Wm. Z. Foster

The Labor Movement

Gompersism in Full Flower

(18 July 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 59, 18 July 1922, pp. 445–446.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Never was a labor movement in more dire straits than ours is now. Viciously attacked politically, industrially, and every other possible way, it is literally backed up against a dead wall fighting for its very life. Yet in this supreme crisis its leadership is utterly incapable of even thinking clearly upon the situation, not to speak of doing anything vital to remedy it. To those who have hopes of some day seeing the working class master of society, the recent A.F. of L. Convention was a tragedy. Faced by a multitude of grave problems, the solution of which would have required a conscientious overhauling of the labor movement from top to bottom, it did nothing but play politics, mumble patriotic phrases and run around in the same old circles, which are responsible for its present desperate plight. The Cincinnati Convention was the most spineless, hopeless affair that has ever been staged even by the hard-boiled A.F. of L. It betrayed the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the old Gompers machine and showed clearer than ever its entire unfitness to lead American labor.

Political Stupidity

One pressing problem before the Convention had to do with political action. As every one with a spark of intelligence and honesty knows and will admit, the Gompers political policy of rewarding Labor’s friends and punishing its enemies has made a political zero of the American working class. Besides degenerating the unions into appendages of the corrupt capitalist parties and injecting crooked politicians directly into the ranks of the workers, where they have poisoned everything about them, its preaching of capitalist conceptions has prevented the development of the class understanding and feeling without which no labor movement can prosper. It has also prevented the workers from securing any representation in the various local, state and national legislative [1 – legislature] assemblies. It is one of the best aids to capitalist class rule We have long paid the penalty for this foolish policy, but especially is its harm evident during the present big “open shop” and general anti-labor drive. Having full control of all legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Government and despising the politically misled labor movement, the employers are ruthlessly destroying the basic rights of the workers. Free speech, free press and free assembly – in the true sense of the word – are now things of the past. Besides, hard-won legislation is fast going by the board; the Seamen’s Act has been practically wiped out; the Federal Child Labor Law has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court; and now the Coronado Coal Company decision, which killed the Clayton Act – apple of Mr. Gompers’ eye – is threatening the whole Labor movement with destruction. It is a grave crisis. If there ever was a time for serious thought and action it is now. The need of the hour is for the workers to cut loose from their old political moorings; to bid defiance to their tormentors, and to launch forth upon a campaign of militant working-class political action through a party of their own.

But the hidebound Cincinnati Convention did not understand this need any more than it understood the other problems confronting Labor. Made up for the most part of petty politicians and dominated completely by the arch-reactionary Gompers, it so entirely repudiated the idea of a labor party that the backers thereof dared not even introduce a resolution calling for one. Forty years age or so Mr. Gompers decided that there should be no working-class political party. That settled the matter. No matter how much current events may show this decision to be wrong, he still clings to it with all the stubborn bigotry which characterizes his nature. And this Convention, like so many others that he has carried in his pocket, docilely bowed to his will. The best it had to offer was to enlist Labor in a campaign to put across four constitutional amendments clipping the prerogatives of the courts and guaranteeing the workers the right to organize. What a program! To send Organized Labor, demoralized, poisoned, disheartened, and disfranchised by Mr. Gompers’ stupid policy of “rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies”, out to enact four constitutional amendments! Were it not so tragic if would be ridiculous.

Industrial Incompetency

If the Cincinnati Convention failed dismally in the political field, it did no better in the realms of industry. Here again the Convention was faced by a grave crisis. Our trade union movement, beset on all sides, is now actually threatened with extinction. According to Secretary Morrison’s report the membership of the A.F. of L. dropped 710,893 during the past year, bringing the total down to 3,195,835. But everyone knows these figures were juggled. The condition is far worse than they show. It it is safe to say that in the last twelve months at least 1,000,000 workers, disgusted with Gompersism, have turned their backs on the labor movement. It is doubtful indeed if there are over 2,500,000 members in the Federation at present. If the present rate of decline continues the organization will be wiped out in three years. Could the situation be more serious?

And what did the convention do about it? Practically nothing. Above all there is a vital necessity for amalgamation, for the workers to fuse their many scattered organizations together so that they may be able to make a united fight. Merger after merger is taking place among the employers. Their fighting force is ceaselessly being unified and strengthened. But the unions go along in the same old rut of craft division. Our backwardness in this respect is shown by the fact that in Germany the General Trade Union Federation, with 8,000,000 members, has this enormous army condensed into 49 national unions, whereas the A.F. of L., with only one-third as many members, has 117 national unions. In other words, the degree of consolidation among the German workers is six times greater than among us. But the Cincinnati Convention ignored this entire situation completely. The assumption was that its fragmentary and split-up unions represent the very acme of trade union achievement. A resolution offered by the Railway Clerks to reorganize the movement upon an industrial basis was voted down unanimously. Not a single voice was raised in favor of amalgamation. The convention, characteristically enough, reindorsed its stand of 81 years ago, by which the A.F. of L. graciously permits its affiliated organizations to fuse together if they so desire. The powerful employers are cutting the unions to pieces, because the unions are wrongly organized, but our labor leaders, intent primarily only on keeping themselves in office, stubbornly refuse to consider the cause or to adopt the obvious remedy of amalgamation. Not only that, but they denounce and attack anyone else who dares to point out the truth. The A.F. of L. Convention was as barren industrially as it was politically. It had nothing to offer to the workers, no program that would rouse them to action to defend themselves from the exploiters. It was mentally dead.

Reaction All Around

Stagnant and refusing to take a single step ahead, the Convention endorsed every reactionary proposition and condemned every progressive measure brought before it. Oppressed Russia, of course, came in for bitter condemnation. Again Mr. Gompers took his side with the Koltchaks, Denikins, and the rest of the crew trying to crush the Workers’ Republic. In this, however, he had some opposition, and he had to call to his assistance such good friends of the working class as Herbert Hoover and Chas. E. Hughes, both of whom sent telegrams damning Russia. By refusing to endorse the opening up of trade relations with Russia, the A.F. of L. continues to maintain the most reactionary position of any labor movement in the world on this question. All the others, no matter how much they may differ in political opinions with the Bolsheviks, at least are enlightened enough to want to give Russia a chance to live. We alone among the world’s organized workers are so barbarous as to try to starve her into re-accepting capitalism. It is a disgrace, a crime against American Labor.

Another cause to suffer was that of a genuine workers’ press. The program now is to destroy the Federated Press. This is one of the few institutions of which the American labor movement may really be proud. It compares favorably with any labor news gathering agency in the world. It is one of the most promising organizations in the country. But because it refuses to consider the Socialists, Communists, I.W.W.’s and other radical and liberal tendencies as wild-eyed destroyers of civilization as Mr. Gompers does and gives them their due as parts of the great labor movement; because it dares to tell the truth about Russia, the Federated Press is slated to go. The reactionaries are determined to destroy it, hence they had their Convention pass a motion to “investigate” it. Mr. Gompers and Crown Prince Woll were behind this move, and they will pick the “investigating” committee. As both these gentlemen have recently denounced the Federated Press in the public papers, it may be guessed what treatment it will get at their hands in the proposed “investigation”. The time is at hand for the radical and liberal elements to rally behind this splendid press service; otherwise Mr. Gompers, who can brook nothing that is even mildly progressive, will stab it to death.

An effort was made to have the A.F. of L. affiliate to the International Federation of trade Unions, with headquarters in Amsterdam. This is the Yellow International, which is a loathing to all real rebels. But the A.F. of L. refused to become part of it, not because it is too conservative, but because it is too radical. The Executive Council was instructed to continue its efforts to get the statutes of the Amsterdam International changed to Mr. Gompers’ liking – that is to destroy even the trace of militancy that still remains in the organization – so that our capitalist-minded labor leaders need not be compromised or shocked by them. Once again European Labor will guffaw at our unparallelled intellectual timidity and backwardness.

One might continue far beyond the limits of this article pointing out the failures of the convention, such as the defeat of the resolution instructing the Executive Council to seek to bring the Amalgamated Clothing Workers into the Federation; the refusal to support Howat and Dorchy’s fight against the Industrial Court Law; and the crime that was committed against the Maintenance of Way and the railroad workers in general by giving the Carpenters’ Union the jurisdiction over some 25,000 of their craft working on railroads. This latter was a long step backwards, it means the encouragement of craft unionism at the expense of industrialism. It divides the railroad workers just that much more. Only at this great cost, only by giving up all these workers to the Carpenters’ Union, which has absolutely no business on the railroads, was the Maintenance of Way allowed to re-affiliate with the Federation. Some of the shortsighted enthusiasts in our ranks are gloating over the victory in thus getting the track workers back with us, but before long they will learn that the price has been altogether too high. The presence of the Carpenters’ Union on the railroads bodes no good to the railroad workers as a whole. It menaces their growing solidarity and further complicates their already too complicated problem of developing concerted action. The Maintenance of Way decision was a distinct blow at Railroad Labor and altogether in harmony with the reactionary policies of the Gompers administration.

A New Triple Alliance?

The American Federation of Labor, the American Legion, and the Ku Klux Klan – are their executives about to join hands in a common cause? At first blush this seems an absurd suggestion, but there was much in the Cincinnati convention to make it a plausible possibility – and then anything may happen in a labor movement that permits its chief officer to sit in the inner councils of the enemy, the Civic Federation. What would these three bodies do in common? Fight the “reds” perhaps, for that, in Mr. Gompers opinion, is one of the chief functions of the labor movement, just as it is admittedly of the other two bodies.

So far as the American Legion and the A.F. of L. are concerned, their relations have gone beyond mere friendliness and are approaching an actual alliance. Commander MacNider addressed the convention, not failing to point out in his patriotic talk, the common interest both organizations have in beating the radicals. To him replied George L. Berry, of doubtful fame in the printing trades. Major Berry, besides being President of the International Union of Pressmen and Assistants, is also Vice-Commander of the American Legion. He seems to be a sort of unofficial delegate between the two bodies. Mr. Gompers also took a hand, saying:

“So long as American Labor will hold its high ideals of freedom and justice and progress and safety for the American Republic, and the American Legion will stand true to its traditions, its history and its declarations under the leadership of a man of the character and type and idealism and practical understanding of Commander MacNider, there can be no division in our joint ranks.”

The day following the expression of these true and noble sentiments the convention adopted a glowing committee report endorsing the developing alliance and instructing President Gompers to attend the National Convention of the American Legion in New Orleans next October.

Friendliness was also shown towards the Ku Klux Klan. Since the exposure several months ago by the New York World, hundreds and thousands of organizations and individuals with some degree of public spirit have condemned this hooded menace. A delegate, innocently believing that the A.F. of L. convention might be as progressive as these, submitted a resolution censuring the Ku Klux Klan as a danger to the working class. This resolution was laid aside and a substitute adopted which made no mention whatever of the Klan, and which merely disapproved mildly of parading through the streets with hoods. What is the explanation of this remarkable procedure? Why cannot even this American Fascisti organization be criticized by Organized Labor? How does its influence reach so high into the councils of the labor movement? Who among the A.F. of L. heads belong to it? Considering the convention action, these are pertinent questions. The A.F. of L. leaders condemn the Federated Press, tried and true fighter for the working class, but they refuse to censure the vicious Ku Klux Klan. Could anything more clearly illustrate the perversion and degeneracy of the Gompers machine?

The Weak Opposition

More deplorable even, if possible, than the course of the Gompers Administration was the attitude of the so-called Opposition. This consists primarily of the railroad trades and the miners. Possessed of enough latent strength to have swept the old guard off its feet, it accomplished absolutely nothing. This was because it lacked leadership and program. Johnston, the soft pedaller, was no man to fight Sam Gompers, the valiant battler. Had the Opposition proposed anything and fought for it with a little “guts”, the old man and his cohorts would have been beaten. Witness the great drive in the Montreal Convention, when the Plumb Planners knocked the machine into a thousand pieces. A fight like that at Cincinnati might have easily ended the old regime. Among the delegates there was a deep-seated discontent. But no one was at hand to organize it. Johnston fell flat. Despite all the force behind him, he could not elect a single member to the Executive Council.

But bad as was the showing of the Railroader-Miner Opposition, that of the Socialist minority was even worse. The time was when the Socialists in the Federation waged a determined battle against Gompersism, but now, with the exception of a few irreconcilables, they seem entirely domesticated. They went along with the Gompers machine 100%, voting for all the Administration candidates and measures, and against everything in anyway radical or progressive. They voted against trade with Russia and industrial unionism. Their leader was Benjamin Schlesinger, President of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, who has gone over to Gompers boots and baggage. For his treason he was elected fraternal delegate to the British Trade Union Congress. Three years ago he was so despised in the Convention because of his Socialism that Frank Duffy refused to serve on the same committee with him, and Schlesinger had to get out. But at this convention we find Wm. Green, General Secretary of the United Mine Workers, nominating him for fraternal delegate, and the Crown Prince, Woll, seconding the nomination. No doubt the needle workers will be heard from regarding this betrayal by Schlesinger.

As a result of the lack of an intelligent fighting opposition to Gompers nothing was done by the Convention. The only thing that in any way night be construed as a progressive step was a demand for a new trial for Sacco and Vanzetti. But the A.F. of L. can claim small glory for that. Long after the labor movements in all other countries have demonstrated and protested against this brutal frame-up, we come and join the tail end of the procession. Had it depended upon the A.F. of L. to save them, Sacco and Vanzetti would have been long since devoured by quick lime.

After having visited the A.F. of L. Convention, one may well be excused for being profoundly pessimistic as to the future of the American trade union movement. But it must never be forgotten that the deplorable condition in evidence there is largely the fault of the rebels. For years and years they have made no effort to establish their influence among the masses. Consequently stagnation reigns. But this will not continue. The hopeful sign is that the militants are now getting down to work for the first time through the Trade Union Educational League. And they will find a fruitful field, as the movement is fairly shrieking for competent and aggressive leadership. The big thing then for us to do is to redouble our efforts to the end that in every section of the labor movement all the live elements will be set into motion. The future of the labor movement depends upon the success of our work, because the old Gompers machine is intellectually and spiritually dead. The Cincinnati Convention demonstrated that beyond all question of doubt.

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