Great Throughts Treasury

This site is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan William Smolowe who gave birth to the creation of this database.

Samuel Gompers

English-born American Cigar Maker and Labor Union Leader

"Workingmen are at the foundation of society. Show me that product of human endeavor in the making of which the workingman has had no share, and I will show you something that society can well dispense with."

"The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. You can’t weigh the soul of a man with a bar of pig iron."

"A law that is really a law, is a result of public thought and conviction and not a power to create thought or conviction. The enforcement of a law follows naturally because the people will it. To enact a law with the hope and for the purpose of educating the people is to proceed by indirection and to waste energy. It is better to begin work for securing ideals by directing activity first for fundamentals. Frequently, when the people concerned become mindful and eager for what will promote their own welfare, they find that they are much more able to secure what will benefit and adapt their methods to changing circumstances than is any law or the administration of that law."

"A strike on any scale is merely a trial of industrial strength, an application of the law of supply and demand, so often quoted by labor's opponents. How can a society based on free contract and free competition object to such a method of determining the comparative strength and endurance of capital and labor?"

"Against us we find arrayed a host guarded by special privilege, buttressed by legalized trusts, fed by streams of legalized monopolists, picketed by gangs of legalized Pinkertons, and having in reserve thousands of embryo employers who, under the name of Militia, are organized, uniformed, and armed for the sole purpose of holding the discontented in subservient bondage to iniquitous conditions."

"Always bear this in mind, that strikes, in the largest number of cases, consist of those unorganized or the newly organized. As workmen and workwomen remain organized for any considerable time, strikes diminish. They establish for themselves and with their employers means and methods of conciliation, of arbitration, and it is only when those absolutely fail that there is a stoppage and break in their relations. After all, that which we call a strike is nothing more nor less than an interruption of the former relations which exist between the workmen and the employers for the purpose of arriving at a new working agreement."

"America must be kept American. Those who would flood the country with hordes of immigrants from southeastern Europe care no more for America then do the Hottentots. Their desires are governed by greed."

"Among the means . . . to effectively limit or restrict immigration, the American Federation of Labor has declared for the illiteracy test as decidedly important and necessary."

"Among the things we advocate is that women should have equal suffrage with men. . . . We not only work for equality of suffrage, but work to fight and obtain equal wages for her."

"An industry which denies to all its workers and particularly denies to its women and minors who are toilers a living wage is unfit and should not be permitted to exist."

"An organization that calls or orders men on strike should furnish bread to maintain the strikers. It is easy to issue an edict to put 1,000 men or women on strike, but they must, if they have principles, at least furnish the commonest necessities of life. . . . It is all very well that the assemblies pass resolutions of sympathy, but sympathy without relief is like mustard without beef."

"And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living."

"Any one may say that the organizations of labor invade or deny liberty to the workmen. But go to the men who worked in the bituminous coal mines twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, for a dollar or a dollar and twenty five cents, and who now work eight hours a day and whose wages have increased 70 per cent. in the past seven years -- go tell those men that they have lost their liberty and they will laugh at you."

"As already stated, the negro workers must be organized in order that they may be in a position to protect themselves, and in such way feel an interest with our organized white workmen, or we shall unquestionably have their undying enmity. This is not a question of love or sentiment but is the hardest kind of practicability and common interest. If we do not in some way make friends with the colored workmen, the employer will not be slow to take advantage of our hostility to use the colored workmen to defeat the efforts of the white workmen in every endeavor to either obtain improvement in our condition or to resist deterioration."

"At the outset, I want to say that the organized labor movement of America is not a know-nothing organization. It does not want to erect a wall around the borders of our country and keep everybody else out; it does not declare America for Americans, or for those who are now within American borders. But on the other hand it is equally true that the thinking workingmen of the United States have . . . come to the conclusion that there must be some better regulation and some limitation."

"Bolshevism is a theory, the chief tenet of which is the dictatorship of the proletariat. Leaving out of consideration for the moment the story of murder and devastation that has marched with their theory into practice, we must set down the theory itself as abhorrent to a world that loves democracy. We shall progress by the use of the machinery of democracy, or we shall not progress. There is no group on earth fit to dictate to the rest of the world. It is this central idea of Bolshevism that makes the whole of it outcast in the minds of sane men."

"By nature I am a non-conformist. I believe that restrictions dwarf personality and that largest usefulness comes through greatest personal freedom."

"Class is no assurance of genius, ability or wisdom. No man is fit to control the lives of his fellows. The trade unions are the agencies through which wage-earners are working out their destinies and interposing a check upon the arbitrary power in industry."

"Do I believe in arbitration? I do. But not in arbitration between the lion and the lamb, in which the lamb is in the morning found inside the lion. I believe in arbitration between two lions or two lambs. When a man puts a pistol to my head and tells me to deliver, there is no arbitration. There can be arbitration only between equals. Let us organize: then we will stand on an equal footing with the employers."

"Do I believe in arbitration? I do. But not in arbitration between the lion and the lamb, in which the lamb is in the morning found inside the lion."

"During the years of [World War I] I was absorbed with the one object that it was labor's war as much as it was the war of any other group of our people; that labor had to make good in helping to win the war and to emerge from the war with freedom and democracy safeguarded and its honored name and high ideals maintained."

"Either the trade unionists are right or they are wrong. If they are wrong, every one of us who counts himself a trade unionist ought to be shunted aside and thrown overboard. If we are right, we ought to stick and fight and take whatever consequences may come, conscious in the knowledge and conviction that the right will prevail."

"Freedom of speech is the safety valve of society; if it is obstructed, there will be an explosion somewhere. It is dangerous to tamper with this right of ours."

"I love my liberty, and imprisonment would be, to say the least, very disagreeable to me; but there are some things that are even less desirable, among them one's loss of self-respect and the loss of inherent and lawful constitutional rights."

"I agree with you entirely that the colored men are entitled to the same rights, privileges and benefits as are accorded their white brethren, and I think you are aware that I have my life long endeavored, and am still endeavoring, to accomplish that fact. . . . In fact several organizations have held aloof from affiliating to the American Federation of Labor because they believe they cannot refuse membership to colored men if these organizations should become affiliated. Several central bodies in the southern states have refused to to receive delegates from unions who are colored men. Charters of several bodies were revoked in the past because of such action, but this course did not result in the representation of the colored men in the central bodies; it simply acted in disrupting the organization. As a consequence, several years ago another course was determined upon [to issue separate charters if that served the best interests of the movement]. . . . Conditions are as they are, not as we would like them to be or hope for them to become, but the race prejudice exists in the south and it is best for the colored men, as well as for our movement that they be accounted with. Indeed the very fact that your local union #1782 of New Orleans is composed of colored men as distinguished from the other local unions of carpenters . . . composed of white men, is the best evidence that your local unions of white men would not accept the membership of colored men among them."

"I agree with you, too, that it is hardly fair to have our people crowded out of employment by those who simply come here for the purpose of working at low wages -- higher than those they may be accustomed to in their own countries-- and then after a while return there. I am also free to say to you, however, that I do not see how a remedy is to be obtained without closing the ports entirely, and as to that there is considerable division of opinion. It may not be amiss to call attention to the fact that the introduction of one machine in a trade may throw more men out of employment than the Greeks who come here even in the manner which you describe."

"I am free to say to you, and I will stand by it, I hold, and I have said, that when an injunction undertakes to violate the constitutional rights guaranteed to me as a citizen I am going to assert my rights as a citizen to test the question and to take the consequences."

"I am in favor of the legal enactment for the maximum hours of labor for all workmen in direct Government employment, and for those who do work that the Government has substituted for Governmental authority. I am in favor of the --and the federation . . . is in favor of the maximum number of hours for children, for minors, and for women."

"I am very suspicious of the activities of governmental agencies."

"I assume it is not necessary for me to give any assurance of how utterly out of accord I am with the IWW and any such propaganda; but some of the men deported [from Bisbee, Arizona] are said to be law-abiding men engaged in an earnest effort at improvement of their condition. If the men treated as stated have been guilty of any crime, they should be tried in the courts and given the opportunity for defense. There is not law of which I am aware that gives authority to private citizens to undertake to deport from the state any man. If there be lawlessness, it is surely such conduct."

"I beg to say in reply that if it be decided by both the colored and white workers of your city [Austin] that it would tend to the best interests of the movement to organize separate central bodies there is no reason why such a course should not be pursued."

"I believe that the trade unions will bring about both the improvement of conditions and the ultimate emancipation of workers. . . . I think that the emancipation of the working classes has to be achieved by the workers themselves. Trade unions are the pure, unadulterated organizations of the working classes."

"I believe with the most advanced thinkers as to ultimate ends, including the abolition of the wage system. But I hold it as a self-evident proposition that no successful attempt can be made to reach those ends without first improving present conditions."

"I distinctly remember when a little more than a dozen years ago the immigration question was first finding occasional expression in the labor organizations that I heard a member, who had left the Emerald Isle scarcely three years, denounce the evils the toilers suffer from immigration. From that time the thought occurred to me that there is something more in this world than philosophy and philanthropy which prompts the people to advocate measures of reformatory character."

"I do not care at this late date to enter into a discussion of the question of color. Let me only say this, that there is no doubt but that the colored workmen are a factor in a large territory of our country; and it is equally true that they are not diminishing in number. Unless we give them the opportunity to organize, they certainly will be our unrelenting enemies, and will place themselves upon the side of the opponents to our movement, and the efforts we make to build up will be neutralized or worse. I do not care to discuss the color question or foist them upon your organization; but, when they are organized in a union of their own calling, it is not simply the part of wisdom to turn our backs upon them and force them into a position of antagonism. We have enough to contend against to secure our rights without creating additional obstacles."

"I do not for a moment entertain the belief that by our simple declaration that we shall make friends of the negro laborers. Their previous condition, their former absolute dependence upon their masters (and now their employers) have deprived them of learning that it is necessary for them to rely upon themselves and upon each other, but I am confident that if organized workingmen will take a more liberal view of the situation, or rather a more practical view, that the negro workman will to a very much greater extent make common cause with us in our struggles. . . [The negro] is a living fact and a factor and regardless of all the prejudices that may be entertained he must be counted with and the way to count with him is the question that must be considered."

"I do not like war and I do not like strikes, but I am unwilling to oppose all wars and for the same reason I am unwilling to say that strikes are wrong. Both are right and necessary and should be used when the cause of justice can be retained in no other way."

"I do not think American labor is engaged in a class struggle and I do not think American labor believes it is engaged in a class struggle, because in our country we have no such thing and I hope never will have. We are engaged in a struggle for common justice and for principles which are applicable to all alike."

"I do not want it understood that my vote can be purchased for a beefsteak, but that I will vote always for measures that will improve the condition of the workingmen."

"I do say that the Government of the United States ought to be in advance of its people. It is the duty of a legislator, as I understand it, to frame and adopt measures for the welfare of the people. I believe that the duty of the legislature is to propose laws for the benefit of the people. The Constitution of the country, I believe, does not give our National Government the right to adopt a law which would be applicable to private employments; yet for its own employees it ought to be in advance. . . . The selfish, mercenary, or other such motives which govern individuals in their struggles to accumulate wealth ought not to exist in our Government."

"I feel persuaded that the time has come when we shall have a constructive, progressive, radical labor party, unless the Democratic party shall perform its duties in the premises."

"I have come to the conclusion . . . that it is our duty to live our lives as workers in the society in which we live, and not to work for the downfall or the destruction or the overthrow of that society, but for the fuller development and evolution of the society in which we live; to make life the better worth living."

"I have found in the north as well as in the south that where negroes have had the opportunity to organize they remain loyal."

"I have no objection to the people of any country coming to America, Chinese excepted (I am not so sentimental as all that), provided they come here of their own free will, and not influenced by deception."

"I have no word of censure for a man because of his views on political, social or economic questions, but I contend that trade unions are the natural form of organization for wage earners under existing economic conditions, and I propose (so far as I may be able) to keep them undefiled and free from alliance with any political party . . . . Factions who wish to dally with hobbies and fine spun theories . . . have no place in the ranks of trade unionism.(Vol. 3: New York Herald, Jan. 11, 1891)"

"I know that there may be several men who have charged the American Federation of Labor . . . to be against what they are pleased to call industrial unionism or the one big union, and I would venture to say that when they . . . consider this proposition outside of our union [Cigar Makers International Union] then they are industrialists; but when there is a proposal to open our doors and go into the highways and byways and organize these men and women against whom literally we are closing our doors, it is opposed."

"I look to the proposition of labor to reduce the daily hours of toil of the working people of our country as the greatest proposition that has ever been offered to the Congress of the United States and to the employers of the United States; calculated to be of more benefit for the whole people of our country; calculated to be the greatest safety for the perpetuation of republican institutions, a greater safety for the progress, the success of the people of our country -- all classes -- of attaining a position as great and grand and successful in industry, in commerce, in intelligence, in humanity, in civilization than all the other propositions that have been submitted to this or any other previous Congress of the United States."

"I think the workers understand much better than anyone else the cost of industrial war. They pay the full price.... Labor will cease to engage in contests with employers as soon as labor finds it possible to induce employers to conduct the affairs of industry on a higher plane. Labor is ever eager to substitute negotiation for contest."

"I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon economics, and not the meanest of them; studied your standard works, both in English and German -- have not only read, but studied them. I have heard your orators and watched the work of your movement the world over. I have kept close watch upon your doctrines for thirty years; have been closely associated with many of you, and know how you think and what you propose. I know, too, what you have up your sleeve. And I want to say that I am entirely at variance with your philosophy. I declare to you, I am not only at variance with your doctrines, but with your philosophy. Economically you are unsound; socially, you are wrong; industrially, you are an impossibility."

"If ever men have demonstrated their incapacity, their impotence to conduct commerce and industry, the men in command of our economic and social conditions have certainly given plain proof of it."