Samuel Gompers & the American Federation of Labor (AFL)

The People
Feb. 25, 1995
Vol. 104 No. 10

American Labor Struggles -- The Fall and Rise of Sam Gompers

"Labor will win but one triumph -- that triumph will be the Waterloo of the capitalist class. That triumph will be won without striking a blow at capitalism, so to speak. Capitalism will drop like a scab on the body social. That triumph will be won the instant labor has settled to its own mind the question of the economic organization which its class mission demands."

-- Daniel De Leon

When THE WASHINGTON POST reported recently that an effort to depose Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO was starting to take shape among leaders of the federation's largest organizations, it added a historical note of more than purely historic interest.

"No president of the labor federation has ever been forced out since it was founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886," said the POST. "Kirkland is only the fourth president of the American Federation of Labor...."

Kirkland succeeded George Meany as head of the federation in 1979. Meany, who engineered the CIO merger in 1955, got the job in 1952. William Green preceded Meany by moving up when Samuel Gompers died in 1924. Four presidents since 1886 -- Gompers, Green, Meany and Kirkland -- none of whom have been driven from office. So says THE WASHINGTON POST.

Actually, five men have led the federation, and one of the five was deposed. The president who was deposed was none other than Sam Gompers himself, and the man who took his place was John McBride of the United Mine Workers.

McBride headed the AFL for only one year, 1895. Brief as that interlude was, the story of how and why it happened sheds a bright light on the history of corruption that, at bottom, is synonymous with the history of the AFL and "Gompersism."

To tell this story and why it is important we must turn the clock back more than 100 years to a time when labor unions in New York City were divided into two central bodies, the Central Labor Federation and the Central Labor Union. The SLP belonged to the CLF, but both bodies held AFL charters. In 1889, the CLF and CLU merged for the sake of "harmony," and the CLF surrendered its charter to the AFL. Harmony proved impossible, however, in part because the CLF unions wanted an independent labor party to oppose the Democratic and Republican machines. The two bodies separated again, and the CLF asked the AFL to restore its charter. But Gompers and other opponents of socialism in the AFL hierarchy saw their opportunity and refused. The decision caused a great stir, however, and Gompers decided to put the question on the agenda of the next national convention at Detroit in December 1890. Lucien Sanial, the SLP's representative in the CLF and editor of the WORKMEN'S ADVOCATE, was sent to present the CLF's case. The delegates upheld Gompers' view that the AFL should be a "pure-and-simple" economic organization open to all political views, but an advocate of none. However, as events soon proved, the only politics Gompers opposed was working-class, or socialist, politics.

When the AFL met in convention at Chicago in 1893, Socialist delegates from other local unions introduced a "Political Program" that, among other things, called for the collective ownership of the industries. The convention adopted the program, including Plank 10, the call for collective ownership, by an overwhelming margin and despite Gompers' opposition. A resolution referring the program to the local unions for debate also was adopted, but not before Gompers and his supporters persuaded the convention to delete a recommendation that the locals endorse it.

Nonetheless, most local unions did endorse the program, and an overwhelming majority of those that failed to endorse it all approved Plank 10.

A worried Gompers promptly set out to thwart the will of the majority and planned to prevent Socialist delegates from taking their seats at the 1894 convention in Denver, but abandoned that plan as too high-handed. Instead, he made deals with delegates to defy their unions by opposing the political program, used his authority as chairman of the convention to squelch those who rose to speak in favor, and by prearrangement had his cronies introduce a flood of amendments to dilute the program and bog down the debate.

Gompers' strategy worked. The Political Program and Plank 10 went down to defeat. His machinations outraged many delegates, however, and when it came time to elect a president for the AFL they nominated John McBride of the United Mine Workers to take Gompers' place. McBride was as reactionary and backward as was Gompers, but the Socialists threw their votes to him. The Socialist votes were enough to make the difference, with the result that Gompers was deposed and McBride was installed. McBride's personal triumph was a short-lived one, however. His adherence to Gompersism and the steps he took to defuse the "socialist tide" inevitably led back to the "genuine article" himself. Gompers regained the presidency in 1896 and thereafter led the AFL down the path of unadulterated "business unionism," never again to be seriously challenged by any opponent.

Gompers' victory and his defeat at the 1894 convention was the high-water mark of socialist influence in the AFL, and proved to be a bone of contention within the SLP for years to come. Some took it as evidence that "boring from within" the unions in opposition to their reactionary leadership was the correct strategy for the SLP to pursue, while others regarded it as the culmination of a lengthier experience that proved the opposite. Where that division led the SLP is another story to be held for another time. Suffice to say that those who split the socialist movement over this question and continued to "bore from within" eventually succumbed to the corrupting influence of Gompersism, while the SLP went on to fight uncompromisingly for a labor movement based on the principle of the class struggle and opposed to the corrupting AFL-CIO "principle" of class treason and collaboration with the ruling class.