating that in 1906 the Executive Council called a meeting in Washington of 137 officers of national and international unions and reported the condition of things at the Capitol. The gathering was in a fighting mood and after careful consideration decided to launch a movement that would compel Congress to heed the voice of the oppressed and enact legislation for which they had appealed in the past but in the future would demand. A “Bill of Grievances” was drawn and presented to the President of the United States, president pro tem of the Senate and Speaker of the House. Back of the demand for the laws desired were the votes of the members of the A. F. of L and its affiliated organizations, who stood on this platform:
“The American Labor Movement is not partisan to a political party; it is partisan to a principle, the principle of equal rights and freedom.'
The incident created a furor in political circles, for the labor officials warned the President and legislators that Labor had knocked too long at their doors without an answer and thereafter they intended to fight for recognition in legislation. A strenuous battle was started against the legislative enemies of Labor and just as vigorous a campaign in favor of those who had proved its friends. The labor officials and members went into both parties to accomplish their purpose. This aroused the politicians, who feared this new way of organized voting. Many unsuccessful attempts to drift the labor movement away from its independent voting crusade were made by those who always had sought to keep Labor in subjection. They then aimed to make Labor impotent in politics by surreptitiously encouraging independent labor parties. But in this they failed. The campaign to elect friends and defeat enemies on the legislative field became so successful that within ten years every grievance except one was remedied by the enactment of laws. The one exception was forbidding the transportation of convict labor products in interstate commerce. Labor secured trial by jury in contempt cases and a new Magna Charta, a declaration in law that “labor is not a commodity or article of commerce." No other country on earth has such a principle in its laws, and in history it will be referred to as the turning point in the successful progress of labor toward complete economic liberty.
The A. F. of L. is the most democratic institution on earth. Its reputation for accomplishments is world wide. Being a voluntary organization, there must have been some powerful influence that has brought it to its present status of solidarity and discipline. In 1896 President Gompers pointed out the antagonism of certain men who sought to lead the labor movement into other channels, saying:
“During the year our movement has been assailed with more bitterness from theoreticians than during any preceding year of the existence of the A. F. of L. Upon entering on my present term of office I issued an appeal to the different schools of thought connected with our movement, asking them in the name of all that appeals to our sense of justice to co-operate with us in our efforts to unite and bring relief and success to the mass of labor. I confess no disappointment that this proffer of peace and good will was spurned. In fact so intense was the malevolence toward the interests of labor displayed that a few of those whose whole connection with the movement has been that of destruction sought to inaugurate another movement to undermine and destroy the trade unions of the country and of the American Federation of Labor itself. In a number of instances local unions attached to nationals affiliated with us have been rent asunder and brother workmen have been organized into hostile camps' to the destruction of their own interests and to the delight of the enemies of Labor. It seems to me the time has come when men who will prostitute the noble purposes of our cause and in the garb of friendship seek to destroy the trade union movement or pervert it into channels by which its power becomes ineffective and its influence for good impotent should be pilloried as the enemies of Labor
and held now and forever in the contempt they deserve." While striving to improve the lot of the workers of this country, the A. F. of L. has held out a helping hand to those of other lands, for the mission of the trade unions is world wide and seeks to establish the brotherhood of man regardless of creed, color or nationality. The history of the trade union movement in all countries is the history of civilization and progress. It is not a passing fancy but is built on a foundation of principles impossible to wreck. It may be retarded, but it will come back again with renewed force. Wherever the trade union has existed in any time all the people have become more enlightened. It has at all times striven to eradicate wrong wherever found and to establish systems of social, industrial and governmental character that would give fair treatment to all members of the human family. Although often defeated in its aims and purposes, its members are never conquered; at times discouraged, they never are disheartened, but stand faithfully at their post of duty willing and anxious to battle for human rights.
No organization ever was formed that had fewer secession movements. These always met failure. For secession's greatest enemy is the silent treatment, ostracism. It has proved the undoing of all who strayed away from their fellow workers. In 1897-8 a campaign was launched to divide the labor movement on geographical lines. It failed because the underlying principles of the movement are so crushing in their operations when attacked that they cannot be violated with impunity. No individual can stand alone and fight the battles of life. He is voiceless. Neither can a labor organization cut loose from the general body and expect to succeed. It is the cohesion, the reciprocity between the trade unions that bring effective results.
Many important moves in the history of the Federation added to its influence and power. Its economic program broadened with the increasing obligations to its rapidly growing membership, but it would be difficult to single out any one particular action that resulted in the most good, the most stupendous gain. But a few can be mentioned, not in sequence as to the influence they had, but in the nature of a "round robin," as follows:
Agitation for the eight-hour day and Saturday half-holiday.
Placing paid organizers in the field, and a legislative committee to secure federal legislation.
Labor Day, Labor Sunday, Labor Memorial Sunday, Mothers' Day.
Establishment of Department of Labor, the Secretary a member of the