What President Biden can learn from Samuel Gompers

What President Biden can learn from Samuel Gompers
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The Biden administration has made a commitment to strengthening the bargaining power of the American worker. On Monday, President BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE established a task force that will empower workers within the federal government to bargain more effectively and seek to promote more effective organizing in the private sector.

On Tuesday, the president announced a $15 minimum wage for all federal contractors, effective next March. A national $15 minimum wage for all private sector employees remains his ultimate goal.

The White House supports the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, passed by the House on March 11. PRO would make it easier for part-time employees and independent contractors to unionize and sets an enforceable timeline for union-employer negotiations to commence. It also repeals right-to-work laws in 27 states and the prohibition of secondary strikes, landmark features of the Taft Hartley Act of 1947. 


Progressives hope to reverse the decline in private sector union membership from a high of 37 percent in 1954 to 6 percent today (36 percent of government employees currently belong to unions). If the recent overwhelming rejection of a union attempt to organize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is any indication, reversing a seven-decade trend looks like an uphill battle.  

But even in their better days, unions in 20th century America never enjoyed the economic and political influence they achieved in Europe. With May Day, the global workers' celebration, arriving at week’s end, it’s worth reviewing why a militant labor movement never planted deep roots in this country, and why May 1, a public holiday in much of the world, is a non-event in the U.S.

The irony is that International Labor Day actually had its origins in America. In 1886, the organization that later became the American Federation of Labor proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1." On that date, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs.

In Chicago, what began as a peaceful action turned ugly, culminating in the May 4 “massacre” in Haymarket Square. The actions of police were primarily to blame, and the execution of four activists was a travesty of justice. In 1889, at the suggestion of AFL President Samuel Gompers, the leaders of the Second International in Paris agreed to memorialize the Haymarket by establishing May 1 as the day of global labor solidarity.

As the 1890s unfolded, this Jewish cigar maker became the public voice of an American labor movement that included radicals and anarchists. Like today, income inequality was a rallying cry, but Gompers resisted committing his organization to socialist politics. When asked what labor wanted, he famously responded: “More.”  

Historian Rosanne Currarino notes the “politics of more” rejected socialist utopianism and party politics. Gompers focused his movement on higher wages, increased productivity and an eight-hour day. His was a bourgeois vision of the working person’s life. "The workingman," said Gompers in1895, "is tired of mere rhetoric and theory. . . . the workingman . .. wants wages that will buy him a lot of the things.”

In 1906, a German sociologist named Werner Sombart echoed Gompers’s thinking. In his book “Why is There No Socialism in the U.S.?” he wrote that in America “On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie socialistic utopias of every sort are sent to their doom.”

Along the way, America was also on its way to celebrating a different labor holiday. In May 1894, the depression resulting from the Panic of 1893 placed Chicago again on center stage when 150,000 striking railway workers brought the nation’s transport system to its knees. President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to suppress the stoppage and arrested railway union leader and Gompers rival Eugene V. Debs. Thirty lives were lost by the strike’s end on June 22.

To help make amends with the labor movement and pre-empt observance of May 1 with its more radical associations, Cleveland on June 28 signed the law that established the first Monday of September as Labor Day. This date had been celebrated by unions in New York City since 1882 and was already an official holiday in several states. The pen used by Cleveland ended up as a gift to Samuel Gompers, helping symbolize his break with the radical agenda of the Second International and May 1. 

Gompers AFL affiliates enrolled skilled craft workers, those who held the greatest bargaining power and could drive higher compensation for the entire working class. CCNY’s Irwin Yellowitz notes that Gompers opposed legislation regulating labor practices. Distrustful of government, he believed strong unions would have the leverage, via the strike, to bargain for themselves. He conceded only the need for labor laws protecting women and children, and establishing health and safety regulations.


Ever a pragmatist, Gompers in 1917 supported America’s entry into World War I, actively opposing the anti-war positions of the radical International Workers of the World and Debs’s Socialist Party. He attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He was a supporter of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that severely curtailed immigration of unskilled labor from Southern and Eastern Europe. But as unsuccessful industrial strikes swept across the country in the early postwar years, an anti-union climate set in and, in the years following his 1924 passing, his movement struggled for a new direction.

The Depression, passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act and the emergence of the industrial unions within the CIO brought about a sea change. For the next 50 years the union movement came to identify with the Democratic Party, and the prosperity of post-World War II America set up labor for its golden years. But the movement, led by pragmatists like George Meany, never forgot Gompers's rallying cry of “More” and did not preach a gospel of class envy.

Today, Gompers would no doubt bemoan the decline in private sector union ranks; but he would also recognize the leverage skilled workers have in a technology driven economy. He’d be concerned at the impact of immigration on wage levels. He’d most likely applaud the establishment of minimum wages but be suspicious of tax subsidies that encourage adults to drop out of the labor force, and of union alliances with political parties.

But a capitalist at heart, Gompers would also remind progressives of one of his most important beliefs: “The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit."

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.